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Joe Locke: On the Ascension, Part 1-2

By Published: June 23, 2004
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.'

While Locke had some formal music training, he is completely self-taught on the vibraphone. 'I translated piano to vibes,' explains Locke, 'and that's what I still do. I got to take lessons with some wonderful teachers at the Preparatory Department of the Eastman School of Music. I remember taking orchestral snare drum, and as I entered high school and got more serious, I remember part of my percussion studies involved working out of the Morris Goldenberg book for xylophone, marimba and orchestral bells, working on etudes and taking some lessons in classical mallet playing, but that was the extent of it. I didn't get heavily into classical mallet playing. I was getting more and more into jazz and basically just learning. I studied improvisation with a brilliant pianist, Phil Markowitz; in the '70s he was a senior at the Eastman School and I was a thirteen year old, so he was my teacher, getting me into chord-scale relationships and playing over changes, which was a big help. Those studies taught me how to teach myself, so I got to the point where I could transcribe solos off records and figure out what they meant.

'When Phil left Eastman,' continues Locke, ' I studied with Bill Dobbins, who is an incredible musician and educator, and we did some more work with me transcribing solos, opening my ears up by transcribing some Hank Mobley, Coltrane, Milt Jackson and Bobby Hutcherson solos. I started to learn how to learn and I took it from there and have been self-taught ever since, but as a vibes player I've never studied with anyone.'

Early Influences

While Milt Jackson and Bobby Hutcherson were to be the players Locke modeled himself after the most, his influences were broader and, to some extent, surprising. 'I remember really loving Gary Burton,' Locke says, 'although he didn't become a major influence on my playing. And someone else who I think I've gotten a lot from is Mike Manieri, who is just a wonderful player. I've never transcribed him, but I always got a lot out of his playing, and I think I just internalized some aspects of his work, so he's someone I always like to acknowledge. There's just a way Mike plays that seems to bridge a generational thing for me; there were certain licks that were very identifiable Mike things that I heard easily and could incorporate into my playing in a very natural way. I didn't really have to study them hard, they were just so musical, and there was so much clarity that I could translate them easily to myself. Mike is one of the true giants of the instrument and of the music. I don't only admire and respect him as a vibraphonist, I admire him as a pioneer in a lot of areas. He was at the forefront of the fusion movement with the White Elephant Big Band, Steps and other groups, and as a person and a creative artist I really admire him.

'But as a vibes player,' Locke continues, 'for the language, I spent a lot of time listening to Coltrane, especially the early '60s stuff, trying to take some of the ideas he had and some of the harmonic devices he was using around that time, superimposing them over standard forms. I was influenced a lot by the album Crescent , I remember copping as much of that language as I could and translating it to the vibes. It's really interesting because a lot of this stuff is really applicable to the vibes, and it opened me up to some interesting possibilities, that the notes you play over certain chord progressions didn't have to be so locked into what was right and wrong. So I got a lot of mileage and inspiration, as countless of us did, from listening to Trane. And, of course, like a lot of people of my generation I was influenced by people like Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter and Joe Henderson.'

Moving to New York

In the early '80s Locke made the big leap and relocated to New York City which, at the time, was a hot bed for both established players and a whole new generation of musicians. 'The amazing thing about moving the New York,' Locke explains, 'was the young guys moving there at the same time as myself, how gifted they were and how I realized I had a whole lot of homework to do. People like Brian Lynch, Jim Snidero, Marvin 'Smitty' Smith and Jeff 'Tain' Watts. It was around that time that Branford Marsalis was starting to break into the scene. And the list goes on and on.

'I thought that I would be moving to New York,' continues Locke, 'to hear the great musicians who were my heroes, like Dexter Gordon, Michael Brecker, Sonny Rollins and Freddie Hubbard, but I got just as much inspiration from guys my age who were letting me know that the time that I was practicing ' or not practicing more to the point ' they were at home getting it together and that I'd better step up to the plate. So that was really inspiring.'

While sitting in with more established names at the clubs was de rigeur , it was much more difficult as a vibes player to break into jazz circles. 'It's pretty hard to carry your axe around,' says Locke, 'and say, 'can I sit in, can I set up my vibes and play one tune with you?' So it was a very slow road. I think at the time that I moved to New York, in the post bop scene I was in, the real hardcore straight-ahead scene, the vibraphone had lost a lot of its credibility. There weren't people around who were really pursuing that kind of language on the instrument. There were people like Dave Friedman and David Samuels, who I hold in very high regard, but they were doing a very different thing, and I think at the time, that there was a large gap between Bobby Hutcherson being around and laying down all this incredible music, and the time that people like myself and Steve Nelson eventually came along.'

Still, perseverance and making connections resulted in Locke getting more and more work. 'There were people who were very helpful to me when I first moved to New York,' explains Locke. 'One of them was Jerome Hunter, a bassist from Philadelphia who started calling me; I did a lot of gigs with Jerome, Byard Lancaster and J.R. Mitchell, a lot of interesting people from Philly that I used to go down and work with. At the same time I remember doing some playing with Calvin Hill and, in particular, Bob Moses, who was very helpful to me, very vocal in telling people about me and very supportive.

'But, if it's not too bold of me to say,' continues Locke, 'people like myself and Steve Nelson gave the vibes back some of its credibility, people started to dig the instrument again, and it started to feel like it didn't die with Milt Jackson and Bobby Hutcherson, that there were guys who were really swinging on the instrument and playing the language of the art form on a high level. And what's very heartening now, is that I see that happening a lot more after this quiet period of the '70s and '80s. I'm seeing young players come up under me that are even younger than Stefon Harris; people like Tim Collins, who is a former student of mine, who is playing really well.

'I think what it really comes down to these days,' concludes Locke, 'is that there are so many people on other instruments who are playing profound music. There's a whole younger generation of musicians coming up who are already established, like Seamus Blake, Chris Potter, Kevin Hays and Kurt Rosenwinkel; the music is being played on such a high level that vibes players who want to be involved in the music had better be taking it seriously.'

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