Groove Crusade is a smoking little sampling of the Crusaders recordings from 1970-1979. It is a compilation of tunes assembled from the beginning of the period where they dropped the word "Jazz" from the front of their name as a reaction to the harsh words the band received from jazz critics throughout the 1960s. Long before the tracks on this comp appeared, in what are now regarded as legendary live dates recorded at the Lighthouse in California, this West Coast group (by way of Texas, where four of them grew up playing together) called the Jazz Crusaders were instrumental in the creation of what we now call soul-jazz. In the early '60s, the quintet was regarded as a hard bop unit; but that description didn't fit so well because the compositions and arrangements concentrated on what would accent their unique combination of jazz, blues, gospel, and soul. The Crusaders' sound was a deep emotional music that didn't rely so much on player's soloing chops (though all of them are great soloists), but rather on the total feel produced by the group. They were regarded with hostility and/or dismissed by many "important" critics during the decade -- bop and hard bop fans at the time were as conservative, if not more as folk revival "aficionados." The music made by the Crusaders was considered lightweight, even simple (because it communicated so directly to the listening audience. Many of these same, old-guard folks disliked another Texan named Ornette Coleman during the late '50s and early '60s for different reasons.)
The 11 tunes included on Groove Crusade focus on the Crusaders at the peak of their popularity during the '70s. It showcases their deft, sophisticated, and inclusive musical approach as well as their collective creative imagination. Groove Crusade is sequenced by feel, not by chronological order, and it's a stunner from start to finish. The first Crusaders album, 1 netted the band precious radio air play on stations that had previously eluded them; but more than that, it got them air play on burgeoning FM rock & roll and progressive AM soul stations. Pianist Joe Sample's "Put It Where You Want It," and "Don't Let It Get You Down," are excellent examples of a seamless yet down-home slippery, relaxed, emotional kind of jazzy funk. These tracks are the lead-off cuts to 1 and 1971's 2nd Crusade. With guitarist Larry Carlton added to the fold (he also played on the debut Steely Dan offering Can't Buy a Thrill) they were unstoppable. (Interestingly, neither of these albums were available on CD in America until 2004.) Dig into saxophonist Wilton Felder's more elaborate "Way Back Home," which comes from the Hollywood LP and pushes the groove a little bit harder. The legendary "Street Life," from the 1979 album of the same name was written by Sample and Will Jennings, and sung by soul vocalist Randy Crawford. It was a smash hit during the disco era, but there's so much happening in the mix that it can't be called strictly disco. The title tracks from Chain Reaction and Scratch (the latter is the band's first live album with the new lineup) are both here and they're killer, as are subsequent selections from albums that chart the band's evolution into funkier territory -- without ever losing their emotional impact: just check Felder's "Creole" (from Chain Reaction) and trombonist Wayne Henderson's title composition for Scratch as proof. Thankfully, drummer Stix Hooper's wonderful "Greasy Spoon" from Southern Comfort is included here, too. There are a pair of tracks from Free as the Wind -- the band's first complete immersion in funk from 1976 -- the title written by Sample, and Hooper's nasty "I Felt the Love." Recordings not represented here are 1975's brilliant studio offering Those Southern Knights, 1976's Live: Midnight Triangle, and 1978's Images; but that's fine because the point gets made -- it's all about feel, remember?. The disc closes on the original 12-minute studio reading of Carole King's beautiful "So Far Away." It brings the song's deep soul up and out from the heart and take it into the world -- without a word being uttered. Groove Crusade may have been assembled by Universal as just another quick, cheap, and dirty compilation. But it doesn't sound like one. In fact, with the remastered sound and excellent selection of material, Groove Crusade is more than just a great listen; it may be the definitive introduction to the Crusaders in the '70s.