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Joe Locke: On the Ascension, Part 2-2

By Published: June 24, 2004

There are a lot of composers who I don't consider myself worthy to be in the same room as...but one thing I do think is that my heart is connected to my pen. —Joe Locke

Part 1 | Part 2

Vibraphonist Joe Locke, while present on the music scene for over twenty years, has only recently begun to carve a unique place for himself with projects including woodwind player Tim Garland’s Storms/Nocturnes Trio and his own 4 Walls of Freedom band. Part 1 of this interview examined Locke’s development as an artist, and how he got to where he is today. Part II picks up with the beginnings of the Storms/Nocturnes Trio.


Following the sole trio track, featuring Locke and pianist Geoff Keezer, on Garland’s ’00 release, Made By Walking , it was clear that this instrumental grouping, which Garland had been considering for a some time, was going to work. For Locke it was an opportunity to play with two artists he held in extremely high regard. “Tim Garland is an amazing musical spirit,” says Locke, “and he’s such a prolific writer. He has two children and is constantly busy with his teaching and composition, yet he can write a plethora of music with all these distractions. And Geoffrey Keezer is one of the greatest musicians that I have ever met in my life. His gift is just amazing, and the fact that I’ve been able to make music with these guys, done several tours with them and night after night been able to be on the same stage, and learn and grow from these two men whom I have so much respect for and who, in turn, trust me enough as a musician to take chances with night after doesn’t get any better than that. It really works as a trio, and in concert it’s so much fun, because people come not knowing exactly what to expect, and they really catch three guys in the throes of it.”

With two recordings under their belt, ‘01’s Storms/Nocturnes and ’03’s Rising Tide , the group has had the opportunity and longevity to develop a style that cleverly blends mind numbing written ensemble passages with complete improvisational freedom. “There’s a lot of writing,” Locke explains, “but there’s also a lot of freedom. I think there are two factors: one is that the writing is just so good, Tim’s writing is so clear and well thought-out, and the other thing is that Geoffrey underpins the whole thing, and when I do something he is so on point that he can make a lot of what is spontaneous sound more written only because he’s such a great musician and he’s able to adjust to what Tim and I are doing as soloists. He’s dealing with all the harmony underneath us, all the chords and bass lines. In the ensemble passages there is a lot of four mallet playing going on, and then in the open blowing I’m mainly playing with two.

“One thing I love that Geoffrey does, that some people might think is a written part of the music,” continues Locke, “is that after a sax solo or bass clarinet solo or whatever, I’ll start to play and at some point in my solo we’ll both go to the high end of the instrument, and Geoffrey will do this accompaniment that sounds like a toy piano or orchestra bells, which I love. He explores the whole sonic range of the piano in Storms/Nocturnes, whereas I think a lot of pianists might play just a standard jazz accompaniment, and he doesn’t do that. At certain points he’ll take over the function that maybe the vibraphone would have and I’ll take over the piano function for a few moments. And these are really exciting things.”

While Locke is almost exclusively occupied with his 4 Walls of Freedom project these days, Storms/Nocturnes is still very much a going concern. “Right now it’s on hiatus because I’ve been busy with 4 Walls,” Locke says, “Tim is involved with Bill Bruford’s Earthworks and other things and Keezer has been doing the Christian McBride band, but we will definitely continue to record and tour as a group. I’d love to do a live record with Storms/Nocturnes, and that’s one thing that’s been talked about; the other thing is doing a record with the trio and a chamber orchestra. That’s something that’s on the back burner, and hopefully we’ll be able to do it someday. There is some string quartet stuff on Rising Tide, and I’d love to see what Tim would do with a complete orchestra.”

The Beginnings of 4 Walls of Freedom

Locke’s next project was to turn into a career-defining move for him creatively, critically and as a means to stretch himself as a player and writer. “I was talking with John Priestley after we did the two Storytelling records,” explains Locke. “I remember we were doing a concert in England with Storms/Nocturnes and on a break we were chatting and he said, ‘what would you like to do for your next project?’ I said that I’d just finished reading The Seven Storey Mountain , the autobiography of Thomas Merton the Catholic Monk, and that there was a quote that really had an impact on me, ‘the four walls of my new freedom,’ and I had started to write a suite called ‘4 Walls of Freedom,’ that I’d like to do.”

