Joe Locke: Versatile Vibes Master

R.J. DeLuke BY

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Jazz has a history of inclusiveness, accepting the influences of music from around the globe. It also knows no boundaries when it comes to instrumentation, accommodating all kinds of axes if they are played in the spirit of jazz. Rufus Harley even brought the unlikely bagpipes into the lexicon, playing the sound of surprise on the cumbersome instrument.

Is it broad enough to welcome its first virtuoso glockenspielist... glockenspieler? ... glockenspielarian? Alas, the world may never know. Nearly four decades ago the glockenspiel was proposed to a budding musician in western New York State—a suggestion that oddly, but fortuitously, resulted in the young man taking up the vibraphone. The jazz gods work in mysterious ways. (Lester Young once told Down Beat magazine that he gave up the drums as a youngster because by the time he got done breaking them down after a gig, all the nice looking girls were gone). But Joe Locke, now 50, is clearly one of the bright voices on his instrument; a player with a pristine tone and delightful ideas no matter what musical setting he selects.

Locke says the glockenspiel idea was one that came out of the blue from his mother. "You know in a marching band there's the person that plays the glockenspiel? The glockenspiel is like the xylophone, but it's kind of like a harp. You march with it and you've got the big hat with the feather in it. And you play this marching xylophone. It's like marching orchestra bells. In the hierarchy of [high] school, at the top you had the jocks, then you had the cool kids, the freaks, the hippies. Then you had the smart kids, the chess club. Then at the bottom, you had the nerds, right? Under the nerds you had the glockenspiel player in the marching band," he recalls with laughter. "The nerds would kick his butt after school."

"My mother, for some reason, thought it would be really cool if I played the glockenspiel. She came into my room one day and said, 'Joe. I saw an ad in the newspaper for a vibraphone. I think that's something like a glockenspiel. Let's go have a look at it.' It was a Jenco vibraphone for $200, which is unbelievable. Vibes at that time cost at least a few thousand dollars. We brought that vibraphone home. It sat in my room for a year. I didn't know what to do with it. Then one day I just started playing it and I never stopped."

The rest is part of history, but there is more to be written as the year go on for the talented, self-taught Locke—twice decorated by the Jazz Journalists Association as the outstanding player on his instrument. He had some training in classical percussion and composition through a high school preparatory program at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York, where he lived. But he didn't go on to attend Eastman and didn't get any kind of help figuring out the vibes. Regardless, Locke was playing professionally at the age of 15 and would soon be out on the road as a fulltime working musician.

Locke is a natural on the instrument, an outstanding improviser with great melodic and harmonic sensibility. He has more than 25 recordings as a leader and appears on more than 100 others as a sideman. The setting can be fusion, mainstream and most anything in between, who listened to progressive rock and fusion like Weather Report and Return to Forever growing up, before he began investigating hardcore jazz. His latest recording, For the Love of You (E1 Music, 2010), finds Locke leading a session based around vocalist Kenny Washington - Vocals, melding his vibes and his band—featuring the superb piano of Geoffrey Keezer—into a sound that compliments and pushes the singer rather than being relegated to background.

Released in January, 2010, For the Love of You is a sparkling album that combines straight-ahead jazz with some groove-oriented, R&B-like numbers. It was designed with Washington, not to be confused with drummer Kenny Washington, in mind.

Joe LockeSays Locke, "A few years ago I walked into a venue on the west coast, in the bay area. I walked into this club to hear some music and hang out and Kenny was singing. I was knocked out. I said to myself that I really wanted to work with this guy."

Locke had done a project involving the music of Henry ManciniMoment to Moment: The Music of Henry Mancini, Milestone, 1995)—and was planning to bring that music into a performance at Dizzy's Coca Cola Club in New York City. "I thought to myself: All of these songs, which were instrumental arrangements, could be done as vocal tunes because, of course, they were all written as vocal tunes. I said why don't we add Kenny Washington to this mix? So we flew him out from California and added the vocals. He just killed it. The week was really successful. We did it again the next year. And the next year we added some other composers, like Johnny Mandel, Ennio Morricone."

Last year, Locke was approached by E1 music about making a recording. He had just finished doing a week with Washington and the band—George Mraz, Clarence Penn and Keezer—at Dizzy's. "I said I did have a project I'd love to do and it was this particular project." E1 jumped at the chance to record the project.

From left: Geoffrey Keezer, Kenny Washington, George Mraz Joe Locke, Clarence Penn

"It came out of doing the Mancini music and the film music. So you'll see on the record we have a Mancini tune, a Mandel tune, a Morricone tune," Locke says. "Then we didn't have to stick with that concept. So I added some original music of my own—a vocal tune, which I wrote words and music to, that's a tribute to the late saxophonist Bob Berg, 'Verrazano Moon.' I thought this was the perfect opportunity to do the vocal version of that tune with Kenny. We do a tune by the Isley Brothers, the title tune, 'For the Love of You.' The reason that I did that is because Kenny has a real understanding of not just the jazz lexicon, but R&B too. He has, in his musical DNA, Donnie Hathaway, Jackie Wilson and Marvin Gaye. It's part of who he is musically. So I wanted that to be expressed. There's even a Neil Young tune that I've always wanted to do just because it's a beautiful ballad ("Birds"). So it was really fun to put this project together."

