If jazz is a marginalized genre and the vibraphone is a marginalized instrument within that genre, then Van Gogh by Numbersan album of vibes and marimba duetsis clearly a first. But the idea of an intimate series of mallet duets will come as no surprise to listeners familiar with Joe Locke, who's been active for over two decades but has garnered considerably more attention in recent years. Whether with his own band, Four Walls of Freedom; his collaborative New Sound Quartet, with pianist Geoffrey Keezer; or on last year's Milt Jackson tribute, Rev-Elation (Sharp Nine, 2005), Locke's intrepid and flexible nature means he always finds the deepest meaning, regardless of context.
Van Gogh by Numbers teams him with Christos Rafalides, a late-1990s graduate student of Locke's from the Manhattan School of Music. Rafalides may have been his student then, but he's on equal footing here, fully sharing the spotlight in both composition and performance. Locke stays mainly on vibes and Rafalides on marimba, the two swapping instruments only twiceon Rafalides' bright "Pandora's Dance" and Locke's poignant "Waking Now, I Wonder."
The textural nature of the two instrumentsthe vibes' brighter colours and the marimba's darker, woodier soundworks exceptionally well together, creating a sound that's full yet spacious. While there's room for dense harmonic clusters, the music never become cluttered. Locke's title track sets the tone for the album, often made up of long-form and winding melodies with shifting bar lines and a seamless tag-team approach to trading solo and accompaniment duties.
Locke's "Suite di Morleo" first surfaced on Four Walls of Freedom's eponymous 2003 debut, and "Movement #3: Waking Now, I Wonder" appeared in a more melancholy reading on woodwind multi-instrumentalist Tim Garland's Storms/Nocturnes (Sirocco, 2001) as "The Lost Lenore." The duo's approach to this suite proves just how malleable Locke's writing can be. The first movement features an elegant Locke solo that demonstrates just how well he can marry formidable technique with the emotional needs of a song. The second movement, while ultimately resolving into something more rhythmic, remains more a slow simmer than the energetic boil of Four Walls of Freedom. The third movement is taken at a faster pace than on Storms/Nocturnes; Locke's marimba carries the pulse, while Rafalides' vibes stand out up front with the lyrical melody.
The duo also reinvents a pair of standards. "Love is a Many Splendored Thing" becomes an idiosyncratic 9/8 romp, while Miles Davis/Bill Evans' "Blue in Green" trades in its more atmospheric origins for a surprisingly insistent pulse.
Throughout Van Gogh by Numbers Locke and Rafalides demonstrate the kind of shared understanding that explains why the duet is perhaps the most intimate of all possible musical ensembles. With only two players in the conversation, it's possible for each one to be totally focused on what the other is saying without interruption, and both Locke and Rafalides are sensitive listeners indeed.
This recording is available at CDBaby on the web.
Personnel: Joe Locke: vibes, marimba (5, 8); Christos Rafalides: marimba, vibes (5, 8).