Locke describes the premise best in his liner notes to the record: “It was the truth behind this paradox which inspired the suite, a truth which resonates for me on many levels. As I’ve grown older, I’ve actually learned that situations and events which seem to impose limitations can actually teach some liberating lessons, that the limitations themselves can be the harbingers of new possibilities. In musical terms the four walls of freedom are represented by melody, rhythm, harmony and form. Although we’re adhering in a disciplined way to the dictates of the suite’s structure, the members of the quartet are still completely free within that structure, and by a process of give and take, can create something new and beautiful, not in spite of the limitations, but because of them. The title itself suggested that 4 Walls of Freedom be a quartet project, each player contributing equally to the construction of this sonic ‘room.’ Furthermore, it was an essential aspect of the quartet’s make-up that the vibes function as the solo chordal instrument. As a vibraphonist normally accustomed to playing with pianists, the responsibility for all of the harmony initially seemed daunting, but ultimately yielded great creative freedom. It’s all a matter of perception. I’m limited only by my imagination. In that process, I feel a strong connection between Merton’s sentiment and my own personal quest.”

Locke not only envisioned the instrumental line-up for 4 Walls of Freedom, but had a specific saxophonist in mind. “In the process of writing the suite,” Locke says, “I heard a saxophone in my head, and I realized the saxophonist was Bob Berg, so I called Bob and asked if he’d be interested in doing the suite, that I had a couple of movements done and it just hit me that I was writing it for him. He asked to take a look at the music, so we got together and he liked it, so then I was able to finish the suite knowing it would be for him.

“Gary Novak is someone who I’d admired from a distance for a long time,” continues Locke. “He was someone who I was nervous about meeting because he’s so great, he’s just that good. When Bob and I were talking about drummers for the 4 Walls project his name didn’t even come up because we just assumed he was still with Alanis Morissette, as he had been for the past four or five years. Then, one day, I got a call from Bob who said, ‘I’m on the other line with Gary Novak, and he just quit Alanis Morissette.’ So I said, ‘Bob, you know what they next question is, don’t you? Ask him if he’s available.’ So he did, and Gary said he’d love to do it.

“Gary’s a guy who has a deep respect for the jazz tradition,” Locke continues, “but is also someone who really works and lives in the rock world. So he’s somebody who understands contemporary music. He knows how to play a backbeat and feel great. He can put a rock sensibility into something, but he’s also somebody who grew up listening to all the great jazz drummers, and to the Count Basie Bands. His father is Larry Novak, the great Chicago pianist, and Gary once said to me that he learned from his dad most importantly not what to play but rather what not to play. He taught him what the great older cats don’t want to hear behind them.

“James Genus is somebody who is just the first call by all of us in New York and around the world for that matter,” concludes Locke, “he’s just a great bassist and a wonderful guy. We had all worked with him many times and were really comfortable with him, and I knew that he’d fit the concept of 4 Walls of Freedom, it just worked out so wonderfully.”

Armed with the 4 Walls suite, another suite called “Suite di Morfeo,” and the tune “Crescent Street,” Locke and the group recorded the first, self titled album, Four Walls of Freedom. And with that album, Locke managed to transcend simply making an album of strong material well-played, instead creating a concept that had a distinctive sound and identity. “One of the things that I was very happy about,” explains Locke, “was that when I wrote this suite of music knowing who the players were going to be, I knew what kind of energy and spirituality Gary, James and Bob would bring to bear, so I was able to write this music that had been gestating in me for a long time, knowing that it was going to be executed by these musicians.

Making a Piano-less Quartet Sound Huge

“One thing I’m very proud of,” Locke continues, “is that normally a piano-less quartet with vibraphone sounds somehow smaller; this quartet, in some ways, sounds bigger than a quartet with piano. I think the reason, sometimes, that a quartet with vibraphone sounds smaller than a quartet with piano is because the music being played was really intended for a piano, but the vibraphone is trying to fit the bill the best it can. In this case I was able to write specifically knowing that there wasn’t going to be a piano, so I wrote bass lines fitting with melodies and the vibraphone fit in between those spaces so it would sound as full as possible. And I’m really happy that the quartet, sometimes, actually sounds huge.

“There are also some places,” Locke concludes, “where I use midi vibes sparingly, just for a little bit of a pad underpinning the vibraphone sound, to make it sound more orchestrated. And I open the suite with this really overdriven guitar sound that is actually being triggered from the vibraphone. It’s just something that works with the concept of the group, it’s autobiographical really. ‘Surfacing,’ the first track of the suite, is about how things sometimes come to the surface, from deep in one’s psyche, in an aggressive and sudden way. I thought that opening with solo vibraphone would be too pretty; I really wanted to have an aggressive, in your face kind of sound to open the record. And I wanted it to be emitting from the vibraphone.”

Before the project was recorded, the group spent a week at Ronnie Scott’s in London, honing the group sound and the dynamics of the material. “We played the music exactly as it went down on the CD for six nights in a row,” Locke explains, “and then we flew back to the States, took a day off, and went into the studio and recorded it, playing it basically live as if we were at Ronnie Scott’s. It’s also interesting that Gerard Presencer, who guested on flugelhorn on some of the tracks, was opening for us at Ronnie Scott’s. My assumption was, when we realized that we were going to be doing the recording with him, and that he would be opening for us, that he could sit in with us, get into the music and be ready for the recording session. But, instead, he bowed out of that each night saying that he wanted to give his lip a rest. So he never actually played the music with us, and so what you’re hearing on the recording is Gerard playing those songs for the very first time, and it says a lot about what a jazz musician he really is, because I think he could easily have played with us every night and worked out his ideas, but he chose not to because he wanted to be completely spontaneous at the recording session.

