Remembering Dave Samuels


Dave Samuels (1948–2019)

(Photo: DownBeat Archives)

Dave Samuels, a master mallet player whose primary instruments were vibraphone and marimba, died on April 22 in New York City, following a long illness. He was 70.

A recipient of Grammy and Latin Grammy awards, Samuels had a long association with the band Spyro Gyra, and he was a co-founder of The Caribbean Jazz Project, as well as several other groups, including Double Image, Gallery and the Skylight Trio.

During his long career, Samuels collaborated with a vast array of musicians, including Chet Baker, Carla Bley, Billy Cobham, Freddy Cole, the Fantasy Band, Art Garfunkel, Stan Getz, Christian Howes, Bruce Hornsby, Bob James, Paul McCandless, Pat Metheny, Gerry Mulligan, Gerry Niewood, Oscar Peterson, Diane Schuur, Nestor Torres, Yellowjackets and Frank Zappa.

Founded in 1993, The Caribbean Jazz Project initially featured Samuels, reedist Paquito D’Rivera and steel pan player Andy Narell. D’Rivera and Narell would eventually leave the group, and Samuels became its leader.

The CJP’s 2002 disc, The Gathering (featuring Samuels and flutist Dave Valentin), won a Grammy in the category Best Latin Jazz Album.

The CJP’s 2008 release, Afro Bop Alliance—which included standards as well as Samuels’ original compositions—won a Latin Grammy award in the category Best Latin Jazz Album.

Samuels’ involvement with Spyro Gyra spanned from 1977 to 1994, and he appeared on 20 of the band’s recordings, including the 1993 album Dreams Beyond Control, which reached No. 6 on the Billboard Jazz Albums chart and which included Samuels’ composition “Bahia.”

Additionally, Samuels contributed to one of Spyro Gyra’s biggest airplay successes, playing marimba and steel drums on the title track to the 1979 album Morning Dance. The song reached No. 24 on the Billboard Hot 100 pop singles chart.

As a solo artist, Samuels’ discography includes One Step Ahead (1980), Natural Selection (1991) and Synergy With Samuels (1994), among others.

An in-demand session musician, Samuels played on jazz singer Nancy Wilson’s album Turned To Blue (2006), which won a Grammy in the category Best Jazz Vocal Album.

Another noteworthy recording was Samuels’ salute to one of his vibraphone heroes—Tjader-ized: A Tribute To Cal Tjader, released by Verve in 1998. Among the contributors to that disc were Valentin (flute), Eddie Palmieri (piano), Ray Barretto (congas), David Sánchez (tenor saxophone) and Steve Khan (acoustic guitar).

Samuels enjoyed a long musical partnership with fellow mallet instrumentalist David Friedman, with whom he founded The Mallet Duo and the band Double Image. At the time that Friedman and Samuels were profiled in journalist Herb Nolan’s article “Two-Man Percussion Crusade” in the Dec. 2, 1976, issue of DownBeat, the pair had recorded the album Winter Love, April Joy, and a follow-up, Futures Past, was slated for release.

Winter Love, April Joy featured Friedman and Samuels playing vibraphone, marimba and bass marimba. Nolan described the LP as “a record of tremendous lyrical and emotional depth.”

Samuels told DownBeat that he and Friedman were on a mission to shine a bright spotlight on mallet instruments. “They really have had very little impact in the past 20 years,” Samuels said. “They’ve been present and there have been individuals who have brought the vibes to prominence on occasion, but the truth is the instrument is not functioning in the music scene as much as it should be. There is no reason why it can’t.”

Samuels added, “To expose the vibes, we have to cover all the areas; I mean, doing concerts, clinics, giving lessons, doing lectures—it’s all part of the basic goal, which is to get people to play the instrument.”

Samuels also was an acclaimed author and educator. Among the books he wrote are Contemporary Vibraphone Technique: A Musical Approach (two volumes) and Afro-Cuban Big Band Play-Along, an instruction manual with an accompanying CD.

He taught at Berklee College of Music (in 1972–’74, and then rejoined the faculty in 1995) and New England Conservatory, both in Boston.

In Mark Small’s 2003 article “Remaining in the Fold” (published on the Berklee website), Samuels, who was an associate professor at the school at the time, discussed his formative experiences playing jazz. “I learned to improvise the way most of the earlier jazz artists did,” he said. “I learned what I could and then just went out and played. Today we have a very organized system taught here at Berklee, but before Berklee or other music schools from any era, people learned by apprenticing. Although I took some music courses in college, I basically learned by listening, transcribing and asking other musicians about what they were doing.”

Reflecting on his work with the CJP, Samuels told Small: “The scope of the music we can play is pretty large and comes from the base of the tree of music from the Caribbean. The branches went north and south, and there is a tremendous amount of music connected to that tree. It’s an endless study.”

David Alan Samuels was born Oct. 9, 1948, in Waukegan, Illinois. He played drums and piano as a child. By the time he graduated with a degree in psychology from Boston University, he was playing mallet instruments. He also studied with vibraphonist Gary Burton at Berklee.

On April 22, Spyro Gyra posted a tribute on its Facebook page: “Today the world said goodbye to Dave Samuels, a man of great talent, intelligence and wit. He has not been well for quite a while, but the pain of his passing is as acute as it would be even if it had not been long expected. Farewell, brother.”

Survivors include two brothers, Stephen and Jeffrey; a daughter, Sarah; and Samuels’ partner, Janet Ross.

The family requests that donations be directed to the Alzheimer’s Association and/or to a Berklee College of Music scholarship fund. To make a donation to the Alzheimer’s Association in honor of David Alan Samuels, click here. DB

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