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Joe Locke: Joe Locke: Love is a Pendulum

John Kelman By

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Since signing with Motėma Music a couple years back, vibraphonist Joe Locke has been releasing some of the best and most diverse music in a career now entering its fourth decade. From the near-fusion energy of 2012's Signing—the long overdue studio followup to the Joe Locke / Geoffrey Keezer group's incendiary Live in Seattle (Origin, 2006)—to the expansive beauty of his 2013 quartet collaboration with Lincoln, Nebraska's Symphony Orchestra on Wish Upon a Star and, just a few months later the same year, an exploration of two musical forms that have been of seminal importance to the vibraphonist, Lay Down My Heart -Blues & Ballads Vol 1, Locke has been afforded virtual carte blanche to look forward and, perhaps for the first time in his career, plan out a series of recordings that demonstrate the depth and breadth of a vibraphonist who has, slowly but surely, emerged as one of the finest—if not the finest—of his generation.

Words have always meant a lot to Locke, even when the majority of his music is instrumental; poetry and literature are regular pastimes for the vibraphonist, and so it's no surprise to see that the central core of Love is a Pendulum is inspired by multi-dimensional artist Barbara Sfraga's poem of the same name. Bookended by "Variation On Wisdom"—a relatively brief, through-composed album opener that, in its innate marriage of challenging complexity and irrepressible lyricism, is the perfect set-up for the five-part, 44-minute "Love is a Pendulum" suite that follows— and three closing tracks that include the fiery "Last Ditch Wisdom," from which the opening "Variation" is drawn, Love is a Pendulum is Locke's first album in many years to be based around a core quartet augmented by a number of guests including saxophonists Rosario Giuliani and Donny McCaslin, vocalist Theo Bleckmann, guitarist Paul Bollenback (last heard with Locke on the triptych of albums for the now-defunct Sirocco Jazz label, beginning with 2001's Beauty Burning and concluding with 2002's State of Soul) and steel pan player Victor Provost.

Love is a Pendulum is, in fact, Locke's first album since State of Soul to feature an expanded lineup to any significant degree (2008's Force of Four (Origin) featured a couple of guests, but only on a couple of tracks), and the first since his wonderful but short-lived Four Walls of Freedom group last heard on Dear Life (Sirocco, 2004) to feature the vibraphonist with horns in any significant way. The addition of Giuliani on six of Love is a Pendulum's nine tracks is key to the record's success, as is Locke's recruitment of the equally redoubtable McCaslin on two of those compositions and, on the "Love is a Pendulum" suite's closing movement "Love is Perpetual Motion," the addition of Provost, turning Locke's quartet into a sophisticated septet with plenty of potential and creating, in its astute blending of vibes and steel pans, an appealing textural palette new to Locke and one which certainly warrants further exploration.

With the entire set grounded by Terreon Gully—a drummer who brings a very specific kind of energy to any date with which he's associated but in particular with Locke, as a member of the Joe Locke / Geoffrey Keezer Group— Love is a Pendulum may be the vibraphonist's most ambitious record yet. With plenty of through-composed music, it takes a special kind of group to take the music off the page and breathe life into it, but with Gully (who co-produced the album with Locke) joined by pianist Robert Rodriguez and bassist Ricky Rodriguez—both members of Locke's quartet responsible for Force of Four— Locke has a quartet capable of traversing considerable territory. From the balladry of "For Jesse Mountain" (a song crying out for lyrics) and similarly low-keyed album closer "Embrace" that, based on the jazz standard "Embraceable You," was written as a feature for Provost (and an impressive one at that), to the knottily constructed but ultimately relentlessly swinging "Last Ditch Wisdom," where Giuliani delivers his most potent solo of the set, Locke's core quartet doesn't just lift his music off the written page, they make it leap out of the speakers, filling the room with an energy that's almost uncontainable, whether it be a ballad or a more buoyant tune.

Bleckmann adds electronically induced clouds of wordless vocals during the introduction to "Love is a Planchette," a gently swinging piece that still manages to suggest a more powerful undercurrent, while Bollenback, despite not being featured as as soloist, contributes much to "For Jesse Mountain" with his crystalline acoustic guitar work.

Still, despite plenty of room afforded to his band mates and guests, the star of Love is a Pendulum remains Locke, a vibraphonist whose effortlessly virtuosity is given plenty of opportunity to shine on tracks like "Last Ditch Wisdom," but whose equally important allegiance to melody is a defining quality on tracks like "Love is Letting Go," where his a cappella introduction, lasting nearly half of the track's five-minutes, is as impressive for the notes he chooses not to play as it is for those he does. It's the kind of introduction to a rubato tone poem at which Locke excels, and if his trade-offs with Provost on "Love is Perpetual Motion" are, like his positively nuclear, motivic solo on "Last Ditch Wisdom," more immediately impressive, it's his more understated work on tracks like "Love is Letting Go" that somehow manages to remain more memorable in the long-term. Of course, Locke has to possess instrumental mastery to do what he does, but it's when he applies that mastery to remain in service of the song that he truly excels as a selfless player who always places that song ahead of himself.

As a composer, Locke has continued to evolve over the years to the point where, in the middle of the new millennium's second decade, there's clearly little beyond his reach. As important as Love is a Pendulum is—and it is important—it's when the record is taken in context with the three other albums he's released on Motėma since 2012 that his significance becomes clear. There are, no doubt, other vibraphonists who can accomplish what Locke has in terms of overt virtuosity; but few, if any, have imbued their music with the kind of multidisciplinary interests that have driven the vibraphonist throughout his career, culminating with Love is a Pendulum—truly one of Locke's most compelling and commanding recordings to date.

Track Listing: Variation On Wisdom; Love Is The Tide; Love Is A Planchette; Love Is A Pendulum; Love Is Letting Go; Love Is Perpetual Motion; For Jesse Mountain; Last Ditch Wisdom; Embrace.

Personnel: Joe Locke: vibes; Robert Rodriguez: piano; Terreon Gully: drums; Ricky Rodriguez: acoustic and electric bass; Rosario Giuliani: alto saxophone (2, 5-8), soprano saxophone (4); Donny McCaslin: tenor saxophone (6, 7); Victor Provost: steel pan (6, 9); Theo Bleckmann: voice (3); Paul Bollenback: guitar (1, 7).

Title: Joe Locke: Love is a Pendulum | Year Released: 2015 | Record Label: Motéma Music


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