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Disc review: Joe Sample and the NDR Big Band, ‘Children of the Sun’

Jazz

Joe Sample and the NDR Big Band

“Children of the Sun”

[NDR/PRA]

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Composer/pianist Joe Sample died in September – one of the more significant jazz losses of 2014. If you can just remember how fresh and appealingly populist the Jazz Crusaders were when they first started out – and hadn’t yet dropped the “jazz” from their name out of commercial calculation – you’ll value this product of Sample’s final years as one of the best things he ever did.

He recorded it in 2011. He explains it this way: while exploring the Virgin Island St. Croix at the island’s Jazz Festival in 1995, “I hiked to a rather large rise, which was the highest point on the island. From there I looked out over the entire island. For as far as I could see, and no matter which direction I looked, there was nothing but blue water, except for the massive palomino colored stone buildings that had fallen into ruin.”

They were the ruins of the processing plants that were the center of the island’s slave trade.

They “served to remind me of the brutal and evil institution of slavery. For the first time in my life, I felt the emotions that the slaves must have felt in those days. This seemingly idyllic place had been an island of suffering and torment, floating in a blue abyss. There was no place to escape to. I imagined the slaves dreaming of wings that would enable them to fly their babies to freedom. That time on St. Croix was an epiphany.” A great inspiration for a music work, to be sure, When the NDR Big Band asked Sample for a composition with which to perform with the band, “ I realized I had been writing this music since the spring of ‘95 when I climbed that rise. African American writers have for years referred to those early slaves as ‘Children of the Sun.’ This is my tribute to them.”

The music, unfortunately, isn’t a match for Sample’s verbal eloquence in explaining his inspiration. It is is, nevertheless, well-crafted jazz orchestral music performed by one of those European jazz orchestras that is – far more so than in America – keeping the art of jazz orchestral music alive with some of the best possible performances of it.

It doesn’t quite do the same marvelous thing that European Jazz Orchestral performance was able to do for Joe Zawinul when he rearranged Weather Report classics for them, but it’s strong reminder of how much was lost in Sample’s September death.

–Jeff Simon

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