When it comes to jazz music, Houston doesn’t have a sound so much as a sensibility. Our best musicians like to use whatever’s at hand—and in a city with longstanding traditions of deep blues and country, swing, R&B, funk, gospel, zydeco, Latin American music, and, more recently, hip-hop, that tendency can lead to amazing results. No one knew this better than the pianist Joe Sample, who passed away on September 12 at the age of 75. The Fifth Ward native grew up in an environment saturated with music. In an interview with Ben Sidran that appears in the book Talking Jazz, Sample described rhythm and blues as “the music of my neighborhood.” His Creole parents exposed him to zydeco at an early age and he took up the piano at six. He began performing in blues clubs around Houston and the surrounding area during his teenage years. In 1961 he cut his first record with the Jazz Crusaders, a group that included fellow Houston natives Wayne Henderson, Stix Hooper, and Wilton Felder. The group blended jazz with more mainstream music years before fusion was in vogue. “I recognized that I had six or seven, or 10 or 15 different sides of music in me,” Sample told Sidran, reminiscing about his time with the Crusaders. “And there was the classics, and there was my love for Latin, and there was my love for let’s say blues, and also the gospel, and that was basically our music.”
Sample enjoyed a long, successful, and varied career both with the Jazz Crusaders and as a solo artist. As remembrances appeared across the Web last week, it has become increasingly clear that the man truly was a musical chameleon. Over at NPR, Bill Chappell highlights Sample’s early solo work, which shows his strength as an improviser, and reminds us that “In All My Wildest Dreams,” one of the pianist’s funky, laid-back originals was “the backbone of Tupac Shakur’s ‘Dear Mama.’” DanMichael Reyes of the jazz blog Revive gives a nod to “Street Life,” Sample’s best known hit with the Jazz Crusaders (it’s that marvelous tune playing in the background as Pam Grier cruises Los Angeles near the tail end of Jackie Brown). And the Houston Press has put together an excellent list of Sample’s session work from 1976, which demonstrates that he could play with just about anybody, from Albert King to Cher.
As a tribute the this jazz giant, we’ve put together our own playlist, which focuses on the genres in which Sample felt most at home—jazz, funk, blues, zydeco, quiet storm, and gospel—and features something from every phase of his long and brilliant career.
“Put it Where You Want It”
The Crusaders originally recorded this in 1972 and it became a hit on the soul charts. It’s a great jam band tune. This live version was recorded at Montreux in 2003 and features a guest appearance from guitarist and singer/songwriter Ray Parker, Jr. of “Ghostbuster’s” fame. Look at Sample working up a sweat. The man gave audiences their money’s worth.
“I Don’t Know Why I’m So Happy I’m Sad”
In 1973 Sample was the keyboard player in the band that backed jazz vocalist Michael Franks on the latter’s masterful second album, The Art of Tea. Sample was one of the most important electric piano players of his generation and you can see why on this tune. His comping is strong yet unobtrusive. He simply won’t let you forget that the piano is there, and his solo at the end is just what the song needs.
“Mahnã de Carnaval”
This jazz standard appears on a straight-ahead trio album Sample cut with the famous bassist Ray Brown and the drummer Shelly Manne in 1976. Sample always maintained that he was first and foremost a jazz musician, and no matter how far he strayed, as it were, from the tradition, he always came back to his roots. Purists who might dismiss his work with the Jazz Crusaders as too commercial or popular must admit that there is nothing “smooth” about Sample’s playing here. He was an imaginative, tasteful, and moving improviser in the bop tradition.
“Woke Up This Morning”
Sample never forgot how to play the music he learned in those honky tonks and blues joints here in Houston during the ’50s. In the early ’80s he collaborated with guitarist David T. Walker for an album of good old-fashioned Texas-style blues—that means lots of horns, driving boogie-woogie rhythms, and twangy licks. Sample’s playing here would have put a smile on Otis Spann’s face. This is as real as it gets.
“When Your Life Was Low”
Sample had tremendous respect for the gospel tradition. He regarded playing on a session with Mahalia Jackson as one of the greatest moments of his career. You can hear Sample’s affection for sacred music in this torch song from the album he recorded with the vocal powerhouse Lala Hathaway, daughter of the late soul singer Donny Hathaway (an earlier version with Randy Crawford, the vocalist on “Street Life,” came out in 1980). The call-and-response between the piano and the organ at the end really accentuates the song’s gospel contours.
“With These Hands”
The Pecan Tree is one of Sample best albums. It’s a wonderfully cohesive mix of jazz and adult contemporary that avoids the cloying, overproduced sound often associated with albums that straddle these two genres. This track with Howard Hewett, formerly the lead singer of the R&B/disco group Shalamar, illustrates Sample’s talents as an accompanist in a more traditional setting.
“I Believe In/Children of the Sun”
In the 2010s Sample began working with Germany’s NDR Big Band. The sound here reflects Sample’s admiration for great jazz composers like Ellington and Basie. After listening to this tune, you get the sense that Sample could have benefited from an additional phase as the full-time leader of a large ensemble. Many of his tunes from the late ’70s and ’80s had an orchestral quality, but they weren’t at this level. Decades later his sound had matured greatly.
“Down Home, Low Down Zydeco Blues”
Towards the end of his life Sample began looking back at the music of his childhood in Houston. Last year he teamed up with Ray Parker Jr. and C.J. Chenier to form the Creole Joe Jazz band, an outlet for his lifelong interest in zydeco and blues. I love the catchy hook and Parker’s playful vocals. This is one of Sample’s last performances at the Blue Note in New York City. At 74 he still played like a pro. His death represents a huge loss to the jazz community and should remind us that we need to support our great artists while they are still with us.