It was a honor and privilege for a jazz session player to appear on a Steely Dan album in the ’70s. Keyboardist Joe Sample and tenor saxophonist Wilton Felder each enjoyed that privilege themselves — Felder once on Pretzel Logic in 1974 and Sample twice with appearances on Aja in 1977 and Gaucho in 1980.
The music of Steely Dan — funky, rock-pop jazz — owes as much to a band like the Crusaders than jazz legends Duke Ellington and Thelonious Monk. Ellington and Monk are the usual suspects name-dropped in interviews with Dan members Donald Fagan and Walter Becker when they talk about the origins of their music.
But the fact is, there wasn’t much difference between the music of Steely Dan and the music of the Crusaders in the ’70s except for lyrics and vocals. The Crusaders — led by Sample and Felder since the band’s inception in the early ’60s — were an instrumental jazz/fusion/rock /pop/funk band that made stylish, snappy and lush records all through the Me decade.
And it seems the band has continued that trademark on their first new studio album in 20 years, Rural Renewal.
The sophisticated and catchy jazz chops of Sample, Felder and original Crusaders drummer Nesbert “Stix” Hooper on Rural Renewal showcase the band’s enduring influence, creativity and talent. The Crusaders have a lot to answer for when it comes to jazz music, jazz culture and jazz influence.
You could say the Crusaders are partially responsible for the music of Steely Dan, the dominance of Fender Rhodes electric piano in ’70s jazz fusion, the solo music of keyboardist Bob James and bands like Spyro Gyra and the Yellowjackets. But you could also say the Crusaders might be to blame for the Kenny G’s of the world and the popular but banal jazz genre known as “smooth jazz”.
But make no mistake. The Crusaders’ brand of jazz pop may be smooth sounding, but there’s nothing banal about it.
Sample, Felder, Hooper, and original Crusaders trombonist Wayne Henderson (Henderson opted out of the recent reunion) all hailed from Houston where they played together as teens in soul bands like the Swingsters. Later, they moved to Los Angeles in 1961 and renamed themselves the Jazz Crusaders. During that time, the band created a unique blend of soul and hard bop. But as the ’70s neared, Sample and the band fell in love with recording studio experimentation. That led to mixing more funk and rock into their brand of West Coast jazz. By 1971, the band dropped “Jazz” from their name and started playing around with more electric instruments — most notably Sample’s switch to the Fender Rhodes electric piano. The band also started recording with electric guitarist Larry Carlton, who became the band’s unofficial fifth member. As one music writer once put it, the Crusaders then created some of the best non-fusion fusion of the ’70s.
Although the Crusaders are an instrumental band, Rural Renewal includes two vocal songs — “A Healing Coming On” and “Sing the Song”. Gospel vocalist Donnie McClurkin sings beautiful lead on both cuts and the Sounds of Blackness actually give him background vocal support on “A Healing Coming On.” Steve Winwood co-lyricist Will Jennings wrote the songs with Sample. With the exception of those two songs, the other nine tunes on the album are pure and traditional Crusaders.
Carlton is absent from the reunion, so guitarists Ray Parker Jr. and Arthur Adams provide six-string support. Blues rock legend Eric Clapton plays acoustic lead guitar on the album’s title cut and then Clapton does his best Curtis Mayfield imitation on “Creepin'”.
“Heartland”, written by Felder, features his lush tenor sax playing and soulful piano from Sample. “Shotgun House Groove” has the album’s funkiest guitar playing. “The Territory” sounds like an outtake from Donald Fagan’s first solo album, The Nightfly. “Viva De Funk” steals the Doobie Brothers rhythm guitar intro from “Listen to the Music” while creating a soothing palette for Felder’s sax soloing and room for Sample’s delicate electric piano tinkling. “Lazy Sundays” sounds like Earth, Wind and Fire at their creative peak. It’s no mistake that the Crusaders are one of the many important influences on EWF’s late ’70s output.
Simply stated, Rural Renewal is a gorgeous, spiritual and magical musical modern jazz reunion for the Crusaders. The only thing I can’t figure out is one half of the title. Since this is a musical reunion, the word renewal makes since. But there’s nothing rural about the Crusaders or their sound. The music of the Crusaders defines everything that is contemporary and urban. Whenever I hear the music of the Crusaders, I can almost see the night skyline of Manhattan in my mind.