In the late 50’s, Texas Southern University gave rise to one of jazz’s most innovative and legendary groups ever when pianist Joe Sample and his friends, saxophonist Wilton Felder and drummer Stix Hooper met trombonist Wayne Henderson and formed The Swingsters – which became the Modern Jazz Sextet and then the Jazz Crusaders. They cemented their place in jazz history in the 60’s with a fusion of hard bop and soul, and then shifted gears into a jazz funk style throughout the 70s and beyond, when they were known as The Crusaders. Sample, Felder and Henderson are no longer with us, but their legacy and trademark vibe fusing powerhouse melodies, R&B grooves and jazz improvisation are alive and well, thanks to the dynamic emerging five piece contemporary jazz band RADS Krusaders. The ensemble’s explosive, multi-faceted new album Going Way Back Home is a follow-up to their well received 2013 debut In Session.
Though they originally performed around the greater Houston area as a group called At Its Peak, the second half of their unique moniker ties their music to the enduring inspiration of The Crusaders while the first is an acronym of the names of the four original members: “King” Rick Owens (vocals, trombone), Nic Allen (vocalist, bassist), Yul “Quick Time” Dorn (percussion) and Mark Scurlock, Jr. (woodwinds, vocals). All of the members of RADS began their musical journeys at TSU, just as the original members of the Jazz Crusaders did in the late 50’s.
Together, they fashion an expansive range of fresh musical concepts, sonic effects, a mix of vocal and instrumental R&B/jazz styles and a forward thinking, 21st Century approach to the classic styles recorded and performed for decades by The Crusaders. Though “Crusaders Overture,” the multi-movement expository opening track on Going Way Back Home, includes the new band’s takes on snippets of three Crusaders’ classics, the other eight full tracks are a mix of originals and re-imaginings of classic R&B hits by Marvin Gaye (“I Want You”) and The O’Jays (“Use Ta Be My Girl”).
RADS Krusaders didn’t simply begin with the blessing of Joe Sample – he helped put the group together in 2013. Three years earlier, the pianist received an Honorary Doctorate of Letters from Texas Southern, and he returned in 2012 to teach the TSU Jazz Orchestra Project masters course. This led to the creation of the Joe Sample Jazz Orchestra, whose members included Allen (one of its conductors) and Owens. Sample, who died in 2014, put the band together with students selected by Allen and Owen. He began to mentor these musicians with several rehearsals, song structure and key practice techniques. Another key band mentor is Horace Alexander Young, Director of Jazz Studies at TSU and principal conductor of the Joe Sample Jazz Orchestra.
Writing about the group, Sample said, “When I accepted the position at Texas Southern University I aimed to teach students the art form of playing and recording music at a high level. The students who became RADS Krusaders, opened their hearts and ears to what I needed to share with them from my experience and point of view. The hard work these guys developed in their performance, compositions/arrangements and personality allowed me to appreciate teaching, and it was a lot of fun. It’s a new evolution of ideas towards the Crusaders music and I’m proud to have been a part of such creativity, and not alone, keeping that energy and sound alive.”
Allen also gives a shout out to Henderson, Felder and longtime Crusaders associate, legendary flutist Hubert Laws, who were all tremendously supportive of RADS Krusaders and came to the studio during the recording of their first album.
In the summer of 2013, the band was hired to be mentors, arrangers and provide all the live music as the house band for a TV pilot show called “Houston’s Got Talent,” hosted by Antoinette Robinson. While performing over the years at many high-profile private parties – including “Night of Jazz,” sponsored by Shell Corp. – RADS Krusaders has also performed at the Taste of New Orleans Festival (put on by the Zulu Association), the 90.9 KTSU radio station festival in Houston, the Lake Charles Jazz Festival and the International Jazz Festival of Houston. Allen says, “The best part of our shows is receiving the energy from our audiences. We love it when people are dancing and truly engaging themselves in the music we’re playing. Instead of looking at us as an art form, they look at us as a fun form of art. They appreciate the way we dance onstage when we play, and our ability to provide entertainment value as well as incredible music. We like to say, ‘We can bop you to death, but we choose not to.’”
