Even longtime fans of Joe Sample don't normally associate the music he wrote and played with Caribbean and Latin rhythms. That said, Children of the Sun, commissioned by and recorded with the NDR Bigband, is drenched in them. The album's inspiration dates back to 1995 when Sample played a date at the St. Croix Jazz Festival. He spent some time on the island afterward and did some hiking. He was struck by the contrast between its gorgeous scenery and its notorious history as part of the "Middle Passage" in the slave trade triangle between Africa and the New World: "This seemingly idyllic place had been an island of suffering and torment, floating in a blue abyss…." Shortly after leaving St. Croix, ideas for melodies and themes began to come to him. Sample wrote them down and let them gestate until he received an invitation from trombonist Nils Landgren to write for the NDRB. Landgren is featured as a soloist, and the mighty Steve Gadd was enlisted to play drums on the date. Sample's grooving' Trinidadian folk melody creates the set's theme on opener "I Wanna Go Home," but Afro-Cuban montunos grace his playing on "Buttermilk Sky" (not the Hoagy Carmichael nugget), which contrasts with the trombonist's low-end soloing. While "Islands of the Mind" commences as a nearly cinematic theme with lush brass and wind harmonics, it gives way to an intimate, soulful, bluesy fingerpopper with Sample's piano at the forefront. "Gold in the Cane," despite its brooding solo piano intro, is a breezy merengue with gorgeous interplay written into the horn and wind charts. There is a simmering samba tinge in "I Believe In," with a lovely clarinet solo by Gabriel Coburger. The title track weaves soul-gospel and blues with Caribbean motifs, while "Blue Skies" is a remarkable midtempo showcase for both Sample and Gadd; they lock on and swing mightily. Closer "Albatross Day" is a highlight that offers a striking portrait of why the NDR Bigband is one of the brightest units on the scene, with their gorgeous tones, unshakeable time, and enough languid elasticity to offer pianist, trombonist, and Coburger's tenor a setting for their lithe grooves. True to its inspiration, the striking contrast between beauty and pain is captured perfectly on Children of the Sun; it is easily the most ambitious recording in Sample's vast catalog, which is no mean feat. The bittersweet coda here is that he passed away months before it was finally picked up for North American distribution. This is a testament to his legacy as one of mainstream jazz's finest composers during the last half-century, and to his prodigious gifts as pianist and arranger.
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AllMusic Review by Thom Jurek