His name is directly and inseparably connected to the history of jazz and jazz rocknamely with the "Jazz Crusaders" and as a pioneer of contemporary electric jazz piano, Joe Sample was among the first to lay a foundation for what was later to be called 'fusion rock'. Born in Houston, Texas during the time of segregation, Sample was fascinated by jazz from the beginning. He took up the piano at age five, started playing bebop, gospel and soul and moved on to hard bop with the Jazz Crusaders.
After the end of the band, Sample launched a solo career and recorded several successful albums, the last being his tribute to his hometown Houston, "The pecan tree" (2002) and his solo piano recording "Soul Shadows" (2004). During the reunion tour of the Crusaders in Japan 2005, Joe Sample and the Swedish trombonist Nils Landgren who participated as guest, decided to collaborate for an album: "Creole Love Call" (ACT records) was recorded in New Orleans and is currently heading the German jazz charts. Now, in spring 2006, the album will be presented on an extended European tour.
Carina Prange talked to Joe Sample in Berlin.
Carina: Joe, what's the story behind "Creole Love Call"? How were you involved in this project and what do you think about the result, which promises to be received as a great album?
Joe: Well, I was in Japan on the last day of a Crusaders tour of Japan, which Nils had joined as our guest. He mentioned to me planning this recording, and asked me, if I would participate in it: I replied that I'd love to, but that I didn't want to make an album, that would be going to sound like a Crusaders-album, because I thought, that would be foolish. Well, usually whenever I piano for horn players, you will always get this "Crusaders-effect", of course (laughs) ... Yes, it's going to happen!
Nils said, no no no! And he explained that he would be singing and that it wouldn't be so much of an instrumental album. So I told him: Fine. I recognized the possibility that this would mean doing something quite different. Nils gave me three of his CDs and once I returned to Houston, I listened to them. I contacted Nilssince then we were in communication by e-mail. I told him I had listened to his records. His vocal style is, as I found, extremely interesting. Especially for the ones he was doing only with the voice and piano, there I thought his vocals were unique. I told him, he had some sort of European folk-sound in his voice that is mixed with an American sort of jazz-, gospel- and blues-nature. And Nils said he found this a very nice compliment.
So I became interested in it and eventually contacted my friends in New Orleans asking about the local musicians which could be involved. In fact I do not know all the local musicians thereHouston is five hours away. Though the influences are almost the same. I did come from Louisiana, but that still doesn't mean that I necessarily know all of the musicians in New Orleans! (laughs) Nils did about the same thing with his friends. Eventually we came up with basically the same names for bass, guitar and drums. So then I told Nils, it would be his final decision, whom to actually choose and he chose those musicians.
After the end of the second night we were sitting in a restaurant in New Orleans, rather late in the evening and we were a little bit depressed, because we knew it would take a big brick of me, if I could just concentrate on not so much rhythm all the time. We both realized that we needed an exceptional rhythm-guitarist, and thought of Ray Parker being the right man. So we decided to contact Ray and our engineer, Paul Mitchell called him up. As Ray answered the phone, in about ten seconds he had decided to be in New Orleans the next morning.
Once Ray had shown up, we began to, lets say, "to nail", whatever song we went at. We were very successful in cutting them and some of the previous recordings Ray went and overdubbed on. All those other ones I believe we did a second time. I think, we recorded for three and a half days and then we came back for half a day on the fifth day and sort of cleaned up things. However, two of the tracks I listened to and I felt that the acoustic piano was not the correct sound. As I looked in a corner I saw a very old beat up Fender Rhodes and we decided to try that. The engineer put a little chorusing effect on it; I believe that that electric piano really, really worked out fine.
The recording went exceptionally well, we had a lot of fun. We were very lucky that at that particular time a lot of great local soul bands were playing in New Orleans in the popular bars on Bourbon street. We also heard some very useful brass-bands in the French quarter on the street corners. For me this was very, very touching and very impressive. It must also have been extremely impressing for Nils to witness all this.
I told Nils, … I told everyone, that the music is so alive and well in New Orleans, I don't believe that anything has changed there in one hundred years: The black people still live in the same old neighborhoods, they still have the same problems. The youngsters look to music for happiness and pleasure and joy, it's almost a spirituality there. They look for that also to earn a living, however meager it may be. I think, that Nils was shocked to see the youth, the 16, 17 years old, playingand you could see thatnot only for pleasure, but to save their lives.
Carina: Now, this could lead to the next question ...
Joe: Oh, am I talking too much?
