Crawford, Sample and Vaughn: Collaborations and Breakthroughs

Randy and Joe have forged a musical marriage that works.

Randy Crawford &  Joe Sample: Live

It’s a slight exaggeration to say keyboardist Joe Sample rescued Randy Crawford from pop music limbo, but it’s not too far from the truth. Crawford is among the most distinct vocalists working, but her discography is riddled with over-arranged and over-produced disappointments. One of her finest moments remains when The Crusaders dropped all 11 minutes of “Street Life” on radio airwaves in 1979, featuring Crawford belting it out.

Some 27 years would pass Sample and Crawford before they reunited to record Feelin’ Good (PRA, 2006), where the pianist wisely chucked the synthesizers, strings and overproduced pop tunes that Crawford’s sensual vocals had to fight through over a decade’s worth of middling albums and stripped the sound down to a bare (but not sparse) combination of piano, bass, drums and Crawford’s  sweetly sensual vocals.

The back-to-basics/less-is-more approach served Crawford well on Feelin’ Good, and a second album, No Regrets (PRA, 2008) continued the collaboration. It was wise for Crawford to give up her pop/R&B stylings to pursue a more distinctive direction as a seriously soulful jazz singer, and Live pulls together some of the finest moments from a 2008 European tour. Steve Gadd handled the drumming duties on the two studio albums and returns here, as Nicklas Sample replaces Christian McBride on acoustic bass.

Live albums of a concert you didn’t attend are a bit like looking at a friend’s vacation photos of somewhere you haven’t been, but everything that sounded good in the studio loses nothing on stage. From the opener “Every Day I Have the Blues” to the closer “Last Night at Danceland,” Crawford and company deliver the goods over an economical 49 minutes. There isn’t a dull moment on Live, but Crawford does herself proud on the Billie Holiday-written “Tell Me More and More and Then Some,” with Sample killing ’em softly as he solos. “This Bitter Earth,” “Me, Myself and I” and “No Regrets” are presented skilfully, playfully and brilliantly, with Gadd and Nicklas Sample providing solid support throughout.

Sample and Crawford have recently finished a tour in South Africa, but whether they plan to record again remains to be seen. If they don’t, then Live serves as an outstanding document of a glorious alliance.

Track Listing: Every Day I Have the Blues; Feeling Good; Tell Me More and More and Then Some; Rainy Night in Georgia; This Bitter Earth; Me, Myself and I; No Regrets; One Day I’ll Fly Away: Almaz; Street Life; Last Night at Danceland

Personnel: Randy Crawford; vocals; Joe Sample: piano; Steve Gadd: drums; Nicklas Sample: bass

Mr. Vaughn is a sharp dressed man.

Julian Vaughn: Breakthrough

Within the first 30 seconds of the stomping “On Your Feet,” the lead-off track on Breakthrough, it’s hard not to think, “Darned if this guy doesn’t sound just like Wayman Tisdale.” Hopefully Julian Vaughn will take the comparison as a compliment because his “lead bass” playing style is eerily reminiscent of Tisdale, who passed away in 2009.

The publicity notes for Vaughn’s third album say he “doesn’t try to be any other bassist than who he is.” That’s nice to say but as one of the producers is Darren Rahn, who collaborated with Tisdale, it isn’t a stretch to suggest that Vaughn, a Kansas City native, wasn’t ever so slightly influenced by Tisdale. Additionally, at a towering 6′ 7″ Vaughn is only an inch shorter than the former NBA power forward.

Breakthrough is calculated to make a splash on the charts and airwaves, not break any new ground. There is a cover of the R&B hit, “Rock Steady,” a few vocal tracks that are okay, nothing memorable though, and a lot party tunes that given Vaughn plenty of space to jam and riff for the sake of jamming and riffing. Most of it sounds pretty good even if it’s not terribly memorable.

The breakthrough here is Vaughn’s confidence as a player and how much he dominates the proceedings as the star of the show. The ranks of premier electric bassists in his field has thinned, since Stanley Clarke says he’s retired from the genre, Marcus Miller has one foot in the funk jazz genre, but is hardly wedded to it and Victor Wooten follows a uniquely eclectic muse which leaves the field wide open for Vaughn.

“Potential” is the heaviest word in the world because it means you haven’t done it yet. Vaughn is playing it cautiously and conservatively as he’s trying to leave a positive impression with the audience he’s aiming for and the current position of Breakthrough on the contemporary jazz charts indicates it was a savvy strategy.

Vaughn has demonstrated he has talent. Now he has to take on the next challenge of making himself stand out from the crowd by stepping off the path established by others and blaze his own trail.

Track Listing: On Your Feet; J’s Jammin; Ju Ju’s Groove; The Thought of You; Breakthrough; I’ll Do It; Be My Girl; Rock Steady; No Matter; Right On Time; Always Be Together.

Personnel: Julian Vaughn: lead bass, bass, keyboard bass; Ken Friend: bass; Darren Rahn: tenor sax, Wurlitzer, synthesizers, drum programming, additional guitar; Frank Selman: guitar; Anthony Jones: drums; Joey Woolfork: guitar; Nicholas Cole: piano; Jeremy Nixon; keyboards; Tobbi White-Darks: vocals; Marcus Anderson: saxophone; Anthony Saunders: vocals; Joey Woolfork: guitar; Josh Mayfield: drums; Jimmy Ellison: guitar; Matt Godina: guitar; Kinyon Price: Rhodes & strings; Paula Saunders: vocals

These reviews were originally published at All About Jazz.

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