Children of the Sun, composer/pianist Joe Sample’s powerful programmatic evocation of what it meant to be a slave, was released posthumously on January 6, 2015. Sample, a founding member of the Jazz Crusaders – who later deemphasized their jazz roots and becoming simply the Crusaders – passed away in September from mesothelioma at age 75.
The new album was recorded in 2011. Sample explains in his liner notes that he had been performing at the St. Croix Jazz Festival in the Virgin Islands in 1995, and took the opportunity to do a bit of exploring. “I was struck,” he says, by the contrast between the tranquil solitude and the brutal reality of the island’s history.” The Islands, home to highly profitable trade in sugar cane farming and processing, had become a center of slave trade. As he wandered over the island, Sample began to ponder the irony inherent in its natural beauty and the perverted uses it had been put to. As one might expect from a composer, the pondering took the form of musical themes and melodies.
When he was asked by Swedish trombonist Nils Landgren to create a piece for the Hamburg-based NDR Bigband, Sample took it as an opportunity to work these themes and melodies into a larger structure that would serve as a fitting tribute to those early slaves, slaves often referred to as “children of the sun.” The 11-track suite uses the NDR’s substantial size to add to the weight of the musical experience. There is a power unique to a big band, and especially to this big band, that consistently raises the piece’s emotional stakes.
Although focusing often on Caribbean rhythms and ideas, the music is always moving to a more universal exploration of those ideas. This is, after all, a German band playing an African-American’s musical portrait of an African experience with the input of American and European soloists. Even when a piece like “Creole Eyes” is located explicitly by title and rhythms, it is developed beyond that location—note the trumpet solo of Ingolf Burkhardt and the tenor sax work of Frank Delle. The same is true for the Latin rhythms of “Rumfire” with Claus Stotter’s flugelhorn solo and Sample’s own piano, as well as “Gold in the Cane,” which features solos by all of the above plus Landgren on the trombone. Landgren handles most of the trombone solos with an engaging gusto. He is featured on six tracks. Sample does a lot of the solo piano work throughout. He is featured on five of the tracks.
The suite opens with the Latin flavors of “I Wanna Go Home” followed by “Buttermilk Sky” and an intense “Islands of the Mind” with a stylish Sample solo. The title song, “Children of the Sun,” “I Believe In,” “Blue Abyss,” and “Albatross Day” round out this very inventive album.
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