Nobody does it better. For four decades and counting, Joe Sample, pianist, keyboardist and composer continue to be an integral part of jazz history. As a founding member of the powerfully creative jazz funk combo The Crusaders (originally the Jazz Crusaders), Samples has toured the world tickling the ivories with atypical skill and a passion for making beautiful music. With the release of Soul Shadows, Joe Sample gives us a more complete picture of himself through the music of his youth. Sample chose as his first solo all piano recording, to pay homage to the great American pianists of the 20th Century. Performing vibrant renditions of classics by Joplin, Ellington, Gershwin, Jolson, Waller and Jelly Roll Morton, among others; songs which define the art and legacy of jazz piano over the past 100 years.
When boundless curiosity meets jazz legend, the rest is, well you know, an up close and personal conversation that goes beneath the music. Dig it!
Why did you choose to do an album of this kind now? “I remembered my age and said, ‘perhaps I’m running out of time to do this music that I heard in 1939.’I grew up listening to the music of the 20’s and 30’s along with the boogie-woogie of the day.” You are giving us a bit of your history? “Yes. When you study the piano what is the most natural thing to do? To play the piano in a complete manner; the fascinating thing about the piano was that, it was, the most important instrument. You could entertain people, as they did in the 20’s at rent parties with honor. But you had to play the complete piano. And, if I am going to sit at the piano, I should be totally complete about it.” So, you really did this as much for you as you did for us? “Well, you know what? It all has to start with me first. You are right; it does have to begin with you, I agree. “[It took] hours and hours of practice in order to understand the styles and go back into those periods and make it my music.” O-o-h okay, you really had to invest some of you into this. We are really getting a more complete side of you, as you said. “Yes, yes, it’s the complete side of me. I played classics but I will certainly never record classics. I’m from southeast Texas. I flavor everything I play with jazz, blues and gospel, you know? That’s okay, that’s who you are. After all, people come to see Joe Sample. “Right.”
You play keyboards. And I understand that acoustically, the piano and keyboards are different? “Let me answer that in this manner. The life of a piano player is miserable. Is it? In the 1960’s when the Crusaders/Jazz Crusaders were out traveling across the US on the jazz circuit. Most of the pianos I sat at in most of the jazz clubs were not playable. Okay. The piano player struggles, struggles, and struggles, it got so bad that in Cleveland in 1968 I told the guys in the band that I was not going to do this anymore. Something had to change. I felt that I was wasting my life. Everybody else carried their own unique instrument except the piano player. We have to deal with whatever comes … the Fender Rhodes (electric piano) came in the late sixties and all the piano players suddenly found that it was possible to go out and do gigs without having to struggle and not feel like we were wasting our lives. It was that bad for me in the sixties. And I’m sure for everyone else. That is why the piano player’s life is miserable. The age of electronics came in and saved everybody. That’s real simple and easy to understand.
When you switched out instruments or you went to the keyboards and electronics did that change the sound? “Yes, it does have a keyboard on it but it is not a piano. It is an electric piano and you must approach them with a totally different concept.”
You had to learn some things to do it differently? Oh yes, I realized that right away. You can’t play it like a piano. It’s another instrument and wants to speak in its manner. So all you have to do is sit down and begin to play it. And when it speaks in its best voice you should be able to recognize it. And that’s how I developed a particular style at the electric piano. I listened to what it had to offer.” Laughingly he said, “that’s what you should learn when you play a bad piano. You learn very quickly, from the first piece, what it is willing to give to you.”
How early were you introduced to this instrument? “Well probably at five years old when the boogie-woogie culture was very much alive and well. The piano was the institution of entertainment in most family’s lives. There were no football teams, no baseball teams, and no television. There was only the radio; we used to listen to radio programs. It was every family’s dream to have enough babies in the family so that you could make at least one piano player out of one of them. Music has really been the life of the African American communities. Without music we would have literally gone insane.” … I can imagine the boredom. You wouldn’t have had anything to do. And it gave you an outlet for your creativity. “I have always felt that I needed reasons to play the instrument. I gave myself reasons to play by writing compositions and songs or [by] creating a concept of how I would play existing music or standards. There must always be a reason. I could never play in a pop band where I would play the same musical parts night after night; I would absolutely go crazy.”
Actually the concept of jazz being so innovative, in the sense that you can add to it and do things differently, is that what drew you to this genre of music? “Yes, that is the concept of my playing. And, it has been the basis for most jazz.
In 1951, famed African American poet, Langston Hughes asked this question. What becomes of a dream deferred? In 2004 Joe Sample answers, it becomes a reality too. A lifelong fascination with James Reese Europe, the first black big band leader who in 1918 introduced jazz to Europe and England along with a desire to return to his musical roots set the stage for this new project. The evolution from fascination and a dream to reality is Soul Shadows, a more complete picture of pianist Joe Sample, a slice of jazz history and black history all rolled into one.
Because of his music, Joe Sample left this world a better place than the one he entered!
1939 ~ 2014
By: Lyndah Malloy-Glover