Joe Sample & NDR Bigband: Children of the Sun

The late pianist Joe Sample’s final work is also easily his most ambitious: an album-length suite exploring the emotional landscape of slaves in the Middle Passage, written for Germany’s 20-plus-piece NDR Bigband. At times the ambition is too much for its own good, but generally the results are impressive.

Certainly the soloists are top-notch. Sample’s deft touch and top-of-the-chords improvisation make his attack sound softer than it actually is, while trombonist Nils Landgren displays remarkable consistency and coherence across the album. But the writing is the real star of the show. The tropes of large-ensemble composition might suggest that Sample’s lush, tender side dominates Children of the Sun; actually, he’s somewhere between that and his soul-jazz, Crusaders-y side. “Buttermilk Sky,” for example, is built on a sweat-inducing funk beat and walloping brass riffs, whereas the following “Islands of the Mind” is all hushed melodic delicacy. There are also distinct Caribbean (“Gold in the Cane”) and ragtime rhythms (“Creole Eyes”), and in some tunes, multiple sections. Everything proffers Sample’s trademark clean, accessible lines and harmonies.

But it’s not just about the compositions: The arrangements, by NDR conductor Jörg Achim Keller, are equally important and compelling. They’re also equally ambitious: Keller favors dense counterpoint (on “Rumfire,” Claus Stötter’s trumpet solo contains overlapping brass and reed backgrounds) and unusual voicings (flute, bass clarinet and muted trumpets appear frequently). The combination of composition and arrangement can be lethal, as in the overloaded “Blue Abyss.” The tune flirts with blues and song and concert forms, and packs even its transitional passages with chord changes and orchestral shifts such that one experiences whiplash of the ear. Taken as a whole, though, the album excels-a worthy swan song for an accomplished, often underappreciated career.