Bob Berg

It was not long after the recording of 4 Walls of Freedom that Bob Berg met with the tragic accident that took his life, in December of ’02. “That was a very bitter thing, there’s such sadness around it,” Locke says. “A month or two after the recording we went to Seattle to play at a new club called ‘About the Music,’ which has since closed. It was supposed to be billed as the Bob Berg Quartet, but Bob was so excited about the 4 Walls project that he said we should go in as 4 Walls of Freedom. So we played a wonderful weekend in Seattle, and at that time Ed Howard had joined the group, so we did the weekend with Ed, Gary, Bob and myself. We flew back from Seattle and two or three days later Bob was killed in the car accident. So that was the last time we played together, and Bob played his last gig with 4 Walls. I don’t know if I would call it solace, but it gives me a good feeling to know that his last gig was a really good one. I remember him back in the green room, lighting a cigarette and saying, ‘yeah, cats, that was a really good hit,’ and feeling good about the gig; that he was happy with his performance and that there was a really good feeling on stage and off. On the record I used some lines from Randy Brecker’s eulogy, some words he spoke for Bob at the funeral, and I think they were really appropriate, because he was just this incredible human being and the comments Randy made about him as a man and as a player were as on the mark as you could possibly be, from someone who knew him and loved him like a brother.”

Enter Tommy Smith

With Berg’s tragic passing, a difficult choice had to be made in terms of selecting someone to fill the saxophone chair. Locke decided to enlist Scottish saxophonist Tommy Smith, a player with a larger reputation in Europe than in North America. “To say he was perfect would be an understatement,” explains Locke. “How he came in with a deep respect for Bob Berg, and yet with an incredibly strong identity of his own; what is amazing to me is that he gets the emotional intent of each song, regardless of whether it’s a tender ballad or a more aggressive tune, he gets my intent and puts it across on each song, for which I’m so thankful. He’s not just one of the greatest saxophone players of his generation, but maybe one of the greatest musicians of his generation.”

Bassist Ed Howard, who replaced James Genus in the bass chair, is another player for whom Locke holds great respect. “Ed is someone I’ve known for a long time,” Locke says, “and he’s someone who has an incredible strength of character as a person, and he translates that into his bass playing. If you knew him you would hear, in his bass playing, who he is as a person, he’s incredibly supportive and strong, a real strong character. He’s a lot of peoples’ favourite bassist, drummers especially. And when he took over the bass chair he was an obvious choice because of how well-loved he is by all of us for his strong and supportive bass lines, but also because he and Gary have this incredible hook-up; just the feeling of these two guys playing time, locked in together, it just works.”

Dear Life

With the new line-up of the band in place, and strong critical acclaim for the first record, doing a follow-up record was a no-brainer. “The new record, if I would cite a difference,” Locke explains, “has more open space, and there’s more lyrical material, although there is still a lot of energy on it.”

The title, Dear Life , was something that Locke struggled with. “I was afraid to call it Dear Life ,” says Locke, “because I felt it sounded too heart on the sleeve, too emotive; that it was too touchy-feely, but when I wrote the song, which is a very simple piece of music, the phrase “Dear Life” came into my mind. As an aside, since we’ve been on tour I get a lot of comments about that song, about how people are touched by it.

“I was talking recently about the correlation between literature and music,” continues Locke. “There’s a piece on the record called “Wind in Your Willows,” which is inspired in part by the children’s book, The Wind in the Willows. There are other pieces that are inspired by literature, but if I was going to put a book with the song “Dear Life” it would be the autobiography of Pablo Casals, entitled Joys and Sorrows. For me, “Dear Life” talks about loss and regret, and sadness and pain and at the very same time the elation of being in the moment, and joy and happiness and how they are all part and parcel of each other. There’s an aspect of that for the guys in the band, the loss of Bob Berg was a source of great pain, but there are other things as well. I’m forty-five now, and there are things which have happened in my life that are the cause of great sadness and regret, and these things are carried with me and inform me as a musician. You can’t help but be affected by these things, and at the same time I’ve experienced great happiness, joy and beauty, and it’s almost as if the painful things in life make those moments of joy more profound, because they stand in contrast to the times of pain and they make times of elation and joy even deeper and more meaningful.

