Joe Locke: Chemistry and Camaraderie

Seton Hawkins By

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Even within a musical genre noted for its artists' restless creativity and ability to meld and merge with other styles, vibraphonist Joe Locke stands out as exceptional for his unceasing musical curiosity and sweeping vision. Since his arrival on the New York jazz scene nearly 30 years ago, Locke has amassed a performance résumé that includes work with artists ranging from Dizzy Gillespie to Gunther Schuller to Cecil Taylor, a catalogue of nearly 30 albums as a bandleader, and a place as one of the most influential vibraphonists in jazz history.

A highly skilled collaborator whose musical voice melds smoothly with disparate artists, Locke has found a particular resonance with pianist Geoffrey Keezer. Forming an ensemble that would ultimately be known as The Joe Locke / Geoffrey Keezer Group, the two artists have performed and recorded extensively together, both in their own group and in the Storms/Nocturnes trio with woodwind multi-instrumentalist Tim Garland. While the Locke/Keezer Group temporarily went on a hiatus following 2006's exemplary Live in Seattle (Origin Music), the ensemble has since reunited to release Signing (Motéma, 2012). Featuring Locke and Keezer, alongside bassist Mike Pope and drummer Terreon Gully, Signing represents a veritable master class in the range of styles Locke and Keezer can deeply explore. Indeed, from the dark groove of the title track to the stark simplicity of "This Is Just to Say," to even a reverently faithful cover of Imogen Heap's pop masterwork "Hide and Seek," Signing stands as an extraordinary traverse of music—a reminder, for even the most jaded and cynical, of the undiluted joys of music making.

All About Jazz: Let's talk about the origin of this group. How did you and Geoffrey Keezer meet?

Joe Locke: I've been playing with Geoff for nearly 20 years. Although we went for quite a while without seeing one another, ultimately we reunited in the Storms/Nocturnes trio with Tim Garland and its subsequent touring. Later, Geoff was invited to record for Sony-Japan, and he was asked to select a horn player for the dates. Geoff replied that he didn't want a horn player; rather, he wanted me, and that marked the beginning of this quartet.

We recorded two albums in Japan under the moniker of the New Sound Quartet. The first, Summer Knows, was with Ed Howard and Terreon Gully, while the second album, Summertime (2004), featured Robert Hurst, Billy Kilson, and Eddie Henderson. We found a wonderful vibe performing as a group, but found on those two records that we were pushed more into recording standards. Then, in 2005, Geoff and I recorded Live in Seattle for Origin Music with our group, and we were encouraged to follow our vision on this album.

For me, that marked the real birth of this ensemble. The experience was incredible and made us want to continue this collaboration. We showed up for the date on no sleep whatsoever—we were, literally, Sleepless in Seattle—and it was the first time we had seen the music. But the chemistry was incredible, and that's what you hear on the album. These are really amazing cats.

Joe Locke Geoffrey Keezer Group—Live in SeattleAAJ: What led to the large space of time between Live in Seattle and Signing?

JL: We got involved in a number of different projects with other artists. Obviously, Storms/Nocturnes took up some of the slack, and Geoff got involved in a number of his projects. But this was always something I wanted to revisit, and the possibility really emerged when I signed with Motéma Records. I made it clear that I wanted to return to the Locke/Keezer Group, and so we worked out everyone's schedules and made it happen.

What I love is that while this album is a studio album, it still captures the same energy as the Live in Seattle record. We flew in from different cities with no rehearsal time. In fact, we simply gathered, talked through the music, and dove headfirst into recording. Almost everything on the record is a first take, and I think it demonstrates the remarkable chemistry of the group. We're completely in the moment on Signing, and I'm really happy with how it came out.

AAJ: Can you talk about the inspiration behind some of the pieces on Signing? Let's start with the title track.

JL: This notion defined the theme of the entire album. We constantly send signs to one another, and are always throwing signs everywhere, no matter the context: friendship, hostility, you name it. I think most of the signs we make each day are reflecting our efforts to make contact with one another.

My mother was a teacher of the deaf early in her life, prior to her meeting my dad. After he passed away, she moved to an apartment building nearby. Every day, when she went outside for fresh air, she noticed a man sitting alone in the lobby. She ultimately realized that he was deaf and blind, and so she walked over, sat next to him, put his open hand on hers and finger-spelled "My name is Mary." With that gesture, her life came full circle as his life opened up, and that connection they made remained unbroken throughout the rest of her life.

I think music can do the same for people who need to be reached in that way, and I believe that the prime directive for us is to connect and communicate. There's music on Signing that is complex, certainly; but there's also a great deal of music that is simple and direct. But ultimately, what I really love about this record is that the music that's particularly complex or sophisticated doesn't necessarily sound that way because the complex pieces have singable, memorable melodies.

AAJ: You're also inspired by poetry in a number of these compositions: "The Lost Lenore" is inspired by Edgar Allen Poe, while "This Is Just to Say" is inspired by William Carlos Williams. The Williams poem, in particular, certainly resonates with your goal of reaching people in a simple and direct way.

JL: When I was thinking about recording this album, I happened to be reading some of Williams' poetry, and stumbled across his poem "This Is Just to Say." It's a simple and beautiful piece of work about a man who takes a plum from his friend's icebox, eats it, and then writes his friend a brief note apologizing for doing so. It couldn't be simpler than that, and I found something so moving in this directness. I wanted to write something comparable within music.

For that, I was also inspired by the singer Bettye LaVette. The way she sings is so direct and her ability to connect with listeners is so visceral. I took these two sources of inspiration as my starting point. While I don't think I'll ever reach the level of William Carlos Williams, I was certainly aiming for that as I wrote the piece.

"The Lost Lenore" was written after I reread Poe's poem "The Raven." I returned to the work after a number of years, and I realized the degree to which the poem is a meditation on unrequited love. The narrator is pining for Lenore, and I wondered who she was and what she sounded like. We first recorded this piece with Storms/Nocturnes, and decided to revisit it on this album. Consequently Lenore is still brooding, but on this new version she's a bit more urban. She's got a little bit of funk in her now!
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