Nostalgia was the key to the European tour that Joe Sample and Randy Crawford brought to a close in London at the weekend. Nostalgia for Crawford's glorious, rich vocals that can bear the exposure of being accompanied only by a piano trio, even in as large a venue as the Hammersmith Apollo. Nostalgia, too, for the sparkling, succinct style that has led numerous pop and funk keyboardists to study closely Sample's economic piano solos.
The two worked together most famously on 1979's "Street Life", the biggest hit for Sample's band The Crusaders, while the pianist returned the favour by writing the gorgeous "One Day I'll Fly Away" for Crawford's album Now We May Begin the following year. Both have long operated at the intersection of soul and jazz, producing music that is glossy enough to be commercially viable, but which still rests on the strength of simple, effective song-writing.
These were two old friends reminiscing, playing through the songbook of their time, from "Rio de Janeiro Blue", to "Everybody's Talking" from the film Midnight Cowboy.
Crawford was on magnificent form, her vocals characterised by a clarity of diction that eludes so many younger singers. Full-bodied notes became shaded with huskiness, and then moved to a papery smoothness, phrases often ending with a feathery tremolo.
A number such as "Street Life" is so associated with the searing tenor sax of Wilton Felder and Larry Carlton's skittering guitar that it seemed improbable an acoustic quartet could carry it off. But Sample led the double bass and drums through a tight, pared-down riff, and Crawford soared above the trio.
After the performance, some felt that the pianist had opted for a jazz feel with his trio and failed. It's true that he didn't provide the fuller support that someone like Kenny Barron would have done. But that's not what Sample does. What he doesn't play sounds as loudly as what he does. Here, it only served to shine the spotlight more firmly on his singing partner. Quibbles about Sample's performance might be scotched if they come back for a residency at a more intimate venue like Ronnie Scott's.