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Joe Locke: Force of Four

John Kelman By

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Joe Locke couldn't have picked a better name for Force of Four. While not as overtly plugged in as the potent, near fusion-esque Live in Seattle (Origin, 2006) with his Joe Locke/Geoffrey Keezer Group, it's an equally electrifying date that revisits the same format—vibes, piano, bass and drums—but with an all-new line-up.

It's taken time for critics and fans to catch up, but with Down Beat's Talent Deserving Wider Recognition nod, the Jazz Journalists Association's Mallet Player of the Year award, and an increasingly busy tour schedule, the elusive spotlight has finally found him. Force of Four embodies everything that Locke is about—an undeniable reverence for tradition while, at the same time, ears wide open to what's going on around him and an ever-watchful eye for ways to move the music forward.

Locke's arrangement of "No Moe" twists Sonny Rollins' familiar bebop theme on its side by layering it over a spacious yet funky rhythm that gives it a modernistic makeover. A swinging middle section—where Locke's inestimable chops blend seamlessly with his characteristically focused approach—is but one of Force of Four's many lessons in the construction of meaningful narrative, with pianist Robert Rodriguez and guest trumpeter Thomas Marriott echoing Locke's nimble but ever-melodic approach. Bassist Ricardo Rodriguez and drummer Johnathan Blake create the kind of unshakable yet fluid groove that allows the music to navigate unexpected territory even as it adheres to defined form.

Locke's quartet is both powerful and flexible enough to wind its way through three tunes by Locke, one each by the Rodriguez's and "Laura"—another decades-old tune to receive a rhythmic and harmonic update while still retaining the core lyricism that's made this Johnny Mercer/David Raksin collaboration such an often-covered classic. "Blue November" is a deceptively light but visceral tune by mallet player Christos Rafalides—with whom Locke collaborated on the underappreciated Van Gogh by Numbers (Wire Walker, 2006)—one of two pieces to feature saxophonist Wayne Escoffery and one of three where Robert Rodriguez switches to electric piano.

He may not be prolific, but Locke is as thoughtful and compelling with a pen as he is a set of mallets. The up-tempo, odd-metered "Alpha Punk" uses a serpentine melody over a descending series of chords to set up lengthy, energetic solos from Escoffery and Locke, while the shifting landscapes of "Ruminations" and the more pensive, rubato "Available in Blue" focus on the vibraphonist's deep appreciation for the clean line and spiritually resonant.

Since his 4 Walls of Freedom group and Dear Life (Sirocco, 2004), Locke has demonstrated remarkable instinct for recruiting the ideal line-up for every project. As with Terreon Gully in the Locke/Keezer Group, Blake is the perfect choice here, capable of pure color and emphatic pulse. But he's only one of four stars who make Force of Four another winner in a string of albums by the consistently inventive and evocative Locke.

Track Listing: Like Joe; Ruminations; Ricky's Tune; No Moe; Available in Blue; Alpha Punk; Laura; Blue November.

Personnel: Joe Locke: vibes; Robert Rodriguez: piano; Johnathan Blake: drums; Ricardo Rodriguez: bass; Wayne Escoffery: tenor sax (6, 8); Thomas Marriott: trumpet (4).

Title: Force of Four | Year Released: 2008 | Record Label: Origin Records

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