Through performance and anecdote, each and every member of the audience and band on stage shared an almost intimate familiarity with the passions and life of this now legendary innovator.
As part of a four-night stay at Jazz at the Bistro, the Joe Sample Trio performed a set comprised largely of Sample's own compositions, each accompanied by an amusing story about his own life and the world of music that inspired each song. From the birth of the Jazz Crusaders as they recorded "Freedom Sound" at Pacific Jazz Records in 1961, through years of disillusionment with the corporate takeover of the music industry, to the not-so-simple decision of where to settle down at this point in a career stretching well over the half-century mark, Joe Sample shared his life through music with the well engaged crowd of this small venue. Opening with "Spellbound," members of the audience immediately cheered and clapped in recognition as they picked out the familiar licks in the intro. The song selection throughout the night highlighted many of the most popular and crowd-pleasing pieces from Sample's repertoire, including the classic standard "Stormy Weather" and Erroll Garner's timeless "Misty" in addition to his own arrangements from across many eras in his career. They closed out the set with the groove based strut "Street Life," leaving the crowd with the brightest of moods to take home with them.
Sample had a delicate touch and was the example of finesse as he played the full-sized Steinway that encompassed most of the moderately sized stage. His fingers fluttered and shuffled across the keys, effortlessly creating a blend of scripted phrases and improvised alterations that flowed without hesitation. Leading the band's intensity with every chord, Sample's touch came purely from his fingers without any need to exert the full body on the keys. In an uncommon break from this delicate touch, one solo included a series of aggressive palm slides up the keys with his left hand, stopped abruptly in a collision with his right, but throughout the evening, even the most forceful hits and chords didn't stir the serenity and joy that Sample embodied as he played.
Joining him at the center of the stage was a man that looked strangely familiar playing a modern styled, stand-up bass. During one of his many stories, Joe Sample recalled that the Jazz Crusaders were constantly challenged by the absence of a true bassist in the group. To rectify that problem, he joked of always whispering "play the bass" into his son's ears while growing up, which quickly explained just why that bassist looked so familiar. His son, Nicklas Sample, was skilled and thoroughly adept at playing with his father. Even during his solos, he adopted a very modest role, but certainly didn't fail to impress. Often, Nicklas was locked onto his father, reading him for cues and chord changes, but when the songs took a groovier turn in style, he visibly connected himself to the music, reacting with his body and face.
The final member was Joel Taylor on the drums. Taylor played with a very balanced style, never giving one particular sound or rhythm focus for too long and constantly incorporating all the elements of his drum set. In addition to standard sticks and brushes, he seemed to favor bundles of small sticks taped together tightly during his more active segments. His drum selection was fairly basic, but had a much more creative cymbal set-up that constantly added lingering ambience to the rhythms. One particular cymbal stood out, using loose metal pieces hanging from drilled holes to create a shimmering sound that resembled the rush of a rain stick. In this trio, it was clear that Joe Sample was the leader while the other two followed his cues, but at the expert hands of the veteran, the musical journey was well piloted. Even after a single set, the fortunate patrons of the bistro could all leave feeling like they had made a new friend named Joe Sample.
Set list (second set):
A Long Way From Home
Ashes to Ashes
One on One
All photos by Wil Wander.