JAZZ Joe Sample, Jazz Cafe, London

Nick Coleman drank in the eclectic sound of the Texan pianist's subtle funk

The words "elegant" and "funky" don't splice well. One is biological in implication - in Creole, to funk is to pong - while the dictionary definition of elegant is "pleasing to good or fastidious taste". Together, they make the sort of oxymoron you get in estate agents' brochures.

Still, there's no avoiding the issue. The music of Joe Sample, pianist and musical hub of Texan fusion institution the Crusaders, is both funky and elegant, and so strenuously contained that loud language ought not to do. That kind of discourse can be left to Sample himself, who turned up in Camden in an unseasonal shirt and behaved for the most part like a lion with sore whiskers.

"This one's to demonstrate how screwed up the Eighties were," he roared to introduce the one unrestrained piece of the evening, "Egomania Mambo". He followed that with an anecdote about voodoo magicians in his native Frenchtown rolling bones to fool patronising speculators into drilling oil holes in places where there is no oil. "I wanted to call this one 'Bones Bullshit'," he yelled, "but you can't call a song 'Bones Bullshit', so I called it 'Bones Jive'."

In fact, you could call a song that if you were in, say, Sham 69. But Joe Sample is in the Crusaders and writes music that boils the traditions of African-American music down into an elegantly funky yet potent residue. The big name-checks on his new album, Old Places, Old Faces, are for Clifton Chenier, Louis Armstrong and Fats Domino, but the feeling in the vapour arising from its nubby themes is predominantly that of John Coltrane, the avatar of avant-garde jazz in early-Sixties modal mode. So "Bones Jive" it is, then, and a fine, rolling credit-scroll of a piece it makes.

The trio at the Jazz Cafe was completed by a brace of New Yorkers: Jay Anderson on bass and Lenny Castro, in an arbour of drums, cymbals and things that go zing. Between the three of them they delivered a desperately close ensemble set that seldom sped but always seemed loaded up with torque. Sample's is music of tension and release, pulse and detonation; music not to be exhibited so much as transmitted by traction with the elements. Hence, perhaps, Anderson's schematic approach to his bass parts. He plays funk lines, he salsas, he blues-walks; he rarely moves off line. Castro and Sample do that, the former with splashes, trills and interesting popping sounds; his leader with the most generously subtle touch in his field.

They cruised the back catalogue for an hour before getting on to the new album. But it was an ancient standard, "Stormy Weather", that had an old Jamaican at the back gasping and going through his repertoire of gravelly advocations. "Yes, Joe. Play it," he snorted, not over a sumptuous run at the tinkly end of the keyboard but at one sudden dying cadence, mid-range, that came and went, almost imperceptibly, like a bird falling in the distance.

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