The Crusaders: 'Groove playing - it's the most difficult thing to do, man!'

Jazz-funk is the grandaddy of today's coolest music and The Crusaders were leaders in the field. Phil Johnson gets that same old feeling
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Jazz-funk is the musical subculture that time forgot. If it's remembered at all from its heyday in the mid-Seventies to the mid-Eighties it's inevitably in

Jazz-funk is the musical subculture that time forgot. If it's remembered at all from its heyday in the mid-Seventies to the mid-Eighties it's inevitably in

the context of one or more of the following: Essex, Ford Escorts, TurtleWax, white socks, tasselled loafers, and Level 42. This is so unfair. While punk rock and the New Romantics got great publicity for terrible, lumpen music, jazz-funk got no publicity at all, at least not outside of the black music press and Radio 1's Robbie Vincent show, once an essential Sunday night rendezvous for soul boys and girls.

It was also a subculture well ahead of its time, although there are late retorts even now, with a re-gathering of the clans each time Roy Ayers plays Ronnie Scott's. Genuinely multi-ethnic, with a large Asian and black following, jazz-funk was the only musical cult apart from 2-Tone to attract anyone other than disaffected white youths in search of strange hairstyles. And what has been its reward? That's right: the widespread acceptance, via television's Seinfeld, of the slap-bass solo into mainstream popular culture.

The unacknowledged influence of jazz-funk has been huge: acid jazz, instrumental dance music, ambient house, "intelligent" drum'n'bass, chill-out music, hip-hop backing tracks; none of it would sound the same without the re-processing of old jazz-funk grooves. And that's just the good stuff. Dreadful new age muzak and anodyne smooth jazz have a big debt to pay too, which might explain why old fans can be rather shy when it comes to admitting their past enthusiasms. Even so, DJ Goldie, the composer Mark Anthony Turnage, and Cold Feet's John Thompson have all owned up recently, and while talk of a jazz-funk revival might be premature, there are signs: the entire catalogue of CTI Records is being released on CD by Sony, and the genre's best ever group, The Crusaders, have just reformed and made their first album for 20 years.

But to avoid confusion, we need to define terms. To begin with, jazz-funk is an entirely different beast to jazz-rock or other forms of jazz-fusion. According to Jon Newey, editorial director of Jazzwise, "The difference boils down to two words: James Brown." While jazz-rock attracted mainly white musicians with a leaning towards all things prog, jazz-funk was the province of mainly black musicians who'd cocked an ear to JB and fellow funkateers like Sly Stone and Graham Central Station (led by Larry Graham, inventor of Seinfeld's signature sound).

So, while jazz-rock sounds angular, jagged and disjointed, jazz-funk favours smooth and subtle repetitions of the same basic musical material: in other words, the groove. Jazz-funk is music to dance and make love to; try either activity to a soundtrack of jazz-rock, and those sudden shifts of time and key might well undo you.

While the "electric" Miles Davis bestrides both sides of this divide, he's not strictly jazz-funk either. What we're talking about is more the meeting point of jazz and Rhythm and Blues, a territory staked out by Louis Jordan in the 1940s. It's generally the music of honest artisans rather than born geniuses or stars; of the ensemble rather than the soloist, and of an appeal to the body and the soul rather than the mind. While proper jazz is at least partly cerebral, jazz-funk is corporeal; it speaks to the gut, as true funk should.

"The whole jazz fusion thing was just the opposite to our approach," says Joe Sample of The Crusaders, speaking about the reasons why the group haven't recorded for two decades. "I'd hear Return to Forever – Chick Corea you know? – trying to see how fast they could play, and that was very un-Crusader like. To me that is not as thrilling, or as pretty, as the puzzle of groove-playing together. And so many critics believe groove playing is unimportant; but that's the most difficult thing to do, man! It's a feeling, it's intangible; you can't write it on a piece of paper, or talk about it, it's a mystery. And that's what we had to learn to do; we were a groove machine, man. It was the highest form of musical education."

The machine learned to groove back in east Texas, where pianist Sample, saxophonist Wilton Felder, trombonist Wayne Henderson, and drummer Stix Hooper formed a band together as teenagers. "And that's the roots of Crusaders music. It's not black urban music; there's nothing city-slick about what we do. It's a combination of south-east Texas and Louisiana roots, the Texas delta. That's where our music was born, and you hear that Creole sense throughout Crusaders' music, like the second line rhythm in New Orleans or the boogaloo beat you get with every bongo rhythm on every Motown record."

Sample blames the break-up of the Crusaders – and, implicitly, of the original jazz-funk style – on a developing star system among musicians. "In the 1980s, even bass players became soloists, or thought they were. But in order to be a Crusader, you had to be a part of the whole. It turned into a field of conflict, in performance and in the studio. You couldn't wait for the tour to end, because it would just get worse. I have fired guys from bandstands, telling them 'Don't come back tomorrow!', because they are trying to destroy everything you have tried to do. Eventually, it gets to the ranks of The Crusaders, and there can be seething anger on stage."

Continuing resentments mean that the reunited Crusaders are still without one of their founder members, Wayne Henderson. Sample says that if they tour, it will also be without drummer Stix Hooper. At the end of our meeting I tell the charming Mr Sample how much I love my favourite Crusaders song, "Keep That Same Old Feeling", and he is non-commital in reply. It's only when I look at the album that I see it's one of Wayne Henderson's numbers. The jazz-funk revival isn't going to happen overnight.

'Rural Renewal' by The Crusaders (Universal) is out on 19 May

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