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POP MUSIC REVIEW : Joe Sample Could Stand to Take Risks

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Joe Sample makes medium art.

The pianist, who offered his amalgam of jazz, pop, R&B; and Latin influences Saturday at the Celebrity Theatre, is like fellow keyboardist Ramsey Lewis: he plays unpretentiously, with sincerity and with more than a modicum of flair, dynamics and creativity, yet he never reaches for the skies of high art, where compositions and improvisations can cause a listener to leave a venue a changed person.

Sample seeks to entertain, not enlighten. He’s a musician for the masses. Which is not to say he’s mediocre--far from it--and doesn’t mean he doesn’t come across with the goods--he does.

At the Celebrity, the 51-year-old pianist, who’s known both for his work with the jazz-funking Crusaders, of which he was a founding member, and his solo albums like “Rainbow Seeker” and “Spellbound,” put his mark on what he played. His distinctive touch, nice bluesy feel and considerable warmth were always in evidence, as renditions of tunes such as “A Desert in Monterey,” “Bones Jive,” “Ashes to Ashes,” “Georgia on My Mind” (the only non-original performed) and “Sermonized” readily proved.

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Still, the salt-and-pepper-goateed Sample is not a risk taker, and he didn’t stretch his boundaries a lot. His tunes, with their catchy, ear-friendly melodies, backbeat rhythmic orientation and relatively non-complex harmonic constructions, were, after a while, a little difficult to distinguish from one another and in effect offered limited platforms for soloing. It’s as if a painter were working in only four shades of orange or blue or brown: given the commonality of your material, it’s hard to find new ways to tell your story.

Yet within his chosen frameworks, Sample did just that, told modest tales and created a series of authentic, honest moods. With excellent backup support from Neil Larsen (keyboards), John Pena (electric bass), Land Richards (drums) and Lennie Castro (Latin percussion), the leader, leaning into his instrument as he worked, explored his tunes with scalar runs, funky turns, dancing chordal ascents, high-end tinkles and low rumbling chords, keeping the feeling--if not the melody--of his chosen theme in the forefront.

The close-to-two-hour show had its share of highlights. “Sermonized,” which was reminiscent of the evocative funk that made the Crusaders so popular, moved from a quiet, somber mood that spoke of both sadness and beauty to a spirited, uplifting setting, replete with banged chords and a gospelish tinge, and back. Then Pena issued walking bass lines instead of his usual punchy, brief thoughts, Richards switched to a bop time feel and Larsen, his synthesizer sounding like a steam calliope, soloed, going with everything from frantic scurries to high-pitched squeals. The tune closed as it began.

“Bones Jive,” which cooked from start to stop, was a charged item where the leader dug in deep and wailed, with the band right there on his tail, especially Castro, who issued whaps on his bongos, then his congas, to further drive the leader.

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Particularly moving were “Ashes to Ashes,” the title track of Sample’s latest Warner Bros. album, and the unaccompanied and soulful version of “Georgia,” where his mixture of blues statements and flowing chordal ideas enhanced his treatment.

At the close of “Carmel,” which concluded the show, Sample received a standing ovation. He then played two encores: his second was “Rainbow Seeker,” perhaps his most popular piece.

Sample, who appears Thursday at the Ventura Theatre, Friday at the Raymond Theatre in Pasadena and Sunday at the Hop in Riverside, needs to open up his horizons and challenge himself a bit more. His music, good now, would only get better.


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