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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 - Drums, 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."


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