Joe Sample has spent so many years pursuing easy-to-play, easy-to-hear pop instrumentals that it's easy to forget just how good a jazz pianist he can be. He reminds us on his new solo-piano album, "Soul Shadows," which reveals the same knotty rhythmic invention that once made his original band, the Jazz Crusaders, so interesting in the 1960s.
Where his 1993 performance of "Summertime" (available on "Invitation" and "The Best of Joe Sample") was all shallow sentiment and frilly embellishment, for example, his 2004 rendition of another Gershwin ballad, "Embraceable You," is charged with genuine romanticism, the battle between doubt and desire played out in telling pauses and darting tangents.
"Soul Shadows" contains 10 numbers written before 1943, and two of them are pre-jazz ragtime tunes -- Scott Joplin's "The Entertainer" and the less well-known but just as infectious "How You Gonna Keep 'Em Down on the Farm?," a 1919 hit for the unjustly forgotten James Reese Europe. The latter piece reflects Sample's recent research into the origins of jazz and proves a great vehicle for his command of syncopation and dynamics.
That rag-inspired ability to push and pull at the expected beat and to make the piano whisper and shout carries over into the three songs associated with Fats Waller; the two written by Gershwin; the ones penned by Jelly Roll Morton, Duke Ellington and Al Jolson; and even the two by Sample himself.
-- Geoffrey Himes
Appearing Sunday at the Birchmere. * To hear a free Sound Bite from Joe Sample, call Post-Haste at 301-313-2200 and press 8108. (Prince William residents, call 703-690-4110.)