Carina: No, not at all! (laughs) Well … to play an instrument, to be a musicianin what amount does that have to do with turning one's inside out, revealing your inner feelings to the listener?
Joe: Well, I know, this has happened numerous, numerous times, when the conditions are correct. When my hands are in great shape, my fingers … and I feel well. And when I am really at a very wonderful piano… Before I play something, I hear what I should play. And I know at that moment that it is not me. It is not me telling myself what to play.
I do not plan what I play. I may write a very wonderful piece of music, but when I perform it - whether in performance live or in the recording studioI know that it is not me. It is a higher source. Bob Dylan, he describes that source as "The Man"he is talking about God. It just passes through me. And I am used as a tool. I can feel it, it just comes out. I don't think I adorn it. My sole responsibility is to make sure, that my skills are very, very good.
Carina: You play the piano since the age of 5who were your teachers in the beginning, when you were a child? Today it seems like an ordinary thing to be able to take up a musical instrumentwhat was it like then?
Joe: Now, I was born in ´39 … at five years old most of the kids on the piano would take that little fingers and maybe play two or three notes in the right hand. And with one finger play the bass-note … and it was boogie-woogie! It was an age of boogie-woogie, where especially the Chicago players were extremely popular. In all of the black neighborhoods they were a tremendous attraction among the kids. I fell in love with the piano then. At the same time I was hearing the big bands. I was fascinated with Louis Armstrong's music, heard a lot of his older, a lot of his current music. My father was a music lover. My older brother, he was 15 years older, played piano in an all black navy band in the second world war. So he had records, records, recordsevery time he came home, he played the piano and I would just watch him.
By six years, I told my mother I wanted to begin to play the piano and take piano lessons. Of course I took those lessons from piano teachers in the black neighborhood. They were not that great teachers, but they taught me enough to make my love of the piano continue. By the time I was 14 years old I finally had my very, very first teacher, it was Dr. Mayo. He was from one of the northern cities.
I have to explain that I grew up in Houston, where we didn't really have access to a lot of good music education until I got around fourteen years old. It was a southern city and it was the time of separation of the races. Of course education was very … well, it was good, but it certainly was not the best! By the time I was sixteen years old, I attended Texas Southern University, which was an all black university. I had another excellent piano teacher there, another black man from the Northern States, his name was Dr. Reinhard. There I had my introduction to an even higher level of musicality or piano-playing. I was at this university for three years, I had completed all of my music studies.
That's when myself and the rest of the Crusaders who had been founded in those times decided we were going out to California. I was nineteen years old. I knew at that point I had to live somewhere, where the world's finest musicians were living. With the American music scene, this meant either New York City or Los Angeles. And we decided to go to Los Angeles, because it was an easier lifestyle and we all had relatives there.
Well, from the age of nineteen or twenty years old to the age of approximately 30… I dedicated those ten years of my life to daily practice. Where I got actually spent four to five hours a day practicing, on as many days, as I could find possible. At age of 29 I decided that's enough of the technical stuff! Now I had to really learn what music was all about. I began to listen very, very carefully to all of the Motown records. I began to analyze and to study African American music in a very thorough manner.
Carina: To quote you: "I grew up in a time and place where segregation was an acceptable way of life, and for me the piano was the only place I could run to for an act of healing ..."
Joe: Oh yes, the piano was a place that I could always go to. It was a world, that I knew existed. There I could take my mental, my emotional capacity as well as my spiritual and my intellectual capacity. I knew it was a world that I could create, that no-one could touch. Where no-one could tell me anything about life, what was good about it, or bad. It was a world that I'd call a "safe place".
At 1963 I went to New York, I saw the whole concept of jazz was changingit was going into free jazz, avant-garde jazz. I love to hear other people play it. Eventually I became somewhat resistant to my fellow musicians, how they wanted me to play. I also felt like this was going to interfere with my save haven, with the values that I wanted out of life. I resented musicians asking me to "don't play what you feel". They wanted me to play what they thought I should be playing.
That to me was like another kind of segregation, like telling me: You are black and therefor you can't do this! (laughs) The music critics to me became segregationists, telling me what's right and what's wrong. I still have that bad feeling today, when critics open their big mouth. They sound like racists to me. I resist them and fight them all the way. I will do what I want to do. I've had it there, very bad ...
