Crawford, Sample make a `Good' team

ON POPULAR MUSIC

February 22, 2007|By RASHOD D. OLLISON

Neither of us can figure it out, and I thought maybe Joe Sample, of all people, would know: After 31 years of superlative music, why isn't Randy Crawford a superstar?

"That has always been a puzzle to me," says Sample, the veteran jazz-pop pianist, who has worked with the Georgia-born soul singer since the beginning of her career in the mid-'70s.

"She has never really come up with the hits that would take her to the top of the R&B charts. Randy isn't cheap; she's sophisticated -- maybe too much so for the pop, R&B arena. Why in the world is Randy not in that place of divas? Man, I can't tell you."

Every time I spin Sample's new duet CD with Crawford -- the wondrous Feeling Good, in stores this week -- I melt. The music is consistently moving and elegant. Lately, there has been a glut of adult-urban covers projects, but this one really matters. As with any album Crawford does, the songs are colorfully eclectic and, most important, haven't been done to death.

Tunes by Nina Simone (the title track and "See Line Woman"), Billie Holiday ("Tell Me More and More and Then Some"), Peter Gabriel ("Lovetown"), even Leo Sayer ("When I Need You") are retooled by a smart trio of Sample on keys, Christian McBride on bass and Steve Gadd on drums. Crawford, who was unavailable for an interview, breathes new life into the lyrics.

That champagne-and-collard greens voice of hers is as affecting today as it was in 1979 when she sang "Street Life," Crawford's best-known hit recorded with Sample's group, the Crusaders. During the sessions for Feeling Good, "she was singing in such a beautiful manner, I didn't want to touch the piano," says Sample, 68. "At times, I knew I had to float beneath her. I've learned to play while the singer is singing. You have to listen and give her the space. There were not a lot of notes played. I'm old school in that I like to keep it simple, especially if you're working with a voice like Randy's."

Sample's previous duet project, 1999's excellent The Song Lives On, featured his melodic tickling of the ivories behind the smoked honey vocals of Lalah Hathaway. But unlike that project, Crawford sings on each cut. And where Hathaway sounded self-conscious at times, Crawford, 55, is assured throughout.

After all, she and Sample go way back. He played on her first album, 1976's Everything Must Change, and wrote "Street Life" specially for the private, Los Angeles-based singer. The two have toured together several times.

"Randy is a unique personality, and you have to love her," Sample says with a knowing chuckle. "Our rapport is wonderful. We go out of our way to make sure she's comfortable at all times."

Which explains the relaxed-but-energetic feel of the new album. There's nary a weak track on Feeling Good. The two revisit "Last Night at Danceland," a song Sample wrote for Crawford's standout 1980 LP, Now We May Begin, which the Crusaders produced.

Stripped down, it swings on a funky rhythm, buoyed by her playful vocal. The same is true for "See Line Woman" and the title track, on which Crawford scats near the end. Old jazz standards, "But Beautiful" and "All Night Long," receive exquisite, blues-in-the-night readings. And "When I Need You" is imbued with a straightforward gospel-soul flavor, erasing all memories of Sayer's sappy rendering of the longing lyrics. As a musician, Sample says he has become set in his ways. It's easy on his nerves to work with such a familiar talent as Crawford.

"Listen, at my age, I've had to hold my ground about how I play," says the Houston native. "I don't play like I did when I was a piano student. I have to hold to my belief that what I'm doing is valid. This new record with Randy -- I doubt in today's R&B world it will reach the top of the charts. But I hope the real artists listen to this record and realize that there's another side to music."

One where less is more and the songs leave you feeling good.

To hear clips from "Feeling Good," go to baltimoresun.com/listeningpost.

rashod.ollison@baltsun.com

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