For those who may not know, Joe Sample is one of the finest, if not the finest jazz musicians on the music scene today. He writes some of the most memorable music being recorded by anyone and seems to have a real talent in picking those to work with as well.
Born and raised in Houston Texas, Sample was one of the founding members of the Jazz Crusaders, later know as the just the Crusaders, a group that has left an indelible mark on the world of Jazz. The Crusaders consisted of childhood friends, Wilton Fedder, Stix Hooper and Wayne Henderson each major players in their own right. In 1973, Sample released his first solo album Carmel,which has since become one of the classic recordings of its kind and a requirement to own for anyone claiming to be serious about music. It seems that some thirty years later, Joe Sample is still leading the way--just try and keep up if you can.
The occasion for our conversation was the soon-to-be-released and future Grammy winning album, (OK that is my opinion, but wait to you hear this) Feeling Good, on PRA Records. A duet album with long time friend and sometime collaborator Randy Crawford.
There is always a certain amount of hype when a new record comes out and this one is no different, but there is one very unique difference. The title track "Feeling Good" was launched "literally" around the world after being selected to fly into space with the December 2006 shuttle crew. Now top that, if you can.
JazzReview: That is not something everybody can claim. How did it come about?
Joe Sample: Well, I live in the neighborhood, along side NASA. And one of my cousins, who is in her seventies now, is a member of the black woman's group called the "Links." They are affiliated with, and some of the members are the wives of the black astronauts. So my cousin got me to come down about ten years ago and play piano for them when they organized the Houston Chapter. I had a going away party for the two black astronauts who were going to be on the shuttle flight, Robert and Joanie. Robert was one of the space walkers and Joanie operated one of the lift arms on the shuttle. So I am in that community and I gave everyone free copies of the recording. Joanie like it so much that she said I want to play this in space and they did. It was really fabulous.
JazzReview: It must have been quite the honor.
Joe Sample: It was, it really was.
JazzReview: This is such a wonderful album. I do not think I have one favorite song on here, I think they all are. How do you go about picking the songs for the album?
Joe Sample: In this particular case, we knew what we did not want to do, which is the Great American Songbook. That seems to be one of the themes today. Tommy LiPuma, our producer, and I had basically the same idea in mind. We wanted to go back into the annuals of the great African-American female singers who were never really "pop artists." People like Dakota Staton and Nina Simone. Simone was known as just a great singer, but I do not think that she was ever really in the pop world. She was more loved by the jazz community. Thats what I remember about her in the sixties and we knew that Randy would come up with some unique ideas all her own that no one else would ever think of. She is a virtual walking encyclopedia of melodies and lyrics.
[Randy is Randy Crawford. Born in Macon Georgia , raised in Cincinnati, Ohio, she started singing in the choir loft of her neighborhood church. As a teenager she had established a reputation on the mid-western club circuit. By the age of 21, she had worked with Quincy Jones, recorded with Cannonball Adderly and was touring regularly with George Benson. She was first signed to Warner Brothers Records in 1976. She is well known all over the world for her incredible voice ( an understatement), and uncanny choice of songs.]
Joe Sample: She can remember every damn song she has ever heard. She has a photographic memory.
JazzReview: There are certainly some very interesting choices on this album. You have composed for Ms. Crawford before. Is it easier to do with someone in mind, rather than just trying to come up with something on your own?
Joe Sample: I prefer to write like that, when I have someone in mind. Why did I write for Randy? Because she may be the only singer around who can really interpret my music. I have worked with a number of singers who have been absolute failures when it came to singing my songs. I always wonder why are my songs so hard to sing? It is because my songs have a uniqueness to them, and that is really funny about my songs. They sound sound simple, they sound easy, but they are one of the biggest ass-kickers around, you know? (laughs) They are so simple that nobody can do it. Sometimes it seems that it is easier to just play a continual flurry of notes than to hold one note and get a beautiful sound out of it.
JazzReview: That does seem to be the thing now.
Joe Sample: It is 'Let's see how many noted can I play, how many flurries in a very short period of time.' Instead of playing the spaces in between the notes, that is what I play--the spaces in between the notes. Nobody thinks about trying to develop a unique sound. When I hear Miles or Louis Armstrong or Johnny Hodges, the early jazzmen, the jazzmen I love, Coltane and Charlie Parker, their horns imitated the human voice. That's what today's musicians do not really understand--to imitate the human voice, that is when you put the human element into the music. That is how I got my particular sound on the piano, by trying to reproduce the human voice on my instrument. I love to hear the note sing. That is more important than anything to me.
JazzReview: You can hear that on the album, it seems that her voice and the voice of your piano almost seem to be the same one.
Joe Sample: I remember listening to Randy. We were in England and we had two or three hours to kill before a show after a sound check. We were sitting outside under some trees and it was very warm and pleasant. Randy just starting singing. Anytime anyone would say something, she would have a song to go with it. And before long, she started to perform like a Broadway singer. She started twirling around and performing like she was on stage. She looked like Julie Andrews in Sound of Music, just singing all of these songs and we were just amazed.
JazzReview: That is very easy to imagine when you listen to her sing. It is almost other-worldly, the depth of her range and the breath of it is nothing short of amazing.
Joe Sample: And she is an actress, as well, so you add that all up and you have something very unique.
JazzReview: Is there anything that really bothers you about today's music?
Joe Sample: The need to make a hit record [and] the idea that it has to be a hit. Never mind the sound, make it a hit. I have never been a fan of that.
JazzReview: It is all about being commercial.
Joe Sample: That's where everybody gets it wrong. If they would just allow Randy to sing, you got a hit. Simple as that! Let that woman sing! It does not matter if it is a top-forty hit. Music to me is a spiritual thing. When I sit down and play "Moonlight Sonata" that has to be what, over 200 years old? It still gives me chills. That is what music is all about, the passion.
JazzReview: Randy can do that.
Joe Sample: Randy can do that. When she sings, I am afraid to get in the way. I listen to Ella Fitzgerald and the recording sounded like piano player gone wild. I am thinking to myself, 'Turn him down and turn her up! Get him out of the way. Cut that fool out, get him off of this record!'
JazzReview: Well, nobody will be saying that about this recording.
Joe Sample: I love to play the whole, in between the notes. That is the beauty of the music, to play the space between the notes in music, not just the notes. That is where the passion lies.
[We are put on hold for a moment when his son calls in. The baby is going to be here this afternoon and son just wanted to check in.]
Joe Sample: Sorry about that, he tells me the baby will be here today!
JazzReview: You are very busy that is for sure!
Joe Sample: This album is about the passion, the space between the notes. Randy can deliver that and as long as I stay out of the way, we will be fine.
JazzReview: Is it hard to find the kind of musicians that you can work with.
Joe Sample: There are only a few people who really understand what it is I am looking for. Steve Gadd is one [and] Christian Mcbride is another. These are some of the best guys around. They will ask you what should this feel like? That is how you make really good music.
JazzReview: At this point as with all good things, time ran out on us and Joe Sample was off to another interview and the start of a whole new chapter in the one of the most enduring and celebrated careers in Jazz. Feeling Good with Joe Sample and Randy Crawford is a "must have" collection of songs played by two masters of the art. If nothing else, you will hear the space between the notes, for that is where the passion lies.