This morning I read that legendary jazz pianist Joe Sample had died. Before people made smooth jazz a genre, Joe was playing it, he was a founding member of the genre bending jazz group The Crusaders. You probably know their biggest hit an R&B tinged jazz song from 1979 called “Street Life” with vocals by the wonderful Randy Crawford. It was a top twenty hit and was on four Billboard Charts (including disco, well it was 1979), but is a classic urban song and was also featured on the 1997 Quentin Tarintino film “Jackie Brown”.
But Joe was no one hit wonder, his career spanned over 40 years of music and Joe’s music was hard to categorize, he was a pioneer of the electric piano in the early 1970’s before a lot of cats were playing the Fender Rhodes brand pianos. But if you ask me Joe was a master of the acoustic piano, his fingers swift and precise and had such a solid sound.
See my mother played the piano, so there was always jazz in the house growing up (being played on the piano, record player and the radio), and she and my late dad loved them some Joe Sample, from his Crusaders days and then into the very successful solo career that he had. I can remember my parents also playing his solo album Carmel (also from 1979), and Joe’s style is unmistakable, a simple yet soulful sound showing his Houston Texas roots. Joe had a a touch of gospel and a little zydeco (Cajun music), in his sound as well as straight ahead jazz.
You could call Joe the father of “Smooth Jazz”, but he didn’t quite fit in that box either. My favorite song from Joe is “Night Flight” a delicate starting yet at times soaring nine minute song featured on his 1997 cleverly titled album “Sample This”. I play that song regularly along with “Street Life”, in fact I listened to “Street Life” yesterday before I knew of Joe’s passing. Its just a great song with memorable lyrics, some great piano solos from Joe and highlighting the Crusaders strong rhythm section.
Joe was a consummate and constant musician, still in demand at 75 years old. He was still actively writing, recording and performing music. I know he had a cancelled gig last month but was scheduled on next spring’s Smooth Jazz cruise sailing out of Fort Lauderdale, FL on March 1, 2015.
Joe’s music and style worked well with female vocalists, obviously the aforementioned Randy Crawford but his work with Lalah Hathaway (the daughter of the late great Donny Hathaway), on their 1999 album The Song Lives On. Also from his 2002 album The Pecan Tree (which is dedicated to his hometown of Houston Texas), there is a beautiful ballad on there called “No One But Myself To Blame”, vocalist Lizz Wright follows in the steps of Randy & Lalah in putting a sweet voice to Joe’s lush music and solid melodies.
Joe will be missed but man did he leave us some great music, thanks Joe.
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