Joe Locke: Joe Locke: Lay Down My Heart - Blues & Ballads Vol 1

John Kelman By

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In a rarefied space, Joe Locke continues to evolve, engage and impress. There simply isn't another vibraphonist of his generation with Locke's stellar chops, thorough understanding of history/tradition—not just of jazz, but of music, period—and ability to build programs based on thematic concepts that not only stand out in his gradually growing discography, but fit contextually within it to create an actual oeuvre, an ever- expanding body of work that represents an artist whose number one priority is always the music—always the song. In the last year, since signing with Motéma Music, Locke has released Signing (2012), the forward-looking studio follow-up to his incendiary Live in Seattle (Origin, 2006), with the energetic and electric Joe Locke / Goeffrey Keezer Group, and Wish Upon a Star (2013), his ambitious, largely balladic orchestral record with Lincoln's Symphony Orchestra that presented yet another side to this unerringly inventive vibraphonist's artistry.

Lay Down My Heart: Blues & Ballads Vol 1 may not be as groundbreaking as Signing, nor as overtly ambitious as Wish Upon a Star, but as the third part of this one-year musical triptych, it's equally important, because it's an album that demonstrates Locke's unfailing love of melody, whether it comes from the Great American Songbook, rock, R&B...or from Locke's own pen. Pianist Ryan Cohan returns from Wish Upon a Star, in a quartet rounded out by bassist David Finck—not a household name, perhaps, but, with a résumé that ranges from pianists Steve Kuhn and John Medeski to singers Tony Bennett, Paul Simon and Sting, clearly a popular choice amongst musicians—and up-and-coming drummer Jaimeo Brown, whose Transcendence (Motéma, 2013) has already garnered substantial acclaim in the two months since it was released.

Lay Down My Heart may be more about playing, and with the visceral combination of Finck's deep-in-the-gut bass and Brown's loose backbeat that kicks off the album-opening "Ain't No Sunshine," it's also clear that this is also an album that's going to groove, whether it's Locke's look at this Bill Withers' R&B classic, a version of bassist Sam Jones' "Bittersweet" that moves into a brisk double-time swing for brief but impressive solos from Locke, Cohan and Finck, or a gently funky reading of the Walter Donaldson/Gus Kahn's classic, "Makin' Whoopee," where Locke's added intro to each verse reshapes the tune for the 21st century.

As much as these tunes fit the "Blues" half of Lay Down My Heart's subtitle, it's the other half that may even be closer to Locke's heart. His own compositional contributions to the record are, in fact, both ballads, though they couldn't be more different. "Broken Toy," first heard on his duo recording with pianist Frank Kimbrough, The Willow (Omnitone, 2002), unfolds with gradually increasing drama, his solo building to a peak of melodic invention and effortless virtuosity, while "This New October," written for this date, is more ethereal, his opening a cappella solo a beautiful exploration of his instrument's textural possibilities before the band enters and, again, builds to more vibrant climaxes during its solo sections.

But it may be the vibraphonist's version of Bonnie Raitt's hit, "I Can't Make You Love Me," that reveals both Locke and Lay Down My Heart's most honest vulnerablility and passion for melody. Eschewing modern reharmonization and, instead, just playing the tune—with the exception of an intro whose changes hearken back to Locke's interpretation of James Taylor's "Native Son" on Live in Seattle— and the quartet's intrinsic sense of dynamics make this a definitive reading rather than resorting to superfluous solos that would, in fact, spoil what is already a near-perfect song. Cohan does take the lead on the outro, but never loses site of the song's essence, the song's heart. Given the broad range of Locke's output in the past year, it's hard to anticipate what's coming next after the triple punch of Signing, Wish Upon a Star, and now, the utterly engaging Lay Down My Heart. With its perfect combination of song choice and performance from a vibraphonist and quartet that really know how to find and mine the core of every song, it's a sure bet that wherever Locke goes next, it'll be a trip well-worth following.

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