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Interviews

Joe Locke: Are You Ready for Him?

By Published: November 17, 2005
Are you ready for Joe Locke? Are you ready for Joe Locke? Well you best get ready, Seattle, because he's getting ready for you. That's the word out of NYC where the cutting edge, critically-acclaimed vibraphonist has been rehearsing a new band with new music arranged especially for November 19, Locke's date with the Ballard Jazz Festival. A world premiere of sorts. Raise your hand if you dig, Seattle. And for those of you not yet hip to the Lockeness Vibes Monster, here's a three-lesson primer to get you up to speed. Yes, there will be a quiz after.

Joe Locke, Lesson #1: The bands. Locke's group for his Ballard date will feature Geoffrey Keezer on piano, Mike Pope on bass and Terreon Gully on drums—the latest in a multitude of music projects with Joe's vibes at the helm. Hey, this guy has more bands than some cats have lives. First off, there's his 4 Walls of Freedom band with Gary Novak (drums), Ed Howard (bass) and Tommy Smith (tenor sax). Their extraordinary 2004 release on the Sirocco record label is titled Dear Life. Next up is the New Sound Quartet, co-led by Locke and Keezer with Gully and Howard. They have a new 2005 release available in Japan from Sony Music called The Summer Knows. Then there's Storytelling, a band Locke started with saxophonist Alex Foster in 1986, which includes Pope on bass along with [the late] Mark Ledford (vocals), Paul Bollenback (guitar), Tim Garland (tenor sax) and Billy Kilson (drums). Storytelling's latest is titled State of Soul (Sirocco, 2002), following up their self-titled 2001 recording debut. Okay, so let's recap. Three players—Gully, Pope and Keezer—from two bands—New Sound Quartet and Storytelling—with two different aesthetics will join Locke onstage in Ballard. While these musicians know each other, they have yet to play together as a unit—the prospect of which gives Locke, the quartet's common thread, a sense of excitement knowing he's "the one who's putting it all in the beaker and shaking it up!"

Joe Locke, Lesson #2: The road. As you might guess, the V-man is in demand. Joe's touring schedule is so busy, he passes himself in airports. After 4 Walls of Freedom played the Portland Jazz Festival this past February, Locke joined Novak, Howard and pianist Dave Kikoski for two weeks in Italy. The first week in April found Locke in London recording at Ronnie Scott's with his Milt Jackson Tribute band featuring Mike LeDonne (piano), Bob Cranshaw (bass) and Mikey Roker (drums)—those live sessions, titled Rev-elation, just came out on the Sharp Nine label. Next stop, Japan in August, where Locke and Keezer's quartet performed at the Tokyo Jazz Festival, thanks to an invitation from the festival's musical director Herbie Hancock. And, as one might expect, Locke is no stranger to Seattle. He was here twice in 2004, recording in the spring with Rick Mandyck (alto sax), Jeff Johnson (bass), John Bishop (drums), David Budway (piano) and Thomas Marriott (trumpet) for Marriott's 2005 Origin Records release Individuation, which Locke co-produced. That fall he returned for the CD release at Tula's, including a weekend of performances captured by Jim Wilke for broadcast on Jazz After Hours.

Joe Locke, Lesson #3: The man. No Joe Locke primer would be complete without mention of the man behind the music. An east coast guy, born and bred, Locke's laser-like focus on the bandstand is matched only by his humility off it. He cut his teeth playing on the streets of New York in the "80's, making popular music in the truest sense of the world. The recipient of a self-described "University of the Streets" education, Locke's voice on vibes is colored with notes of intensity, humility and humanity. One can hear it too when Locke talks about people, especially his brothers in art, people like Novak, Gully, Keezer, Pope, Kikoski, Frank Kimbrough, George Braith and Cecil Taylor.

All About Jazz: You're a high energy guy involved in many projects with many other musicians. Are you usually the one who takes the first step in approaching other musicians about the possibility of playing together?

Joe Locke: Well, it's really funny in the case of Cecil Taylor. Cecil, over the years would come to my gigs. If I was doing something with an electric kind of funk thing, he'd be there in the audience. He's the kind of cat that really comes out in New York and checks out the music and over the last 15 years he's been in the audience many times when I've been playing, whether it was, like I said, an electric funk thing or playing with the Mingus Big Band or playing duo with Frank Kimbrough. Often times Cecil was there and he kept threatening to hire me and I'd say, yeah, Cecil, yeah sure, sure. Then I got a phone call from Cecil's management asking me if I could set aside x-number of dates to tour with Cecil, so that was Cecil's idea that was gestating with him for a long time.

AAJ: Can you tell if a band's rehearsed or not if you're listening in the audience?

