Street life is the only life Judge Dan Mancini knows.
There's the sound of soul in the air.
In the early 1960s, pianist Joe Sample and tenor saxophonist Wilton Felder started a grooving hard bop combo called The Jazz Crusaders. Over the next decade, the band saw changes in its line-up and a musical evolution toward a funkier more electric sound. Dropping the "Jazz" from their name, Sample, Felder, and their cohorts became pioneers in jazz fusion. The music of The Crusaders was simpler, more pop influenced, and less interesting than that of The Jazz Crusaders, but still loaded with great playing. It was also more commercially successful, as the band's recordings regularly made their way onto jazz and R&B charts throughout the '70s. They released around 20 albums before they fizzled out in the early 1990s. The group made a brief comeback in 2003 as Sample and Felder teamed with guitarist Ray Parker Jr. to record Rural Renewal.
The Crusaders: Live at Montreux 2003 catches the band at the famed jazz festival during this period of revival. They swing and groove through tunes from Rural Renewal and '70s Crusader LPs like Street Life and Those Southern Knights, as well as offering up the Jazz Crusader standard "Way Back Home," and a few notable cover tunes. The band is simultaneously tight and loose (a trait more common among jazzmen than any other kind of musician), ripping through the tunes with virtuosic fire and confidence. The centerpiece of the set is a fine performance of "Way Back Home" that finds Felton blowing his heart out and Sample playing a mean Wurlitzer (but I say that as someone who'll take The Jazz Crusaders over The Crusaders any day of the week).
After tearing through a half-dozen extended instrumentals, the band is joined by singer Randy Crawford for a rendition of "Street Life," the jazz hit she recorded with The Crusaders in 1979. Her performance is full-throated and soulful. She hasn't lost a step. Crawford sticks around to add vocals to three more tunes: "Soul Shadows" from Sample's solo album of the same name, and covers of B.B. King's "The Thrill is Gone" and John Lennon's "Imagine." The show ends with Ray Parker Jr. leading the band through a surprisingly enjoyable performance of his theme from Ghostbusters, a song that, frankly, I thought I'd be content never to hear again.
If the show has a weakness it is Sample's long, dry, and occasionally rambling introductions to the songs—a jazz festival conceit that quickly wears thin in a home video presentation.
The Crusaders: Live at Montreux 2003 looks like it was shot on high definition video. The image is richly detailed and perfectly smooth; there isn't an iota of grain to be found. The transfer handles the extremes of the purple and blue gel lights without an ounce of bleed. Skin tones and other colors are accurately reproduced. The presentation is anamorphically enhanced 1.78:1 widescreen.
Three audio options are available. The best is a DTS surround mix with punchy bass and crystal clear treble. A Dolby 5.1 mix offers more midrange, but not quite enough low end. A Dolby stereo option is tepid and unsatisfying.
Fans of The Crusaders or jazz-fusion in general will dig what they find on Live at Montreux 2003. The band is confident and comfortable. While much of the performance relies on the simple joy of listening to a groove well played, there are enough moments of virtuoso playing to wow more demanding jazz heads.
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