Nic Allen invokes Joe Sample’s hilarious bluntness when he recalls that the legendary pianist basically coined two phrases for RADS Krusaders which have guided the quintet ever since: “I need you all with the Crusaders groove, and do not F*** up my groove”. On Going Way Back Home, the group’s first album since Sample’s passing, they honor their mentor’s request, keeping the Crusaders’ influence prominent while developing their own fresh approach to contemporary jazz. Their first album was titled In Session because it was more of an exploration of what they could do with the groove; this one acknowledges, as one of the titles says, that they have “Big Shoes to Walk In,” and they fill them with great chops, rich melodies and harmonies and of course, intensely cool, often swinging rhythms.
The opening track “Crusaders Overture” is a medley of a spoken word mission statement (“Let’s go Krusaders!”) and artfully quoting musical passages from the Crusaders’ classics “Cosmic Reign,” “Way Back Home” and “Street Life.” “Big Shoes…” offers an easy swinging trombone and sax blending to create a silky melody that soars over jangling guitars and a deeply percussive groove. Named for Sample’s initials, “JLS” is a direct tribute starting with a mystical musical intro and spoken word poetry about a fancy dance about music; it evolves into a slow burning ballad with intense electric guitar jamming and tight horns. The sultry vocal ballad “Universal Pain” shows of RADS’ ample vocal talents in an anthem setting reminiscent of the Crusaders’ socially conscious anthems. Veteran Houston based pianist and longtime Sample associate Skip Nalia tackles the stunning piano melodies on two of the album’s jazziest tracks, “Off Shore” (which moves from ambient to swinging) and “Far From Home,” which swings from the get go and features some of Owens’ and Scurlock’s most dynamic sax-trombone interactions.
FROM THE BEGINNING
The “story behind the story” of how RADS Krusaders came to be starts in 2013 with Sample’s annual concert with the Joe Sample Youth Orchestra to raise money for Catholic schools in the region. He wanted to gather the original Crusaders to perform for the occasion, but Felder and Henderson were not available. Sample turned to his big band, and his obvious choices for fill-ins were Allen and Owens. Allen, who graduated from TSU in the 90s, had a long history with the pianist that included working on his albums The Pecan Tree. Impressed with what he heard, Sample had an important conversation with Allen and Owens, and the three decided to put together a new band, hand selecting other musicians enrolled at TSU. After paring down the lineup from six to five and some early turnover, the final ensemble took shape.
Unlike the Crusaders, who all hailed from Houston, the members of RADS Krusaders all hail from different places. Richard P. Owens (Chicago) has shared the stage with jazz and blues legends Frank Foster, Frank West, Von Freeman, Kurt Elling, Buddy Guy and John Faddis. Prior to his move from New Orleans to Beaumont, TX as an engineer, Nic Allen was performing and recording as a tuba player with the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, New Wave Brass Band and The Paulin Brothers Jazz Band. He has also toured and/or guested with Norah Jones, Donald Harrison, Irvin Mayfield and Rafael Saddiq. Yul Dorn, Jr. (San Francisco) has made guest appearances with Grammy winning saxophonist Kirk Whalum and rap duo Digable Planets. Mark Scurlock, Jr.’s (Mississippi) smooth R&B sax sound has been cultivated in performances with national and local artists including Whalum and Joe Carmouche.
“Asked what he likes most about Going Way Back Home, Nic Allen replies simply, ‘It’s a great album to sit back and listen to or get up and dance to. I like the variety of music we play on it, which showcases the versatility of where we can go as a group.’ And that’s the key to the band and this compelling recording infused with jazz, R&B/soul, swing, funk, spoken word sultriness and atmospheric magic. The band’s provocative name, and the promotional materials used to market them to the world, will always invoke The Crusaders and the band’s origins with Joe Sample. Yet everything they do with that similar lineup - centered on jazzy-funky piano, intense grooves and swinging swagger and the sizzling duality of sax and trombone – is focused on bringing originality and fresh, exciting compositions and arrangements to a new generation. The origin story of RADS Krusaders is fascinating, but, with the release of Going Way Back Home, they’re firmly their own band now and all eyes are on what they are going to inspire us with in the future.”