JL: I don't think rehearsal alone solely makes for great music. I've heard and played music where there were no rehearsals involved and something really magical happened. But, as for can I tell if it's been rehearsed? I think a lot of times you can tell. That's really a loaded question because the first thing that comes to mind is rehearsal doesn't always make for great music. Communicating on a high level really is what it's about and sometimes being rehearsed can take the place of actual communication and that's when it's not good. Just playing tight music that's well rehearsed doesn't make for transcendent music. Sometimes unrehearsed music can be the most beautiful music because of the magic of chance and the joy of discovery in the moment.

Your question made me think about the process of rehearsing with Cecil Taylor. I rehearsed with Cecil Taylor for four days in a row for seven hours a day. We rehearsed very specific stuff, but when we got to the gig we didn't play any of it. So that's an interesting approach, isn't it? But that's part of Cecil's process and he had his reasons for doing that, I'm sure. I think that he was bringing the musicians into his sound world and really being specific about those things to let you know how serious it was, letting you know that he knew specifically what he was doing—to bring you into his sound world and then say, "Okay, you got it now. Play freedom.' It was very cool to be a part of that.

Rehearsing for Ballard with the quartet, at the rehearsal I'm sure things are going to happen that I didn't think of and cats are going to make contributions and suggestions which will inform what the music becomes and on the gig it will change even more. So rehearsal, it's an interesting process, and I think for my music it is necessary, but it's only part of the equation.

AAJ: Is it true that musicians don't like to rehearse?

JL: No, I don't think that's true. I think that what musicians like more than anything else is to play meaningful music that communicates something that resonates with the listener and I think that takes rehearsing and developing, taking the time to let what you want to communicate unfold and you need time for that to gestate and be able to talk about it before you present it to an audience. So I really feel that musicians do want to rehearse because they want to communicate something with meaning to the listener. That's definitely what it's like with me and my colleagues.

AAJ: You've collaborated with many different pianists, however, the combination of vibes and piano is relatively rare in jazz, since both are chordal instruments and both cover similar harmonic territory. How do you get these instruments, which traditionally don't go together, to compliment each other?

JL: It's just a matter of two musicians being able to make music together—it's as simple as that. Sometimes saxophone and piano doesn't work together because the saxophonist and the pianist don't really work together. Even three chordal instruments will work together fine because the musicians are listening and they have an empathy for each other. I've always loved to play with pianists. It's a matter of knowing when to play with two mallets, as a horn player, and when to play with four mallets in a chordal way. Maybe it seems surprising, but very infrequently with the great pianists that I've played with have I had a problem stepping on each other's toes. It's completely different playing with Frank [Kimbrough] or playing with Geoffrey [Keezer] or playing with David Kikoski or playing with Cecil Taylor or Kenny Barron or John Hicks or George Cables or all the pianists that I've worked with. I've just been really lucky to play with great piano players, and I think it has never really been an issue of "Gee, we're getting in each other's way here.'

AAJ: Your quartet with Dave Kikoski toured for two weeks in Italy this past March and you recently played Japan with Geoffrey Keezer and New Sounds. Contrast your Keezer and Kikoski quartets.

JL: I feel really lucky. I think that Kikoski and Keezer are two of the most brilliant piano players currently playing and I'm like a kid in a candy store because I get to play with both of these guys. They're both really individual players and strong creative forces. They're both complete pianists with an incredible harmonic vocabulary and they have this incredible energy in their playing. I feel with both of them that I'm being lifted by the momentum of their creative energy when I play with them. So there are similarities definitely in their playing, and what's different in their playing are just the things that make them different as people. They both have distinct voices as composers. There's a common thread in the style of my writing, whether I'm writing for the band with Geoffrey or whether I'm writing for the band with Dave, but their writing is very different and it's nice to experience the difference in their musical personalities via their music.

AAJ: How's your glockenspiel?

JL: (laughing) Exactly! People ask me why I'm a vibes player. The story is my mom wanted me to play the glockenspiel in the marching band. Of course, my mom is great, but she had some twisted, sadistic desire for me to play the glockenspiel. The glockenspiel player in the marching band is the kid who the nerds would beat up after school, you know. So, she saw an ad in the paper for a vibraphone and I still remember man, she came to me and she said, "Joe, there's a vibraphone for sale in the want ads. That's something like a glockenspiel, isn't it?'

AAJ: Do you remember getting picked on or getting some names thrown your way for being the glockenspiel player?

JL: No, I didn't play the glockenspiel. I said she wanted me to, but I was hip enough or whatever that I wasn't havin' it.

