Crusading For The Sample
keyboarding Crusader with words of wisdom
In which Crusaders' keysman Joe Sample has trouble with Steinways, session men and strange women in discos. He got on okay with Tony Bacon though.
The Crusaders European tour reaches London, and after one of the Hammersmith dates pianist Joe Sample finds himself at the Xenon disco. He doesn't feel like dancing: the music is merely spectacular, it's all sound, superficial trickery. One of a stream of eager women comes up to him. "Let's dance!" The pianist turns to her, shouting above the drum machine and scratching, "If something is played that has a tremendous feeling to it, I'll dance." She turns away disappointed and not a little puzzled.
Why should he dance if the feeling's not there? Joe has devoted his musical career to music with feeling. The Jazz Crusaders, pioneers of late Fifties and early Sixties Southern funk, changed into just plain Crusaders in the mid-Sixties and fused jazz and rock so successfully that even the Rolling Stones took notice and had the Crusaders support a tour.
And Joe's solo recordings in the late Seventies and more recently have highlighted his work with acoustic piano: with the Crusaders his playing has centred mostly on Rhodes and minimal synth colourings. He is a pianist of taste and resourcefulness. But primarily he deals in feelings. So why should he dance?
Anyway, he still has in his mind the Hammersmith gig, and the dreadful Steinway he was given to play. He suddenly remembers that it's the same one he had to deal with when he opened the Crusaders show there five years ago with a solo spot. But tonight he'd had to use every inch of strength, of power, and of imagination to get any feeling from the piano.
He looks around the flailing bodies in the disco. "Playing that piano tonight," he muses, "was like making love to someone you don't want to make love to. You have to force yourself to do it." He really needed his considerable technical skills at Hammersmith, just to be able to force himself to play the thing.
Next day he's back at his hotel, the Holiday Inn in Sloane Street. Breakfasting by the pool, he shares his table with an interviewer, who probes further on the subject of the Odeon's awful piano.
"It's old." he says, pouring some coffee and lighting a menthol cigarette. "They've probably had it fixed and refixed. They should just take all the guts out of the instrument and just replace it."
Back home in California, Sample rents a piano when he's recording, and up until recently had a favourite Steinway from among the 30 or so which the rental company has on their books. For this he has to pay around $700 a day. But he recently put in a call to get his favoured Steinway sent over, and, was told it had been "retired". Somehow, you play and play a piano, and eventually the character goes. And it's retired. Perhaps that's what they should do with the Hammersmith Steinway? "Definitely." It should be first on their list? "Exactly."
But something is worrying him. It's not the piano. It's not even that he had some news this morning about some back taxes owed. "When Stix Hooper, the drummer, left the group it was like a real heavy and painful divorce. It stopped us in our tracks. I had big plans in those years — they just got cut off. Instead of having recording sessions we were having psychological clinics. Very expensive therapy sessions. Those taxes, well, I'm still paying for those therapy sessions. I look at it now and laugh, but at the time it was very painful."
Stix had been a founding member of the Crusaders, along with Joe and saxist bassist Wilton Felder. The three had become a musical team and a slick production outfit over the years and years they'd been together. Hooper's sudden departure had indeed been traumatic, but eventually a replacement came along in Ndugu Chancier who had himself been involved in some very influential jazz-rock LPs of the early Seventies when he played for George Duke. He's also investigated latin-pop with Santana, and is more recently renowned for his session work on some of the tracks on "Thriller".
Meanwhile, Sample reveals that it's modern session players he's worried about. Things ain't what they used to be. At 45, he senses a new mentality among the elite west coast session players, the best of whom he reckons earn about $300,000 a year. If they're earning so much, why should they change their ways? "I don't think some of those fellas should be paid so much, I think sometimes they should be paying me to give them music lessons."
What is it specifically that modern players don't grasp, the interviewer puts to the older and wiser Sample? Changing moods, he says. "One of the biggest problems for them in my music seems to be that they can't lock on to the groove of this song. There is no such thing as 'the groove'. There may be seven different grooves in the song: as you reach these various sections you have to know what they are. The musicians become totally confused as they come out of one section into another. They may change the tempo; as the section is coming up you can feel the band tensing up because they can't remember what the feel's supposed to be here. So it dies right there.
"As jazz players we've never had that problem; that was how jazz players have always played. I listened to a whole lot of those old Dixieland records the other day. Fats Waller, every four bars he changes the feeling, he gets something different. That's how they played. Nowadays, they wanna know what the rhythm is, and they wanna hold it for ten minutes long. It bogs it down, it becomes monotonous. But today's music is like that."