“So I wasn’t going to call the record Dear Life ,” concludes Locke, “even though in my head and my heart I knew that was the name of the song. But at the end of the recording date, which went really well, I was packing up my vibraphone and someone walked up to Gary and said, ‘man, you really played your butt off,’ and he just said, ‘oh man, I was just hanging on for dear life.’ And when he said that it was almost like a sign to me, I stopped and looked over at Gary and thought, ‘he just said the title I’m trying so hard not to call the record,’ the words just came out of his mouth and I thought that was a sign, critics be damned, I have to use it.

Maintaining Continuity

What is most remarkable about Dear Life is how, with a fifty percent change in the personnel of the group, it still manages to retain its unique sound and identity. “There are a few things that I could point to as to why that is,” Locke says. “One thing that perhaps unifies the two projects is that my writing has become more personal, I’m able to put more of my own story into the writing. There are a lot of composers who I don’t consider myself worthy to be in the same room as, and some of them are guys I play with, but one thing that I do think is that my heart is connected to my pen. I think the writing on the 4 Walls of Freedom Suite was coming from a very personal place; a lot of that music has high energy, but whether it’s energetic or, for example, the second movement, “Prayer,” it’s intensely personal and the songs tell a very personal story. And I think that’s even truer of the second record. The songs come from my life experience and hopefully that’s a uniting thing.

“Of course the other reason would have to be Gary Novak,” continues Locke, “how his playing is such an important aspect to the sound of the band. His presence, playing and identity as a rhythmic force are so strong that his appearance on both records is a big reason why it sounds like a band.

“I really feel that 4 Walls of Freedom is the fruition of a long journey thus far for me,” Locke concludes. “I’m really heartened that the other guys in the band are as into the project as I am and we all hope that we can continue working as a band for a long time to come. I think the only way that the music can develop in general terms, not just my music, is through longevity; to continue doing it, and for the same people to play together for a long period of time, so I just hope I can keep doing it.”

The Future

While 4 Walls of Freedom will be taking precedence for some time to come, with some room potentially for Storms/Nocturnes, Locke recently guested on guitarist Vic Juris’ new disk Blue Horizon , which will be released by ZOHO Music in September, 2004, and this was also something of a special project for him. “I think Vic is one of the most important musicians on the scene,” says Joe, “and working on that project was one of the best experiences I’ve had playing music. I feel like his writing, his songs on the record are so him. And his playing, and the other guys on the record – bassist Jay Anderson and drummer Adam Nussbaum – they’re just so great. I consider Vic a peer with the greatest guitar players of the last generation like Metheny, Scofield, Abercrombie and Frisell. Vic is clearly the equal of these great artists and I think they would agree with that statement. He’s somebody that is always pushing the envelope, always excellent, someone whose scope is enormous.”

Meanwhile, with his primary focus being 4 Walls of Freedom, and Dear Life receiving critical acclaim equal to the first record, Joe Locke’s star is clearly on the rise. And as long as the journey has been, it’s one that has been filled with accumulating successes, promising even greater ones in the future.

Visit Joe Locke and Sirocco Music on the web.

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

Selected Discography as a Leader

Dear Life
4 Walls of Freedom
Sirocco Records - 2004

4 Walls of Freedom
Sirocco Records - 2003
with Bob Berg, Gary Novak and James Genus

State of Soul
Sirocco Records - 2002
with Mark Ledford, Henry Hey, Mike Pope, Billy Kilson, Paul Bollenback & Tim Garland

Sirocco Records - 2001
with Mark Ledford, Henry Hey, Jeff "Tain" Watts, Eric Revis, Paul Bollenback & Tim Garland

The Willow
OmniTone - 2001
with Frank Kimbrough, Tim Ries & Jeff Ballard

Beauty Burning
Sirocco Records - 2001
with Frank Kimbrough, Ray Drummond, Jeff "Tain" Watts & Paul Bollenback

Mutual Admiration Society
SharpNine Records - 1999
Joe Locke-David Hazeltine Quartet with Billy Drummond & Essiet Essiet

Saturn's Child
OmniTone - 1999
with Frank Kimbrough

Fantasy Records - 1997
with Billy Childs, Rufus Reid, Gene Jackson & Oliver Ker Urio

Slander (and other love songs)
Fantasy Records- 1998
with Billy Childs, Vic Juris, Rufus Reid & Gene Jackson

Inner Space
SteepleChase - 1996
with Mark Soskin, Harvie Swartz & Timothy Horner

SteepleChase - 1995
with Dave Kikoski, Danny Walsh, Ed Howard & Marvin "Smitty" Smith

Moment to Moment
Fantasy Records - 1995
with Billy Childs, Eddie Gomez & Gene Jackson

But Beautiful
SteepleChase - 1994
with Kenny Barron

Quote from 4 Walls of Freedom liner notes courtesy of Joe Locke and Sirocco Music.

Photo Credit
Joe Locke at Upover Jazz Cafe by Leiko

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