AAJ: (laughing) I see. Okay, and after high school you attended the Eastman School of Music in Rochester NY before moving to New York Cityâ'¦

JL: I didn't go to college at Eastman. When I was in high school I studied at Eastman's prep department, so I am not a college educated, conservatory educated musician. I learned at the University of the Streets. [laughter] I got out of high school and a week later I was on the road with Spider Martin who was a tenor player in the upstate New York area and I went on the road with him and toured for over two years and when I was twenty-one I moved to New York.

AAJ: â'¦and started playing on the street with George Braith.

JL: George Braith is a very interesting, creative musician. He had four or five records on the Blue Note label in the "60's and we'd play on the street for 12 hours a day. I joined George's group. Sometimes it was Tommy Turrentine, sometimes it was Clarence C. Sharp, who was an underground legend—he recorded with Lee Morgan and Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers—a brilliant bebop alto saxophonist. So sometimes it was C Sharp, sometimes it was Tommy, sometimes Cindy Blackman, who went on to play with Lenny Kravitz and become an incredible bandleader, she played drums for a long time with us. You know, I would go out there and get my butt kicked for 12 hours a day and learn, learn how to pace myself, learn how to play long solos and try to play something interesting, learn the Great American Songbook, learn Monk tunes and Bird tunes. It was a great education man, great education.

AAJ: Can you remember how you felt after playing for 12 hours on the street?

JL: Oh man, it was a really deep time spiritually. It was a really formative time. It let me know that I was capable of going beyond what I thought I was capable of. That as a person, as a human being, I could actually do more than I ever thought possible. The feeling of jumping hurdles and feeling the growth of my playing, my endurance, my musical vocabulary, and also the camaraderie between musicians is something that never left me. I see cats from back in the day who were part of that scene and we share a bond that will never be broken because we actually paid those dues together. Yeah, there were incredible feelings, everything from "What am I doing here playing music from the skin of my teeth, struggling to pay my rent?' to that feeling of musical elation of "Wow, this is exactly what I want to do with my life. It doesn't get any better than this.' It's an amazing thing to be playing on the street and a limousine rolls up and Stevie Wonder gets out of the limo and stands there for 20 minutes and listens to you play. There were moments like that. And then just feeling so tired I'd put the vibes in a cab and crawl back to my apartment. [laughter]

AAJ: How is playing for an audience on the street different than playing for a paying audience? Does playing on the street feel freer or more democratic?

JL: Thank you. I say thank you because you hit something I've been thinking lately, at a time when clubs and concerts are getting prohibitive for the average person. We're living in a society where our culture is getting more divided between the haves and the have-nots and finding music that is by of and for the people is becoming too expensive for the people to enjoy. You know, U2 is a band that is politically aware and democratic in their essence but their ticket prices are $180 a pop. If someone wants to hear some jazz and to walk into a jazz club with a date to hear a set it will cost them $100. I think there's something wrong there. There was something very pure about playing on the street and playing to the people. George Braith in those days was offered many times to play in some of the jazz clubs in New York, and a couple times some of the major clubs, and I saw him turn those offers down because he very honestly in his heart and intellect knew that playing on the street is where he had artistic freedom, artistic control and he was playing for the people who he wanted to play for. I think that music is supposed to be for all the people who what it, not just the people who are fortunate enough to be wealthy.

AAJ: As a first-time Ballard Jazz Festival headliner, what are you expectations?

JL: I'm really excited about bringing the band with these particular guys because I know that Seattle has a really vital, creative music scene. I've know about it for a long time, and then when I got the chance to go to Seattle a couple times in the past year I got to check out what a good scene it is, so it's exciting for me to be able to bring something really good up to Seattle. I'm expecting to have a real hip, knowledgeable, sophisticated audience and I'm coming armed with some music that's going to be able to stand up really discerning listeners.

Visit Joe Locke on the web.

Selected Discography

Joe Locke/Milt Jackson Tribute Band, Rev-elation (Sharp Nine, 2005)
Thomas Marriott, Individuation (Origin, 2005)
Joe Locke/Four Walls of Freedom, Dear Life (Sirocco, 2004)
Joe Locke, Four Walls of Freedom (Sirocco, 2003)
Joe Locke/Storytelling, State of Soul (Sirocco, 2002)
Joe Locke, Storytelling (Sirocco, 2001)
Joe Locke/Frank Kimbrough, The Willow (Omnitone, 2001)
Joe Locke, Beauty Burning (Sirocco, 2001)
Joe Locke/David Hazeltine Quartet, Mutual Admiration Society (Sharp Nine, 1999)
Joe Locke/Frank Kimbrough, Saturn's Child (Omnitone, 1999)
Joe Locke, Slander (and Other Love Songs) (Fantasy, 1998)
Joe Locke, Sound Tracks (Fantasy, 1997)
Joe Locke, Inner Space (Steeplechase, 1996)

Download "Big Town" from Joe Locke's latest Rev-elation.



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