The Crusaders 2003 album “Rural Renewal” on the legendary jazz record label Verve, marked a reunion of three of the four major principals of the mighty groups original lineup, drummer “Stix” Hooper, Tenor Saxophonist and bassist Wilton Felder, and the recently deceased great pianist and composer, Joe Sample. The only memeber who did not join them was trombonist Wayne Henderson, who passed in early 2014. Henderson would again join the group around 2010 for concert appearances. The Crusaders, just as they’d done in years past with great musicians such as Leon “Ndugu” Chancelor, Larry Carlton, “Pops” Popwell, Barry Finnerty, Randy Crawford, Paulino DaCosta and many other excellent players, buttressed the core lineup with great musicians. Freddy Washington, the bass player who co wrote Patrice Rushen’s “Forget Me Nots” participated on bass, the great Ray Parker Jr took over the standard guitar chair, and Steve Baxter came in on trombone, allowing the group to recapture its original sound of tenor sax and trombone playing in unison. Stewart Levine, the producer for the groups ’70s run is the producer here as well. Two songs on the album also feature the guitar talents of Eric Clapton, one called “Creepin”, and today’s Friday Funk song which ushers in the period of Scorpio, called “Rural Renewal.”
The song begins with the eerie tones of Joe Sample’s Wurlitzer electric piano. Sample is one of the pianists most identified with the Fender Rhodes electric piano, but he has been known to use the bite that the Wurlitzer provides as well. The Wurlitzer is well known for its eerie tone as demonstrated on classics such as Marvin Gaye’s “I Heard it Through the Grapevine.” Here, Sample plays a strong bass note along with a melody and chords in his right hand. Sample’s piano intro is backed up soley by “Stix” Hooper’s drums, and he plays his trademark jazz/latin meets funk and disco pulse, with a syncopated kick drum, cross sticks on the snares, and his dancing, straight but somehow swinging hi hats. After they go through the intro a couple of times the whole band kicks in with the type of hard, stomping Bayou/southewestren funk groove they rode to success and acclaim.
The guitars, bass, and electric keyboards all play off the same swamp groove, creating a sense of propulsion. This full band sound is almost like a tease though, after they go through it once around, the composition returns to the eeriness of Sample and Hooper playing together. The next time the full groove comes back, Eric Clapton is added, playing his fills and soloing over the groove. In a real humurous jazz quotation, Sample plays a riff almost like Claptons most famous, “Layla”. The “Layla” style riff, which comes from the blues anyway, sets up the intro of the horn line of Felder on sax and Baxter on ‘bone, which I love because it rekindles the sound of Felder and Henderson. The band grooves with Clapton and the horns playing around each other.
After that the song reaches its chorus section, with the horns playing a part that is built off the main groove as well, although with more space in it. The chorus section might be the most stomp down Crusaders sounding section of the whole, very “Crusaders” sounding piece. After that chorus the arrangement goes right back to Sample’s tumbleweeds and candlelight electric piano groove.
Clapton plays a very tasty and stinging blues solo on acoustic guitar, even incorporating some of the hard double stops of Johnny “Guitar” Watson. After another electric piano breakdown, Sample comes in with a very funky solo on acoustic piano, going back to that barrellhouse sound he got on Crusaders songs such as “Greasy Spoon” from “Southern Comfort.”
Of course, it wouldn’t be a Crusaders song without a solo from Wilton Felder. Mr. Felder plays some of his trademark phrases, which combine both a funky rhythmic sense, very peppy and energizing, along with his great patented tone. The song coasts out on an extended groove section in which Clapton gets space to cut up a little bit more.
“Rural Renewal” represented a rebirth of The Crusaders. While they still did not put out an album a year as in their ’70s heyday, it did lead the way to future concert appearances featuring various members of the original band, in concert with Ray Parker Jr and Freddy Washington. The title of the song and the spooky country funk vibe reminds me of the many older people I knew from the Bay Area who retired back down south in the 1990s through the ’00s. Of course in the ’60s, “Urban Renewal” was the phrase used to describe one anti poverty program after another. By the ’00s things had changed, with older black people in particular seeing a return south as a way to get more for their dollar and also to enjoy another standard of life. Joe Sample himself was an example of this, relocating down to Texas in his last decade, going back home. This song, the reunion of Hooper, Sample and Felder with their producer Levine, and even the presence of an excellent guest guitarist like Eric CLapton represent the Crusaders figuratively and literally going, as Wilton Felder once wrote, “Way Back Home.” From the funk on this song and album? They demonstrate that it is possible to go back home every once in a while.