The rhythm section throughout is stellar, with Mraz and Penn providing all the right feels, and Keezer expertly coloring every nuance and providing his own bright, inventive solos. The band gets to stretch out on Locke's instrumental, "Bright Side Up," and it's outstanding. Washington's voice is supple enough for jazz and indeed has a strong R&B feel. It's a recording that will bring his name into more conversations, and justifiably so. The fact that he worked with this band, not just a singer brought into a studio, shows in the cohesiveness of the music.

"It's not all swinging. The Isley Brothers and Neil Young stuff is more groove-oriented. But the focus is on swinging and pretty ballads," says Locke, an upbeat, effervescent guy with an easy manner and a generous soul. "Although the cats in the band bring such a personal thing to the music. If you listen to 'Old Devil Moon,' part of it very in-the-pocket swinging. It's a tune that has been done many times, but there's an energy in the track, with the arrangement, the vibes and piano and fourths, that has the vibe of a Bobby Hutcherson and McCoy Tyner kind of '60s energy. Yeah, the focus is on swinging, but it there is some modal playing going on and a modern approach.

"On some of the tunes the whole thing is to play pretty. Bring some beautiful music to the table and play pretty. I think there's always room for that... This is a more traditional project for me, but I really dig it and I feel happy to have had the opportunity to do it. It's nice to be able to express all the different aspects of one's personality. I love to write original music, but I love the Great American Songbook. I love to play unusual forms and contemporary music, but I love to swing out too. I'm pretty lucky. I've had the opportunity to do a lot of different stuff."

The group has since done another week at Dizzy's and has a few others dates on the horizon. For Locke and Keezer it marks the continuation of a musical relationship that goes back about 18 years. "We've had an ongoing musical friendship for a while now. We've played in so many contexts... He's one of my absolute favorite musicians, period."

Joe LockeThe two play duet gigs on occasion, have co-led quartets and, with saxophonist Tim Garland, comprise Storms/Nocturnes, an adventurous trio. In over 30 years on the scene as a jazz musician, Locke has played with people like Cecil Taylor, Dizzy Gillespie, Pepper Adams, Mongo Santamaria, Grover Washington Jr., Kenny Barron, Dianne Reeves, Rod Stewart, Eddie Henderson and the Mingus Big Band, among many others. Pretty good for a guy who started out on drums and piano at about the age of eight, before wood-shedding on the vibes.

"The vibraphone was right in between the two instruments and satisfied both urges, the rhythmic urge and the melodic urge. I found my voice. I found the vibraphone when I was 13. There was no looking back," he says. His high school had no music program, but that didn't stop Locke.

"I was listening to Return to Forever. I was listening to my older brother's records—Cream, Santana, Jefferson Airplane, Procol Harem, Hendrix, Paul Butterfield and all that stuff. I was listening to Weather Report and Mahavishnu Orchestra. When you're listening to Weather Report, you'd go to the record store and see an Art Blakey record and that guy Wayne Shorter was on the record. You'd check it out. When you're listening to Return to Forever and you see Lenny White playing drums, then you go to the record store—they had record stores back then—and you see Lenny White on a Joe Henderson album. You'd go, 'Oh. Let me check that out.' And you kind of go back that way. I think that's the way a lot of folks our age or younger got into the acoustic forms of the music."

One of his close friends, Joey Currazato, an alto saxophonist who died in 2009, was also instrumental in his music education. "He was like a jazz library. His apartment was chock-full of recordings. I could go over there and listen to music for eight hours at a time. He turned me on to everybody from Donald Byrd, Howard McGhee, Sonny Clark, Art Farmer. Players like Pony Poindexter and Eric Kloss, people that maybe I would never had heard of. Hadley Caliman, who I had the opportunity to record with a couple years ago in Seattle. I was turned onto him by Joey Currazato. I was very lucky to have someone like him to guide me, as to the right stuff to listen to."

He adds, "The first record I heard to turn me on to what I considered the real pure jazz stuff was a Jackie McLean record called Let Freedom Ring (Blue Note, 1962). I started listening to a lot of Jackie's music, a lot of Blue Note records. Most influential at the time was Jackie McLean, Lee Morgan and Hank Mobley. Then listening to Miles Davis' quintet with Jimmy Cobb and Wynton Kelly, Cannonball Adderley. People like that. I was listening to a lot of horn players and transcribing their solos as best I could. Trying to glean information from their playing."

