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Joe Locke's Love Affair with Language


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On the surface it's not so easy to spot the common thread unifying the greater fabric of Joe Locke's work. Since arriving in New York City in 1981, and emerging as a notable leader on record in the early '90s, this much-vaunted vibraphonist has developed into a protean performer and composer. Duo sessions with pianists Frank Kimbrough and Kenny Barron, a collaboration with vocalist Kenny Washington, dates co-led with pianists David Hazeltine and Geoffrey Keezer, an album with Lincoln's Symphony Orchestra, straight-ahead sounds, left-of-center excursions, and long form works all figure into his discography, making it all the more difficult to spot said common thread. But it's right there, sewn into the music in subtle and not-so-subtle ways: the influence of language—poetry, literature, words, even a simple remark uttered in passing—on the very different medium of music.

For Locke, a metaphor can serve as muse, a turn of phrase can provide the DNA for new musical life, and a poem can be the key to unlocking the door to deeper meaning. And with the release of Love Is a Pendulum (Motéma Music, 2015)—perhaps the most personal and emotionally charged work that Locke has yet produced—that relationship between words and music is fully illuminated.

Love Is a Pendulum

Like a pendulum, the Barbara Sfraga poem that inspired this work slowly swung back and forth in Locke's mind, wearing a permanent groove into his psyche. And Locke has the author herself—a multifaceted writer-lyricist-vocalist who's worked with everybody from pianist Fred Hersch to vocalist Mark Murphy—to thank for it. "I've been friends with Barbara for a long time, and I bumped into her at the The Iridium," Locke recalls. "She gave me this little book called The Subway Series, poems of Barbara Sfraga. I said 'Thank you,' and I took it, and I had it by my nightstand. I started leafing through it one night, and this poem—'Love Is a Pendulum'—really got me."

It's a powerful poem that views love through five metaphorical lenses, each drawn at the outset of a new stanza and undergoing complete examination and dissection in the lines that follow. These metaphorical statements—"Love is a pendulum," "Love is the tide," "Love is perpetual motion," "Love is a planchette," and "Love is letting go"—would go on to serve as compasses for Locke during the album's lengthy development process. "It started gestating around 2010," Locke remembers. "I began with 'Love Is a Pendulum.' I wasn't trying to be programmatic, and I wasn't really thinking about the poem until I was partway into the A section of the composition. Then I said, 'Hmm, this is something I've never really played before—this harmonic sequence, these chords, these arpeggios.' I said, 'This is new to me,' and I just became aware then that her poem had been swimming around," he continues. "So I went back and read the poem and said, 'I want to make this into a suite.'"

The result—curious-sounding and gently probing in certain places, firm and aggressive in others—got the ball rolling, but it didn't define the project, as Locke rejected a one-size-fits-all approach in responding to each stanza. In the case of "Love Is the Tide," he was interested in taking a more programmatic, picturesque tack. "I was thinking about waves crashing and pouring and receding, and the power of that. In the poem, [Sfraga] says 'Love Is the Tide / A pumping, surging undertow that will take you down, pop you up / And drench you in its power.' And when I think about the emotional power around love, I think of the blues and the strength of the blues. So I wanted to have all of this undercurrent or activity—the undertow, if you will. But on top of it all, it's the blues." It comes through loud and clear in the steady, grooving flow that pianist Robert Rodriguez, bassist Ricky Rodriguez, and drummer Terreon Gully lay down beneath Locke and saxophonist Rosario Giuliani's relatively simple melody line.

In both instances, as well as the suite's three other movements, Locke, his quartet mates, and selected guest artists bring Sfraga's wide-ranging reflections on love to life, balancing strength and sensitivity, stability and volatility, newness and repetition, and introspection and extraversion in the music. "Love Is a Planchette" seemingly levitates, as Theo Bleckmann's celestial vocals create a gentle halo supporting Locke's melodic musings, all the while emphasizing the need for a light touch if love is to be able to continually and freely move about; the conversational banter between Giuliani and tenor saxophonist Donny McCaslin that launches "Love Is Perpetual Motion," as well as the back-and-forth between Locke and steel pan virtuoso Victor Provost later on, are the very embodiment of that concept; and Locke and Giuliani take an appropriately reflective turn with "Love Is Letting Go."

Phrases Feed Creation

Though Locke takes inspiration from poetry, novels, and other forms of written and oral expression, his imagination seems to be most readily fired by short phrases, often heard almost at random. The song "Available in Blue," which Locke recorded with a quartet on Force of Four (Origin Records, 2008) and subsequently with Lincoln's Symphony Orchestra on Wish Upon a Star (Motéma Music, 2012), is a good example. "It's a ballad; it's probably the simplest ballad I've ever written. And it's one of my best pieces," Locke contends. "I was in a clothing store, and there was a woman in front of me, and she was buying a sweater. I was waiting for my turn [at the register], and I heard the woman say, 'Is this available in blue?' And when she said that, all of a sudden, I don't know what I was thinking. It was almost like I misheard her, thinking she said, 'I'm available in blue.'" Locke continues:

And in my mind, in that moment, I wrote a novella about this woman's life. I went home and sat at the piano and already knew what the title of the song was—"Available in Blue"—and the song just came out. But the song would never have been written if I hadn't heard that woman say, "Is this available in blue?" And all I heard was "Available in Blue." It's about this woman who was a beautiful, sad woman who was looking and yearning for love, and she was available. But there was a sadness with her, so she was "Available in Blue." And that song was born just from hearing a phrase.

One of Locke's most recent compositions (it has yet to be recorded) offers another example: it was born of an epiphany experienced while watching Orphans, an Alan J. Paluka film about the pseudo-familial relationship that develops between an older criminal and two parentless brothers living a ramshackle existence. Albert Finney plays the world-wise criminal-turned-father figure, Matthew Modine the older, controlling brother, and Kevin Anderson his (somewhat) intellectually disabled sibling, who has shaped his worldview solely around what Modine's character has told him. Locke was especially struck by an episode in which Finney's character offers the younger brother a poignant explanation about his place in the cosmos. As Locke describes it: "So Finney says [something like], 'Ok. You see. Here. Right here on the map, you see. This is your house. You're at 620 Houser Street, in the city of Newark, in the state of New Jersey, in the United States, on the continent of North America, and you're safe and sound at the edge of the Milky Way.'" It was those last few words that got Locke's synapses firing: "I love the paradox there—'safe and sound at the edge of the Milky Way.' He's telling the kid where he lives. He's giving him this incredible gift by saying, 'Here's where you are.' There's some heartrending humanity in that phrase. There's something that makes me cry, just from uttering the phrase. And that's because it expresses the vulnerability that we all live under, that we all live in. And that was the inspiration for the song—'(Safe and Sound) At the Edge of the Milky Way.'"

Poetry, cinematic speech, misheard remarks, and chance encounters have all served as seeds of inspiration, but for Locke, the relationship between words and music doesn't end there. The story behind one of his best-known compositions, "Sword of Whispers," entwines the written word with a moving tribute to the late, legendary vocalist Jimmy Scott. One of Locke's favorite records in his youth was a Lionel Hampton big band recording: "On the record was this tune, with this female singer singing [Hampton's own song] 'Everybody's Somebody's Fool.' And I'd put the needle back and listen again and again." Locke can still rattle off the lyrics, which have been forever etched in his mind. "And I called Steve Davis, who lived in Rochester at the time, who was Coltrane's bassist on My Favorite Things," Locke continues. "I said, 'Steve, I can't stop listening to this female vocalist singing "Everybody's Somebody's Fool" on this Lionel Hampton record.' And he said, 'That's not a woman, that's Little Jimmy Scott from Cleveland!'" Locke found Scott's interpretation of that piece so affecting and powerful that it ultimately altered his very understanding of the tune. "Sometimes, I won't understand or like a song until I hear a certain singer sing it in a certain way. Then, all of a sudden, I understand what the lyric means. And that was the case with this song. The way that Jimmy would hang back on the beat [was incredible]. He'd be so far behind the beat that it would feel like he lost it...but he never did."

The story picks back up twenty years later: "The phone rings, and it's Jimmy Scott on the other end of the phone. And he says, 'I'd like you to come into the studio and do a couple things.' [He brought in] me, and [guitarist] Joe Beck, and [saxophonist David] 'Fathead' Newman. So I go to the studio and—I'm not [kidding], hand on the bible—I said, 'Mr. Scott, what would you like to do today?' And Jimmy looks at me, and he says, 'There's this old tune that I haven't done in a long time and I'd like to dust it off.' And he asks me if I've ever heard a song called 'Everybody's Somebody's Fool.'" Locke still gets chills thinking about that moment. "When he said that to me, I felt like somebody was putting me on, like there were cameras somewhere, and somebody was recording it. But it wasn't [a put on]. And I'll never forget that feeling of being in the studio for that tune. It was just me, and Joe Beck—playing alto guitar—and Jimmy. And I'm in the booth with the headphones on, and Jimmy's singing 'Everybody's Somebody's Fool,' looking at me through the glass like he's singing just for me," Locke says, in a state of awe. "It was a red-letter day."

Even further down the line, Locke happened on a newspaper article about Scott, in which producer Joel Dorn recalled a 1960 performance where Scott was slotted between The Coasters and Ray Charles. Recalling that unenviable billing, Dorn found the perfect words with which to capture the paradoxical wonders of Jimmy Scott's art: "Sandwiched in between thunder and lightning," said Dorn, "Jimmy slew that audience with a sword made of whispers." And when Locke discovered that quote, his "Sword of Whispers" was forged. "If you know Jimmy's life," remarks Locke, "the 'sword' is part of it. He'd been through the crucible of life, and he'd come out the other side tempered like steel. There's the 'sword.' But if you know Jimmy Scott, [you also know] he's famous for singing ballads. And the way he butterflies his soul open, just butterflies it open and lays it out on the table for you, is the 'whispers' part." The song is a reflection of that duality, projecting both tremendous tenderness and resolute strength. Both qualities seem to shine through regardless of the instrumental context: Locke has recorded it to equally impressive effect with Trio Da Paz, Lincoln's Symphony Orchestra, his own "Sticks and Strings" quartet, and as a duet with fellow mallet player Christos Rafalides.

Lessons Beyond Music: On Discovery Through Limitations, Whitman, and Tintoretto

Though few other jazz artists (vocalists aside) have extracted quite so much musical meaning from words, it's not difficult to understand why the two are connected for Locke: his mother played piano, teaching him the nuts and bolts of music early on, and his father was a Classics professor—an expert on the study of ancient Greek and Latin literature, philosophy, and history—at the University of Rochester. So in a sense, this shared passion for words and music was embedded at birth and was continually imparted to him throughout childhood. And it's that passion that informs his worldview, something he generously shares with aspiring musicians.

When Locke isn't busy writing, recording, or touring, he can often be found teaching. Having previously taught at the Manhattan School of Music, he presently imparts his wisdom at the Royal Academy of Music in London, where he is on the visiting faculty, and he often presents master classes at other educational institutions throughout the world. In the course of these travels, Locke helps to open many a musical door, breaking down theoretical barriers for improvisers and encouraging non-improvisers to take the plunge. But his work isn't limited to that. Some of his greatest grains of wisdom have nothing to do with the notes on a page or chord changes. "In my teaching, a lot of times I like to talk about extra-musical things," Locke notes. "Things that don't pertain immediately to music, but [things that] I think are really important and essential to creating art and being human. Ultimately, that's what being a musician is supposed to reflect," he remarks.

One of Locke's favorites is Ernest Kurtz and Katherine Ketcham's The Spirituality of Imperfection, a syncrectic-minded meditation on how to come to terms with one's flaws. He feels it to be a book that has important lessons to offer musicians, be they students or professionals, who are often focused to a fault on technique and the pursuit of musical mastery. "[What] I got from this book is that our weaknesses, our failures, our addictions, our inability to get it right are 'the wound that lets God in.' A lot of times we wear our strengths as armor, so nothing can pierce us, but it's in our weaknesses—that soft underbelly—where our most beautiful humanity lies." Locke then decides to approach the question from a different angle:

There's the famous story of somebody asking Michelangelo how he created the statue of David, and he said, "Well, I took a hunk of marble and chipped away everything that wasn't David." I love that, because, to me, as a musician, I try so hard to get things right, but no matter how hard I practice, there are just some things that I can't get. And I've come to understand that those things that I just can't get, no matter how hard I try, are the extraneous marble intended for the studio floor. If we all could do everything, we'd all sound the same. But because we all have strengths—and just important, weaknesses—there's really a differentiation and a beauty of variety. Not only are you not expected to get it all right, but the stuff that you don't get right helps to inform your musical personality or who you are. It's helpful for me to talk about because I need to be constantly reminded [about it], because I tend to really beat myself up about the stuff I don't get right.

Locke's desire to share these extra-musical thoughts with students came, to some extent, from his own acts of personal discovery and enlightenment. "I started talking about this stuff because I had done a masterclass in Portland. I had asked the head of jazz there—Darrell Grant—if I could warm up on piano, because I was going to play all of these dazzling things...and I was going to talk [about] all of this intellectual stuff. And why? Because I wanted to show everyone how smart I was," Locke reveals. "So I went into his office and opened the lid of the piano, and there was a Post-it note there. And it just said, 'Show yourself.' It's a note that Darrell had put there to remind himself why he practiced," notes Locke. "And I went out and taught the masterclass, but didn't talk about any of the stuff that I [just] talked about. I went in a completely different direction after seeing that Post-it note. I talked about, 'What's the best thing we can bring?' And it's our humanity. It's connecting, it's doing something where we can be the most fully ourselves, the most humanly ourselves...and for another person to see themselves in that, and by seeing themselves in that, feel not so alone in the world."

The topic of personal discovery leads Locke to bring up Walt Whitman and his "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry," from Leaves of Grass. "I read that to students when I do master classes. And I'm sure there are some that think, 'Who's this crazy guy reading us poetry when we want to talk about vibe stickings or chord substitutions? