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On This Joe Sample Day

Written by [Anthony Dean-Harris]

This Monday, February 1, my favorite pianist, Joseph Leslie Sample, turns 71 years old. This is typically a bigger deal to me than it is to most people. I can get why. Most folks don’t get excited about jazz (but we here at Nextbop certainly are trying to change that). Most folks certainly don’t get excited about septuagenarians. But when every February comes around, the music of Joe Sample (his solo work, The Crusaders, backing Anita Baker, Michael Franks, Al Jarreau, Miles Davis, George Benson, Herb Alpert, Hugh Masekela, and a long line of others over an ongoing career spanning at least 40 years) is all I’ll play for that magical first day of the month.

Chuck Klosterman once noted that artistic criticism is mostly about relaying one’s personal relationship with a work and how that factors into its interpretation more than objectively judging its quality. When it comes to Joe Sample, I most certainly agree with Klosterman’s stance. I have a deep love for Joe Sample’s work not just because of his audacity, his appreciation of past forms, or because of his ability to move forward and be continuously inventive, but also because his music was a certain link to my childhood.

While I may have loved jazz since I was a toddler, Sample was the first musician in whom I really took notice. I remember being seven or eight years old when my stepfather, who at the time had moved down from Chicago to San Antonio to continue to court my mother and help take care of our family, was playing tapes of his. I distinctly remember the cramped room he was renting in that old house most definitively in the East Side of San Antonio. I remember us all laying in his bed one day, tape player in the midst, doling out Spellbound. I remember asking who was playing and my mother saying, “You know who this is. It’s Joe Sample; you like him.” I did like him. I was stuck ever since.

From then on, I was hooked on his work. Dancing in my room with Roles playing from my 2-XL at age 8. The absolute elation I felt in 1996 upon the release of Old Places Old Faces, as much an event for me as Michael Jackson’s Thriller had to be in 1982 for many others. I recall my first real concert later that year when Sample played Sunken Gardens Amphitheater to promote his album. My sister and I chanting he play “Hippies on a Corner” because we so loved hearing it over the radio, thinking about how these kids probably bugged him but also appreciating such young jazz fans who could at least name one of his songs.

I remember one of my best Christmas presents in 1999 was getting The Song Lives On with Lalah Hathaway, long before I ever really knew who her father was. I started my true music criticism commenting to whoever would hear about how 1997’s Sample This, while musically sound, was a throwaway album to fulfill a contractual obligation to Warner Bros., the label Sample was leaving for GRP. (And after The Song Lives On, Sample left GRP just that quickly for Verve for two more albums.)

Joe Sample’s career has been a large part of my life. It’s hard to disavow that connection for the sake of objective criticism. That connection I have to his work enables me to hear his influence immediately. I rarely mistake his heavy handedness, even in the softest of notes. I never neglect his blues influence and reliance on chords, unlike other pianists like Brad Mehldau who will typically play ostinatos of broken chords.

Through Sample, I found my prism of all other music. I can appreciate smooth jazz (on rare occasions) because Sample’s smooth jazz was more than forgivable (except for 1990’s Ashes to Ashes, the man can still do some wrong). Like what some will say about Christopher Walken’s acting ability, any work, good or bad, is a little bit better with Joe Sample. Sample’s backing Michael Franks, Al Jarreau, or Anita Baker gives their songs a little extra backbone. His arrangements raise George Benson’s guitar work from brilliant to spectacular.

Sample, like Kelsey Grammar, can do whatever he wants (Frasier -> executive producer of Girlfriends -> Beast in X-Men 3 :: The Crusaders’ “Street Life” ->releasing a completely solo album of very old jazz standards, 2004’s Soul Shadows -> rhythm arrangements for most of Willie Nelson’s 2009 American Classic album). When he does things in his career that makes me doubt him and call him a crazy old man, I always eat my words because his technical craft is just too good. When I spend years wondering if he’ll ever get a decent online presence going, I’ll suddenly run across his [Facebook fan page]. When I think the man is slowing down, he releases some other project that continues to dazzle me.

As I finish writing this piece, I can’t help but think of Seb and Justin’s [Jazz Now write up] for The Bad Plus for NPR’s A Blog Supreme’s Jazz Now project. The love and adoration they feel for Ethan Iverson, Dave King, and Reid Anderson is astounding to see, and I didn’t fully get it when I first read that piece. Sure, I loved the group, but I never did make a website based on a trio’s philosophy to move a genre forward. But now, I think about how every February, I bug everyone around me about a guy who I think is the greatest pianist in the world because my dad was playing a tape one day.

Joe Sample reminds me of what I love out of jazz. He reminds me of what I love out of life. He reminds me of family and friends and about what made me who I am today. I think that’s worth shouting from the rooftops.

Anthony Dean-Harris is a contributing writer for [African-American Reflections] and hosts the modern jazz radio show, The Line-Up, Fridays at 9pm CST on [91.7 FM KRTU San Antonio]. More of his writing can be found at his blog, [In Retrospect].