At 71, pianist Joe Sample 'playing better than ever'

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Joe Sample disproves the adage "You can't go home again."

The 71-year-old pianist, who brings his trio to Hartwood Acres on Sunday, moved in 1999 from his longtime base in Los Angeles back to his native Houston to keep his career going.

"What I had known as music had basically come to an end" in L.A., Mr. Sample says. "There were not music clubs; they were 'beautiful people' clubs. They were not going out to hear great bands -- They were going out to get on the beautiful people list."

Joe Sample Trio
Where: Hartwood Acres, Indiana Township.

When: 7:30 p.m. Sunday.

Admission: Free.

Information: 412-767-9200.

As a result, he felt he had to find another place where people appreciated good music. He considered Italy and Brazil but in the end decided to go home.

And although he stepped into a bit of a time warp -- "Whites are still into the country swing, blacks are into gospel" -- he found the cultural roots he'd been seeking after having left Houston in the mid-1960s with the Jazz Crusaders. Those cultural roots are very important to him, he says.

His trio includes his bass-playing son Nicklas -- also a member of the Coryell Auger Sample Trio, which also includes the sons of contemporary jazz greats Larry Coryell and Brian Auger -- and Moyes Lucas on drums. In another case of returning "home," Mr. Sample also plays with the recently re-formed Jazz Crusaders with three of the original "Four Knights"; drummer Nesbert "Stix" Hooper is the exception. As of late, the still-active original members have been dealing with various health problems.

Mr. Sample, who's considering cutting back on his travel, has had a couple of heart attacks. Saxophonist Wilton Felder had suffered from paralysis -- "[doctors had] discovered two tumors in his neck" -- and trombonist Wayne Henderson, who amicably left the band in the mid-1970s but wanted to play with Mr. Sample again, is on dialysis.

As for other projects, this fall Mr. Sample will teach master classes at Texas Southern University, where he studied (but never graduated) and met the other members of the Jazz Crusaders. He wants to teach young musicians more than how to play music.

"Musicians get on the bandstand and nobody listens to each other," he says. "I want to create classes for roles" so that they can sound good in ensemble.

He also is working on an original piece, "Children of the Sun" -- inspired by a visit to St. Croix and a reference to the slave trade there -- that will be performed by the NDR Radio Band of Hamburg, Germany.

So, even though he could rest on his laurels, Mr. Sample still has the fire to create quality music.

"I'm writing better than ever. I'm playing better than ever."

Rick Nowlin: or 412-263-3871.


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