The first album he heard with vibes was Mike Mainieri's Journey Through an Electric Tube (Solid State, 1968). Then Gary Burton's Good Vibes (Atlantic, 1970) made an impact, "where he was connecting fuzz and wah-wah pedals to the vibraphone and doing all kinds of wild stuff. Then I got hip to Milt Jackson and Bobby Hutcherson. Maybe Bobby before Bags. And vibes players like Dave Pike, Lem Winchester, Terry Gibbs. Lesser known but very good. Roy Ayres' early records were beautiful. So I was listening to everything."

After avoiding the glockenspiel, two years of figuring out the vibraphone in the meantime and starting to absorb jazz, he was playing around Rochester at the age of 15. "After I graduated from high school I got a call to go on the road with a cat named Spider Martin, who was a tenor player in the area and a working band leader. So when I was 17 I started playing professionally, traveling and touring, getting a chance to play a record. He would bring in guests for tours and recording like Pepper Adams, Jimmy Owens, Dizzy, Mongo Santamaria, Billy Hart. On the road, he'd end up doing gigs with Jack McDuff, Richard "Groove" Holmes. People like that. Jimmy McGriff. So I got a taste of the road and of being a professional jazz musician. I never looked back. The die was cast."

Joe LockeIn addition to getting road experience, there were other encounters that further his education. "I had the luxury of getting to do some concerts with Dizzy and listen to him tell stories," Locke notes. "I even had the opportunity, on a couple occasions, to sit with him at the piano and have him talk to me about harmony and how improvisation was all about knowing chords and the permutations of chords. I had the opportunity to room with Mongo Santamaria on some of the gigs. I used to hear great stories about his experiences as a bandleader. When I moved to New York, when I was 20 or 21, one of the first calls I got was from Walter Davis Jr. to do a concert and we became friends. I got the opportunity to learn some music from him. Much later on I played for a decade with Eddie Henderson, the great trumpet player. That was a great, invaluable experience for me, to get extensive time playing with someone like him."

"I had the opportunity to tour with Cecil Taylor. That was an amazing thing to play with Cecil and get inside his process. I feel like I've been real fortunate to have experiences wide in scope. Before I moved to New York or before I started playing music I would have thought this stuff was beyond my wildest dreams. So when I look back, I feel like a pretty lucky guy... I've learned from everyone I've played with. Not only the elder statesmen, but from my peers. And now from players much younger than me I'm learning a lot," he says with an unforced humility."

The process goes on for Locke, as it does all working musicians. In addition to the project surrounding his new CD, Locke also has his working band Force of Four, which will be touring this year. "It's very, very close to my heart. Robert Rodriguez on piano, Johnathan Blake on drums and Ricardo Rodriguez on bass are, besides being great guys, they're incredible musicians. I always feel inspired to play with them. They play the hell out of the music. It's important for me to keep pushing my own growth, my playing and writing, forward and to continue growing as a musician. I feel like those cats really help me... I'm really looking forward to that and recording with them again. I'm writing music for the band for the next record and the upcoming tour."

He continues to get calls to participate on projects of other musicians, lending his special touch, personal sense of swing and creative story-telling to whatever the situation.

"I can't complain," says Locke, who seems as though he wouldn't even given good reason. "So, onward and upward, man."

That's a direction Locke, no doubt, should be taking for some time to come.

Selected Discography

Joe Locke, For the Love of You (E1 Music, 2010)
Joe Locke, em>Mutual Admiration Society (Sharp Nine, 2009)
Edmar Castaneda, Entra Cuerdas (ArtistShare, 2009)
Joe Locke/Frank Kimbrough, Verrazano Moon (OmniTone, 2008)
Hadley Caliman, Gratitude (Origin, 2008)
Trio da Paz & Joe Locke, Live at Jazz Baltica (MaxJazz, 2008)
Joe Locke, Force of Four (Origin Records, 2008)
Joe Locke, Re-velation: The Music of Milt Jackson (Sharp Nine, 2005)
Joe Locke, Live in Seattle (Origin, 2006)
Joe Locke/Geoffrey Keezer Group, Summertime (SONY Music/Eighty-Eights, 2005)
Joe Locke/Geoffrey Keezer Group, The Summer Knows (Sirocco, 2004)
Joe Locke & Four Walls of Freedom, Dear Life (Sirocco, 2004)
Joe Locke, Beauty Burning (Sirocco, 2000)
Joe Locke, Slander and Other Love Songs (Milestone, 1998)
Joe Locke, Inner Space (Steeplechase, 1996)
Joe Locke Quartet, Moment to Moment: The Music of Henry Mancini (Milestone, 1995)
Joe Locke, But Beautiful (Steeplechase, 1991)
Joe Locke, Present Tense (Steeplechase, 1990)
Joe Locke, Restless Dreams (Chief Records, 1983)

Photo Credits

Page 1: Alexandros Lambrovassilis, Courtesy of Joe Locke

Page 2: Russ Titelman, Courtesy of Joe Locke

Pages 3, 4: Kay-Christian Heine

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