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Joe Locke: On the Ascension, Part 1-2

By Published: June 23, 2004

Steeplechase and Some Early Connections

While Locke began to build a reputation through the '80s, it was only in the '90s that he began to cultivate a solo career, first through an association with Steeplechase Records. 'I'd have to start off by saying that my association with Steeplechase sprang from my relationship with the great trumpeter Dr. Eddie Henderson,' explains Locke, 'an amazingly fruitful relationship that has lasted over thirteen years. I first recorded as a sideman with Eddie, Victor Lewis, Wayne Dockery and Kenny Barron on an album called Phantoms , and after making that record Nils Winter from Steeplechase called and said he'd like me to make a record of my own. So I went into the studio and recorded an album called Present Tense with Ron McClure, Larry Schneider, Ronny Burrage and Kenny Werner, and that was the beginning of a series of six records for the label and it was really good.

'So at the same time,' continues Locke, 'I was recording as a member of Eddie Henderson's band as well as making records under my own name, and that was an important thing to happen because it gave me projects to work towards, and when you have a project that's out there on the calendar one tends to focus, practice and grow musically. I'd take each project I was preparing for very seriously and I'd learn something getting ready for each session. It gave me the chance to write music knowing it would be recorded and it also started to slowly give me confidence in the studio, to the point where I now know that while I like to be prepared for every session, I also know that over preparation isn't a good thing either, that when the light comes on I'm just expressing myself in the moment. I think that comes from hundreds of hours of being in the studio and being put in the position to create instantly. It's something I feel very fortunate to have ' a forum, if you will, as I was making a record about every eighteen months.

Locke has always made the best of every situation he's been in, but his association with Eddie Henderson may be one of the most influential of his career. 'It was of primary importance to me,' Locke says. 'First, Eddie is a grand master on his instrument and he's a real artist, someone who transcends the music on the page every time he plays. And I had the chance to be on the bandstand with him night after night for many years, whether it was a weekend somewhere, or a tour; I was always learning from listening to someone who had really gotten it from the source. And he always had a great band, the rhythm sections that Eddie had were always stellar, whether it was Kenny Barron, Victor Lewis and Wayne Dockery or Ed Howard, Billy Drummond and Kevin Hays.

'And the repertoire that Eddie was dealing with was very challenging,' continues Locke, 'including some of the more involved pieces by Wayne Shorter, Joe Henderson, Herbie Hancock from the mid-to-late '60s, as well as his own music. I was also given a forum as a writer and was able to bring some of my own compositions to the band. It was great to play in a front line situation with trumpet and vibes; I think that's going to remain a very, very important relationship. No matter how much longer I'm able to stay here and keep doing music on this earth, I think the relationship with Eddie is going to remain one of the important ones.'

Milestone, Billy Childs and Gene Jackson

Following his six albums for Steeplechase, Locke moved to Milestone for three albums, Sound Tracks , Moment to Moment , and Slander and Other Love Songs , all featuring pianist Billy Childs and drummer Gene Jackson. 'Billy was someone I was in awe of from a distance. I remember the first time I heard his music was on a Windham Hill record of his called His April Touch , and it was one of the best records I'd heard in a long time. Billy is just astounding as a player and a composer; I really think he's an American treasure. I was familiar with his playing from his work with Freddie Hubbard and Bobby Hutcherson, but then when I heard His April Touch I saw the scope of his gift as a composer.

'I remember I went to a concert he gave at Columbia University,' continues Locke, 'and I expected, if I was fortunate enough to meet him, to meet a very erudite, intellectual and probably distant kind of man, you know, someone who would look down his nose at someone like me. And I met him backstage and he was totally down to earth, really funny, very warm and gracious. We kept in touch, and when I had the chance to record I called him and this friendship started that continues to this day. He's not only a great jazz musician, but he's someone who is as at home with the symphony orchestra as he is with a set of blues changes. His writing for orchestra is second to none, he's an amazing composer and he's turned me onto a lot of classical music which I wouldn't otherwise have been hip to.

'I also worked, on all three albums, with Gene Jackson,' concludes Locke. 'He's simply one of my favourite human beings. He's a great person and he's a hundred percent serious about the music. He really cares about the music, and he's a great drummer with a great feel and a great spirit that he puts into the playing.'

Working with Pianists

Until recently, almost all of Locke's work has been in tandem with a pianist, which some might find odd, considering that both are chordal instruments and have the potential of getting in each others' way. How has Locke managed to work so well with so many fine pianists, including Frank Kimbrough, Kenny Barron and David Hazeltine ( Mutual Admiration Society )? 'Here's the thing,' says Locke. 'I hold four mallets when I play, but I'm really a two-mallet vibraphonist in most situations. When I'm holding the four mallets I play with the two inside mallets, and when I'm playing with piano players ninety percent of the time I'm not using the two outside mallets. The outside mallets are there for ensemble stuff and I'm very agile with four mallets; a lot of the pianists I work with write tricky stuff where I need to use all four mallets, but when it comes to soloing I'm basically influenced by horn players, and the two-mallet vibraphonists like Bobby Hutcherson, Milt Jackson and Dave Pike, and so my concept is a linear horn-like kind of thing.

