Joe Sample & the NDR Big Band Orchestra – Children of the Sun – Pra 61014, 62:22 (1/06/15) ****1/2:

(Joe Sample – grand piano and Fender Rhodes; Jorg Achim Keller – conductor; Nils Landgren – solo trombone; Thorsten Benkenstein, Ingolf Burkhardt, Claus Stotter, Reiner Winterschladen, Dirk Lentschat – trumpets; Dan Gottshall, Klaus Heidenreich, Stefan Lottermann, Ingo Lahme – trombones; Fiete Felsch, Peter Bolte, Sebastian Gille, Frank Delle, Bjorn Berger, Lutz Buchner, Gabriel Coburger – saxophones, clarinets & flutes; Stephan Diez – guitar; Ingmar Heller – bass; Steve Gadd – drums; Marcio Doctor – percussion)

The loss of Joe Sample to lung cancer at age 75 last September was a major blow to the wide music community. Besides being a founder of the iconic Jazz Crusaders in the 1960s, Joe was prized for his mastery of acoustic piano and the electric Fender Rhodes. His musical influences spread out in all directions from R & B, blues, funk, gospel, and Latin, as well as soul jazz for which he is most known. Outside of the Crusaders, Sample was a sideman of such repute that he played a major role on such classic hits as Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On,” Joni Mitchell’s “Court and Spark,” and Steely Dan’s “Aja.” He backed, among many others, BB King, Willie Nelson, Rod Stewart, and Tina Turner.

As one of Sample’s final projects as a leader, he composed eleven tracks for the NDR Big Band (from Germany), with the theme being the 17th century slave trade that came through the Caribbean island of St Croix. Sample had played the St Croix Jazz Festival in 1995, and marveled at the beauty of the island in contrast to its somber history as the “middle passage” for slaves coming to the United States. For a period the slaves participated in the island’s sugar cane harvest which contributed to the production of rum. Sample kept the themes and melodies in his head, waiting for the special time that he could mount a project to share the history of those referred to as “children of the sun.”

The eleven compositions on this CD have a blend of Caribbean, West Indian, Latin, with a healthy dose of Sample’s “Gulf Coast funk” developed through his youth in Houston, Texas. The NDR Big Band from Germany served as the vehicle for Joe’s expression.  Nils Landgren handled many of the trombone solos, and the dynamic drummer, Steve Gadd provided the swagger and dynamic power to keep the big band on course. This orchestra is well known as one of the best big bands in Europe and their cohesion, and ensemble playing is exemplary. This recording was made in early 2011, and its release now is in conjunction with UNESCO’s 20th Anniversary of the Slave Route Project: A Commitment to Reconciliation.

Highlights from the CD are many. On the opening track, “I Wanna Go Home,” Sample blends New Orleans front line with a Caribbean lilt and the horns simply soar. Trumpeter Ingolf Burkhardt has a hot solo, followed by a gut bucket Landgren trombone contribution concluding with a dreamy soprano sax feature by Frank Delle. Steve Gadd keeps everyone on target. “Buttermilk Sky” has the horns play complimentary riffs behind Sample’s piano solo, and alto saxist, Peter Bolte, is red hot when he is called upon.

“Islands of the Mind” is a dreamy ballad with Sample taking lead before Claus Stotter on Flugelhorn has an echo effect before the full orchestra kicks in taking the tune out. “Rumfire” has Gadd driving the band on an exquisite Sample arrangement. “Gold in the Cane,” in two parts, has the horns playing in counterpoint with the recurring theme, and when the full orchestra blows hard the feeling is transformative and majestic.

“Blue Abyss” refers to Sample’s impression of St. Croix as an island of entrapment, while the title cut is a tender paean to the island’s slaves. Nils Landgren’s trombone solos bring to mind Wayne Henderson, Sample’s mate in the Crusaders.

If this is the last project of Joe Sample as a leader, then he has left a fitting tribute to his musical talents as a pianist and accomplished composer. We’ll miss you deeply, Joe…

TrackList: I Wanna Go Home, Buttermilk Sky, Islands of the Mind, Rumfire, Gold in the Cane (intro), Gold in the Cane, I Believe In, Children of the Sun, Blue Abyss, Creole Eyes, Albatross Day

—Jeff Krow