Joe Locke has always struck that rare balance between reverence for things past and a forward-thinking mindset. Live in Seattle (Origin, 2006) brought a firm, modernistic edge to a set of original material by the vibraphonist and keyboardist/co-leader Geoffrey Keezer. Rev-elation (Sharp Nine, 2005), teaming Locke with the Milt Jackson Tribute Band, was steeped in the tradition, although Locke never lost sight of his personal extension of that tradition.
Sticks and Strings, featuring up-and-coming guitarist Jonathan Kreisberg alongside veteran bassist Jay Anderson and drummer Joe La Barbera, straddles the line better than any of Locke's previous efforts, with contemporary treatments of two well-known standards augmenting a program of originals by Locke, Anderson and La Barbera. It proves that there needn't be a dividing line between the old and the new, and that the best players look simultaneously backwards and forwards.
The lengthy credentials of Locke, Anderson and La Barbera make their bi-directional viewpoints unsurprising, making Kreisberg the real wild card. Capable of swinging firmly on the ambling Cole Porter classic "All of You," and navigating changes with ease on a soft, Latin-esque take of Julie Styne's "I Fall in Love Too Easily," Kreisberg demonstrates, on the originals, that he's not left his progressive days of a decade ago completely behind him. Adopting a grittier tone for La Barbera's altered 5/4 blues, "Sixth Sense," he mixes in-the-gut phrases with lithe intervallic shiftsthe perfect setup for Locke's equally impressive solo, supported by Anderson and La Barbera's visceral groove.
This isn't the first time Locke has worked with a guitaristhis work on Vic Juris' Blue Horizon (Zoho, 2004) is especially noteworthy, alongside Locke's discs with Paul Bollenbackbut it's never sounded this seamless, this comfortable. It would be easy to think of Gary Burton's on-again, off-again work with Pat Metheny, but only at the most superficial of levels. On Locke's winding but ultimately lyrical samba-esque "Terzani," the vibraphonist's unexpectedly abstract a capella solo and Kreisberg's equally abstruse, sonically processed duet with La Barbera are only half the story, with both turning in dexterous but effortlessly melodic ensemble-backed solos elsewhere on this and other tracks.
The fiery "The Rosario Material" and up-tempo swinger "Appointment in Orvieto" show Locke's ability to write complex tunes that sing. But Sticks and Strings' highlight may well be "A Word Before You Go," where Locke's affinity for evocative balladry proves that the most innocent melody and simplest changes can sometimes be the most moving.
It's always risky, with a track record like Locke's, to describe his latest record as his best yet. Where Sticks and Strings will place when the book is closed on his discography many years in the future is uncertain. For now, he's never sounded better, with vibrant writing and unrelentingly fine playing/interplay, further proof that Locke is amongst the finest vibraphonists on any scene.
Personnel: Joe Locke: vibes; Jonathan Kreisberg: electric and acoustic guitars; Jay Anderson: bass; Joe La Barbera: drums.