John Priestley and Sirocco Records

In '00, Locke recorded his first album with John Priestley's three-year old British label, Sirocco Records. The first recording Locke made was Beauty Burning , a quartet record featuring Frank Kimbrough, bassist Ray Drummond, drummer Jeff 'Tain' Watts and, on some tracks, guitarist Paul Bollenback. Indicative of the freedom that Priestley affords his artists, when it came time for the next record, rather than suggesting what might be done, he asked Locke what he'd like to do. 'So I said to him,' says Locke, 'that I'd really like to do a project with some like-minded musicians who also want to acknowledge some of our other influences.

'The concept for the band Storytelling came out of meeting vocalist/multi-instrumentalist Mark Ledford in '86,' continues Locke. 'At the time I had written some original music; I like to write lyrics, songs coming more out of a pop/folk sensibility. But I'm not a singer, and when I heard Mark I knew I'd found my voice. He sang some of my music the way I heard it in my head only better. And Mark is a musician like me and a lot of my friends and colleagues who have a broad scope of musical interests. Mark had worked with Jon Hendricks in a real bebop thing; with Stevie Winwood and Earth, Wind and Fire; with Prince and Pat Metheny, and all of that informs his work. He's just a great musician, someone who can deal with music whether it's a piece by Joe Chambers or a song by Bill Withers, Bob Dylan, Neil Young or Joni Mitchell; he can deal with it in a really honest and well-informed way.

'So the first record we did, Storytelling , came out of that,' concludes Locke, 'and we made it with Jeff Watts, Eric Revis, Henry Hey, Paul Bollenback and Tim Garland. It was a thrill to go into the studio, and I'm very proud of Storytelling because it was made in a day and a half and I think it sounds like it took a week or more to make. And we went in and the result was what I was aiming for only I think we hit the mark even higher than I anticipated.'

While there is a lot of current market hype about jazz bands interpreting contemporary popular music, Locke doesn't see it as a new thing at all. 'The fact of the matter,' Locke explains, 'is I think musicians are inspired by music that resonates with them spiritually, emotionally and personally in some deep way that makes them want to adapt that music, and it can come from a variety of sources. On an earlier album of mine, Slander and Other Love Songs , I did 'Tuesday Heartbreak' by Stevie Wonder, it's just something that lends itself to being used as a blowing vehicle as much as any other jazz tune. It's relevant, it's pertinent, and it's a tune that I loved, so why not do it? I think that we want to address music that has meaning in our personal lives, and that can be a song from the Great American Songbook or anywhere else. There are songs from the Great American Songbook that maybe, at one point in my life, didn't have great meaning for me, but after certain life experiences took on great meaning. There's a song, 'A Time for Love,' that I didn't understand until I heard it sung by Abbey Lincoln, and for some reason that lyric and Abbey Lincoln's voice made the song resonate for me.

'So I think people making an issue of jazz musicians doing songs from the rock vernacular, the rock lexicon,' continues Locke, 'I don't think it should really be a big deal, I think it's something we're all doing. Christian McBride's doing it, Nicholas Payton's doing it, and when I talk to my friends and colleagues about it, there's nothing about it that has to do with commercial reasons. We do it because we dig a particular song and we want to do our slant on it. We have an honest motivation that goes beyond trying to attract a particular audience; we love music and we do things that have meaning for us.

'The thing is that the freedom I've had in recent years has had a lot to do with John Priestley,' concludes Locke, 'the fact that John has not only allowed every project I've wanted to gestate and bear fruit, but he's insisted that people associated with the label are doing individual creative work. For me, whether it's Storytelling, Storms/Nocturnes or 4 Walls of Freedom, it's been an opportunity for me to make music that's not in the same cookie-cutter fashion some producers would like. They might want me to make a quartet record that sounded like a Bobby Hutcherson or Milt Jackson record; instead I've been able to make music which is much more personal and it's been wonderful to have that freedom. I've been really fortunate because even though I've never had a major record deal with a lot of money thrown at me, and the doors to the kingdom have never really opened up for me, in some ways it has been like that because someone has always come along who has allowed me to continue growing. And in the past few years it has been John Priestley and Sirocco Music, who have been behind the scenes at the germination and growth of Storms/Nocturnes and 4 Walls of Freedom.'

The Willow and Made By Walking ' The Beginning of Storms/Nocturnes

In '98 Locke recorded a duet record with Frank Kimbrough, Saturn's Child , with the simple premise of making highly lyrical music. 'Up until this time,' says Locke, 'when my relationship with Sirocco began, I think I was considered by most to be this post bop vibes player, and I never considered myself that, even though it was certainly part of the equation. But having the chance to do the duets with Frank gave me a chance to explore the larger palette and give people who were listening to the music the picture that I was more than just a post bop player.'

Interestingly enough, the follow-up to Saturn's Child , The Willow , found Locke and Kimbrough expanding the sonic palette by adding Tim Ries on woodwinds and Jeff Ballard on hand percussion. Around the same time Locke made a recording with British woodwind player Tim Garland, Made By Walking , and the final track on that record, 'Trinity,' had a certain synchronicity with The Willow in its combination of vibes, piano and woodwinds. That track was to be the germination of an ongoing musical relationship, the Storms/Nocturnes Trio, which has resulted in two critically acclaimed recordings and numerous tours.


Visit Joe Locke and Sirocco Music on the web.

Discuss Joe Locke's music on the AAJ Bulletin Board.

Photo Credit
Mike Manieri by Darrin J. Zammit

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