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Paint the Town Blue

Jake Sampson
John Anderson

In Jake Sampson's hands, blues music is a many-shaded thing

By Nicky Baxter

THE FIRST THING that's noticeable about blues artist Jake Sampson's Three Shades of the Blues (LifeForce) is its expansive sonic palette. There are no clichés here; no dusty shuffles. What you hear instead is music that stretches the definition of the genre, challenging listeners to reconsider their preconceptions--which is precisely what Sampson wants us to do. As he puts it, "There's more to the blues than three chords."

Discovering those lost chords has exacted a price, however. Since migrating to the Bay Area from his native Detroit in the early 1980s, the singer-songwriter-bassist has found it rough going. "It's been tough to break in here," he reports from his Oakland home. "There were a lot of bands, but they were playing the same things, covering the same songs, and I wanted to do something different. I wanted to write my own music, which made it harder to fit in."

Jake Sampson still doesn't "fit in," but he has established himself in the East Bay and North Bay as a refreshing alternative to the status quo. Now he's determined to make believers out of San Jose's blues buffs.

Given that he comes from Detroit, it's hardly surprising Berry Gordy's Motown had a profound effect on Sampson's musical development. He cites bassist James Jamerson, Motown's unsung hero, as a particularly influential figure. "He gave me the idea of where I wanted to take my music," he allows. Like innumerable Motor City musicians, Sampson paid his dues playing in R&B groups opening for vocal groups like the Spinners. Sampson seemed destined to remain a soul rhythm ace until a blues organist blew through town and took Sampson with him. "We went down south to places like Tennessee and played, and the feeling of the music just stuck with me," he recalls.

Returning to Detroit, he found the musical scene moribund; Gordy had gone Hollywood, leaving behind a gaping void. Samson packed it in and set off for California.

Three Shades of the Blues pulls together everything Sampson has learned over the years. His bass playing suggests the subtle but powerful rumbling of Jamerson swathed in blues with a nod to the bassy organ-mashing popularized by "Brother" Jack McDuff. Stylistically, Shades covers a lot of ground, ranging from the rockin' rollin' beat of "Blues Time" to the slow-grinding "Standing in the Shadows." The kickoff track is a brassy romp through classic rhythm and blues. On the title track Sampson flaunts his grasp of alchemy, meshing jazzy ambiance with a touch of funk.

Sampson's vocals are agreeably understated; his smoky delivery comes across as seductive as a youthful Charles Brown. "I got the [album] title from my grandmother," Sampson reveals. "She used to say, 'There's more than one shade to the blues.' I'm trying to discover every one of them." You get the feeling Jake Sampson will succeed on his quest.

Jake Sampson plays Thu., July 31, at JJ's Blues, 3439 Stevens Creek Blvd., Santa Clara; 9pm; $12; 408/243-6441.

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