Joe Locke: On the Ascension, Part 1-2
Part 1 | Part 2
While vibraphonist Joe Locke has been on the scene for over twenty years, it is only in the past half decade or so that his name has begun to reach a broader audience. This is in no small part due to his participation in two seminal groups: British reed player Tim Garland's Storms/Nocturnes Trio, which also features pianist Geoff Keezer and, perhaps most importantly, Locke's current group project, 4 Walls of Freedom, which has released two albums in the past three years to great critical acclaim, and has experienced its share of emotional upheaval in its short life, with the tragic death of original saxophonist Bob Berg.
With these two projects Locke has completely transcended his past reputation as a fine post bop instrumentalist, demonstrating a more complete musical picture that includes everything from melodic chamber jazz to intensely personal compositions that bridge the gap between post bop and a more lyrical contemporary style. But the road to where he is today has been a long one, paved with many great experiences and associations.
Part one of a two-part interview examines Locke's roots, and what has contributed to his becoming an emergent musical force. Part two will cover the Storms/Nocturnes Trio and 4 Walls of Freedom band.
While Locke didn't exactly come from a musical family, music was definitely a part of his upbringing. 'That's been misinterpreted a lot,' says Locke. 'A lot of people say my father was a classical music professor, but he was a classics professor, he was a scholar on ancient Latin and Greek literature. My brother played some acoustic guitar, but didn't go on to a career in professional music. And my mother plays; she was the product of a Boston Catholic education, and part of that was you learned to speak Latin and French, and you learned how to read music at the piano. So although she didn't have a musical nature per se , she could sight read.
'At the age of seven or eight,' Locke continues, 'I got interested in the drums. I remember going to the Bloods and Sacraments School in Rochester, and had drum lessons with Sister Sylvia, who was about eighty years old. She'd learn the lessons of every instrument the night before, and then teach the kids the next day. I took lessons on my little red sparkle snare drum, and went from there to getting a drum set. When my mother saw I was getting more interested in the drums and more serious about it, she said, 'If you're going to play the drums you have to take piano lessons, because rhythm is only part of the equation, and you need to learn your notes and you need to learn how to read music.' So she gave me piano lessons every Sunday morning, and by and large it would end in a fight, but by osmosis some of it started sinking in, and by the time I got to be twelve or thirteen, and found the vibraphone, I already had some grounding in drums and piano, and the vibraphone is right in the middle of the two instruments.
'It's a funny thing,' continues Locke, 'I wanted to play a melodic instrument, but I didn't want to become a pianist. I still considered myself a percussionist, but I wanted to play melody. There was a girl in my neighbourhood, her name was Wendy Lipson, she was a friend of my sister Bea who is six years older than me, and she was very hip and had an important part in my becoming a musician. I remember going to her house and listening to Thelonious Monk's Underground , and John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman , and I think the first vibes record that I ever heard, a Mike Manieri album called Journey Through an Electronic Tube. I remember hearing this stuff at Wendy's house when I was eight or nine years old. And her dad, Joe Lipson, he used to play vibes. One day she said, 'Do you want to see something?' and she took me up to her attic and her dad's vibraphone was there, it was the first time I saw the instrument.
'So one day my mom saw an advertisement in the Want Ads,' Locke concludes, 'for a Jenco vibraphone for two hundred dollars, and we went and got it. I was twelve at the time, and I basically left it in my room for a year, and didn't know what to do with it ' I threw dirty clothes on it, books ' and then one day I cleared off the books and clothes and started playing, and literally never stopped.'