On Second Thought: Joe Sample – Rainbow Seeker (1978)

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So yesterday I read Matthew Shipp’s review of Keith Jarrett’s latest album Somewhere, or least ostensibly, it was a review. In reality it was one jazz pianist I admire rhetorically ripping out the entrails of another jazz pianist I admire.

That caused enough buzz around the jazz social internet circles to quickly inspire a rebuttal, but let’s face it, Jarrett has long been a polarizing figure in jazz; he’s got many moments of pure beauty interspersed with moments of what Shipp calls “the layers and layers and layers of pretension,” and there’s been a fair share of arguments as to which moments fall on which side of the equation. And then there are Jarrett’s stage manners, which are probably more widely known than “My Song” ever was.

Shipp goes on to list jazz pianists he believes uphold jazz piano ideals of which that Jarrett falls short: Cecil Taylor, Phineas Newborn, Jr., Hampton Hawes, Joe Sample …

What a minute, Joe Sample, the smooth jazz darling? To which I say, “you damned right, that guy.”

Joe Sample was one of my bridges to real jazz ever since my oldest brother brought home a copy of Rainbow Seeker around the time it came out in 1978. That, and the Crusaders’ Free As The Wind which came out the prior year kept me hooked on Sample well into a solo career that eventually overshadowed his Crusaders stint. The thing is, when I started to eschew a lot of the jazz-lite and smooth jazz he came to represent in favor of the harder/straighter stuff, I never eschewed Sample. And Shipp explains why in a way I knew instinctively but could never quite articulate so succinctly:

He has a holistic sense of the piano, where the melodic, rhythmic and harmonic elements arise out of a unitary matrix. He has impeccable articulation. The melodic tissue of his motifs are exactly that, melodic, and his syntax is completely original. He can do long looping phrases and gather a hypnotic storm, and if he decided to play a vamp Jarrett would have to leave the room.

Sample, in my more layman terms, is a complete package: he has a heightened sense of melody as well as rhythm and to him, they are one and the same. He’s got his own distinctive flair, what Shipp would call his own “language,” and when you hear Sample play a lick or a vamp, it’s his own goddamn lick or vamp. I also dig his touch: he plays hard only for dramatic punctuations, but has a golden light touch, and if you like quickness, he can give you plenty of fodder for the air piano performer in you. Above all, he’s a fantastic composer who can construct harmonies of sophistication that are deceptively fluid. All of these qualities can be found even on a track with contemporary grooves such as “Rainbow Seeker” and all throughout that album of the same name.

Even accompanied by strings, synth accents and playing off a simple electric bass riff as on “Fly With the Wings of Love,” his artistry takes center stage. The timeless lyricism of a song like “Melodies Of Love” is strong enough to eclipse whatever arrangement is applied to it. The Brazilian groove of “Islands In The Rain” is ingeniously melded to peculiar ascending chord figures.

The jazz purists may prefer the nearly all-acoustic Old Places, Old Faces (1995) to Rainbow Seeker, and it is another peak for him. But I had the fortune of catching him on tour in support of that album with only Jay Anderson on bass and Lenny Castro on drums, and he dug back to those songs from Rainbow and its companion release Carmel. I was struck by how terrific those songs still sounded unplugged with little accompaniment. That’s when I fully realized that Joe Sample is not a “smooth jazz” pianist at all, he’s a brilliant pianist and composer who often dresses up his music in contemporary clothing to trick people into liking jazz of real depth and beauty. I’ve been falling for that trick for thirty-five years, now.

Bobby Hutcherson saw all of that at the turn of the 70s when he brought in Joe to play on his underrated record with Harold Land at the time, San Francisco. Steely Dan tabbed him to lend his fabled Fender Rhodes on the Aja sessions. Miles Davis and Eric Clapton sought out his services, too.

Why? Because they knew — just like Matt Shipp knows — that he’s badassed.

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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 jazz.com, AllAboutJazz.com, 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 svaaron@somethingelsereviews .com or follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SVictorAaron
S. Victor Aaron
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