Carina: Recently, Lizz Wright, who sang on your 2002 album "The Pecan Tree" mentioned to me about your influence on her: "Joe and I deeply connected because of the soul and gospel and the black history things. He made the older, the religious part of me sing …"
Joe: I feel … Maybe that's not an answer, but let me begin here: In 1982 I realized that the music industry had changed. Perhaps it will remain changed forever. The business world had come in and they had bought all the record companies. It was just six companies, who now owned all of the independent American record labels, all the majority of them. I believe at one time in the early 60s there were 300 independent American record labels! All of America's greatest music was made by very, very, small companies, made by men, who were tremendous lovers of music. And they came from all around the world.
Then all of a sudden, everything was owned by the corporate world. I began to see the change in '81 when I went to MCA-Records. I had a feeling that I was in a bank or an insurance company. I was shocked at the new mood and the concept of the new music industry, I really had no feeling of that being a place of music.
Two years later, I realized my worst nightmares were coming true. The music had changed. And I not only had to adapt, but I was being told to! By the businessmen, by producers, by lawyers. They were trying to explain to meand also demand at the same time!that it was impossible to continue to do the things musically that I had always done. They were telling me that "it's the new days"! They told me that I needed a producer. That I needed writers, that there was a new world of music out there: "You don't know how to make it, but we have men that can show you how to make it!"
I knew I was in a terrible predicament. Around '83 I realized I had three choices. The first was to go to some law firm and try to fight my way out of this. I knew that this was absolutely crazy. I would never win and end up penniless. The second choice was to go, get a big gun and start shooting everybody. I knew that I would end up in prison. The last one was to kiss their asses until the contracts were over.
In the early 80s there was a six-month period, where I lost my confidence. I never ever dreamed that this was possible. I realized that my safe haven … I couldn't find it anymore! I could not sit at the piano. Whenever I touched the instrument, I felt … absolutely nothing. I was ice-cold inside. I could not believe that that would ever, ever, ever be possible! Somehow I began to fight to regain that feeling of spirituality I always felt when I playedmeaning it just passing through me, where I didn't think about creating, just watched my fingers playing…
About the end of '85 I regained my confidence. I remember Milton Felder pointing that out to me in London: We were in a hotel-bar, it was late night. I saw a piano, walked over to it and began to play it. And I knew that I had regained it, my safe haven, my safe place. Milton said to me: "That's the first time I have heard you play with any feelings in a year!" And I knew that I had fought and finally gotten my save place back.
The contracts were eventually over in '88 and I went to Warner Brothers which was the last remaining music company. Motown had been the last one of the black companies to fall. It fell in '86/87 when Barry Gordy sold them to a corporation. But Warner Brothers was still there. I went there and worked with Tommy LiPuma; the release of the album "Spellbound", I believe, was in 1990. I remember that Friday in New York, after four days of recording, I was supposed to come in and do a solo-piano-piece of a Duke Ellington composition, I believe " Through a Looking Glass". I was so exhausted, I couldn't do it. I lay on a couch at "Right Track Recording". It was about five o'clock in the evening. And then I felt this horrible feeling just come out of my body! And there I felt like that that nightmare of the 1980s was finally over.
The 1980s were the worst period of my life. However, the nightmare wasn't over. I had to fight my way all through the 90s against all kinds of resistance everywhere. I think now musicians understand how I feel and why I am having a wonderful time at this particular point of my life!
Carina: Last questiondo you have a sort of philosophy for life?
Joe: Do I have a moment to think? … Well, you know, I read a very interesting article about an American composer who recently died. I saw it in the Los Angeles Time. His name was George Rochberg; he was 84 years old, I believe. In the end of the late 1950s and the 1960s he was one of the leading composers in twelve-tone-music, serial music, very avant-garde. His son died in 1964. And he suddenly changed his mind about the kind of music he was going to continue to compose. He said serialism was empty of expressive emotion and that he realized, that the pain he was feeling inside, could only be eased by composing and involving himself in music that was harmonically beautiful and rich with melody.
He still incorporated the twelve-tone-system, but went back to the old principles of music. He stopped being so avant-garde. As he said, the whole music-world just came crashing on him. When I read this articleand the last thing he mentioned was about what he had to do to make peace with living after the horrible death of his son. He said: "You must have fire in your spirit, you must have fire in your mind and you must have fire in your belly." Which comes back to the first thing, that I'd said: I found fire in my mind, in my belly and my spirit, when I was six years old. Because I have a safe haven, I don't give a damn what anybody says. I go to the piano and … screw the rest of the world!
CD: Nils Landgren/Joe Sample - "Creole Love Call" (ACT 9707-2)
ACT Music im Internet: www.actmusic.com
Fotos: Steven Haberland (www.stevenhaberland.com)