In the '90s, things became complicated for the Crusaders fans. Keyboardist Joe Sample, and tenor saxman Wilton Felder, recorded 1991's Healing the Wounds as the Crusaders for GRP, and the mid- to late-'90s found Felder and trombonist Wayne Henderson recording for various indie labels as the Jazz Crusaders (despite Sample's objections to their use of that name). Then, in 2002, Sample, Felder and drummer Stix Hooper reunited as the Crusaders -- not the Jazz Crusaders -- and recorded Rural Renewal for Verve. Henderson is the only original member who is absent on this CD, which is surprisingly solid. Because the Crusaders/Jazz Crusaders have been in a state of uncertainly since the '80s and recorded their share of uneven, disappointing albums, one greets Rural Renewal with a certain amount of trepidation. But this release is a pleasant surprise -- in fact, it is arguably the most consistent album that the improvisers have recorded in at least 20 years. And one man who can take some of the credit for that is producer Stewart Levine, who the group worked with extensively back in the '70s. Levine is obviously a positive influence on Rural Renewal, which finds Sample, Felder, and Hooper offering an inspired dose of fusion and jazz-funk. Thankfully, Levine lets the soloists have plenty of room to stretch out. Improvisation is a big no-no on smooth jazz/NAC stations, but this 2002 edition of the Crusaders doesn't pander to radio -- instead, spontaneity prevails for Sample, Felder, and Hooper, as well as trombonist Steve Baxter, Ray Parker Jr. (guitar) and special guest Eric Clapton (who plays guitar on two tracks). Rural Renewal falls short of essential, but it's still a welcome addition to their catalog.
AllMusic Review by Alex Henderson
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