Joe Locke: On the Ascension, Part 1-2
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.'