Sample's mind may well have drifted back to last night's disco at this point. Merely spectacular music. Superficial trickery. And one groove for ten minutes.
But let's consider one element of the touring Crusaders' line-up, the bass playing. "Bass playing has always been a nightmare," asserts Joe. If you are a bass player and feel like a little culture shock — say working in California for a few months — what should you bear in mind at the audition for the Crusaders' bass player? "The first thing I listen for," explains Sample, "is whether the bass player is listening to me. Ninety-nine and nine-tenths of the time they are not. The great players do not listen to themselves. It's all a matter of support and listening. Don't listen to yourself. You can't play in a band and listen to yourself. You have to listen to everyone in the band, or whoever's the focal point at any given time."
Sample's mind begins to wander again. We're back at Hammersmith for the first night of the two Crusaders concerts. Bassist Byron Miller steps forward for his solo spot, and five or six bars into his aggressive slapping and pulling he breaks a string. Gasp of amazement from audience — band oddly relaxed about the whole thing. A roadie fusses around Miller, and another bass is thrust into his lively hands. Slapping and pulling resumes, and then another string gives up and splits deftly in two. Miller is by now looking extremely worried. Towards the back of the stage a meeting of the Crusaders Road Crew is convened, and Miller takes the opportunity to run backstage and fetch his last remaining bass from the dressing room. What laughs.
Snap. We're back at the poolside, and Sample relates a tale of, he says, a past bassist. "I know one bass player, I began to notice something about six months after he'd started playing with us. I'd tell the other guys in the band, hey, did you know that when he goes out and plays a solo he is intentionally breaking his strings? I think he knows he can't solo. And they're saying to me, no, man, nobody'd do that. Checked him out a couple of months later, and every night as he goes out we're all saying come on, come on, hit it, break it, oh! He's got it!'
You have to realise that things wear out on these old fashioned analogue instruments. Like with Joe's treasured Fender Rhodes piano, which is kept at the Rhodes warehouse when not touring or recording, and maintained in tip-top nick. He's constantly amazed when he tries other people's Rhodes and finds them generally to be in a pretty sorry state. Like when he visited Britain earlier this year to sit in with Womack and Womack, and used their Rhodes. He'd get the sound breaking up, there were noises in the amp, crackling as it was fed into the foldback.
"I don't know who actually owned the Rhodes," says Sample, "but someone on stage at the Womack concert was saying oh, that Rhodes is just like that, it's just very sensitive, you can't play it hard. So I just said you have a piece of shit here, man.
"You have to keep them up, everything wears out. If you wear shoes, the soles wear out so you polish them, resole them, reheel them. It's the same with the Rhodes — it's a mechanical instrument, it wears out, so you have to look after it. You have to get it repaired every once in a while. If a tine breaks on it, you'll play the note and there's nothing there. It tells you something is wrong."
Joe again adopts his conservative policy when the interviewer asks for his opinion on the "new improved" Rhodes action. Apparently Rhodes had received a mass of complaints about the heavy, mushy action of the pianos — presumably players used to the lighter touch of synthesiser keyboards. He doesn't like the new lighter action. "I don't feel anything under the keys," he says, gazing over the empty swimming pool. "It feels to me like touching feathers. I like to have resistance when I'm pushing the keys. It also sounds a little bit different to me."
His problems with session players continue: his current project is another solo album, on which Ndugu is the only contributor to every track. Which bass players fit his exacting demands? Abraham Laboriel, Louis Johnson, Wilton Felder, and Nathan East. Doesn't he sometimes get told he's being picky on sessions? All the time. Steely Dan had similar problems, he explains. "Their recording costs on 'Aja' went up to a million dollars... the players on those sessions would tell them that it was fine and they were being picky. But I understand what Steely Dan were saying. It's either right or it's wrong."
The interviewer decides it's time to leave when Sample explains that he really has to get his album finished in the next ten days, that money's beginning to run out.
"I want to keep playing until I'm 75 years old," he concludes. "But the thing that frightens me is that the older I get the more knowledge I'm gonna gain — I intend to make my personal musicianship better and better. But I can't get players to play with me.
"I may write a song that has the feelings of the Forties or the Fifties, or I might dig into that Fats Waller thing, the Thirties. All of a sudden I run into a brick wall. I'm shocked at some of the things I can't play."
Interview by Tony Bacon
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