The Crusaders – Rural Renewal (2003)

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by S. Victor Aaron

Soul-jazz was never a major genre, even in its seventies heyday, but the boys from Houston who called themselves The Crusaders were doing it better than just about anyone else then…and now.

First, some Cliff Notes on the complex history of this collection of funk-meisters. Keyboardist Joe Sample, trombonist Wayne Henderson, saxophonist Wilton Felder and drummer Stix Hooper all grew up together in the fifties in the poorer neighborhoods of Houston. Eventually they formed an acoustic hard bop band, The Jazz Crusaders that modelled themselves on Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, and released albums on small labels throughout the sixties, never attracting much more than regional attention.

Then at the turn of the decade, the band decided to update their sound, switch to electric instruments and re-christen themselves the Crusaders. Throughout the eras of Nixon, Ford and Carter, the Crusaders perfected an in-the-pocket instrumental soul sound that was anchored on Felder’s and Henderson’s tight horn section. The guitar and bass chairs relied on a rotating cast of crack session rats, most notably Larry Carlton and Robert Popwell.

Even Henderson’s exit in 1976 didn’t slow down the soul train and they reached they’re biggest chart success with 1979’s ‘Street Life.’ But Hooper’s departure marked the end of the claasic period and the band soldiered on with a few more undistinghished albums before calling it quits in 1991.

Then, Henderson hooked up with Felder to front a band playing mostly generic urban jazz and called it — ugh — the Jazz Crusaders. But late in 2002, the 1977-1983 lineup of Sample, Felder and Hooper got together again and produced the album that is the subject of this review. Are you still with me? Good, then let’s get down to the goods…

Bringing back original producer Stewart Levine, the boys brought back everything people loved about the Crusaders: Sample’s feather-light Fender Rhodes and crunchy Wurlitzer, Hooper’s trademark rimshot/highhat combination and Felder’s country-fried sax attack. Throw in the rock-ish guitars of various guests and even a trombone pairing with Felder by Steve Baxter on some tracks, and you’re back to the time of ERA, gas lines and big ‘fros.

No, folks, this ain’t smooth jazz … they stretch out too much for background radio play. Joe even got Eric Clapton to guest on a couple of tunes, a payback for Sample’s appearance on EC’s most recent records.

Yes, there’s a couple of guest vocal tracks, but occasional vocals were always part of the Crusaders’ repertoire (“Street Life” attests to that). But on eight of the ten tracks, these blue hairs are jamming. Most notable tunes include an inspired remake of their funky old number “Greasy Spoon”; Hooper’s skin work and the rhythm guitar demands that this tune be played cranked up. Another track, “Heartland”, recalls the mellow soul of 1974’s “A Ballad For Joe Louis”.

I would venture that Rural Renewal is now the ideal entry point for anyone curious about the Crusaders; it best covers all the best parts of their best period. It may not be their finest work, but it’s a fine segue way into it.

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron is an SQL demon for a Fortune 100 company by day, music opinion-maker at night. His musings are strewn out across the interwebs on,, a football discussion board and some inchoate customer reviews of records from the late 1990s on Amazon under a pseudonym that will never be revealed. E-mail him at [email protected] .com or follow him on Twitter at
S. Victor Aaron
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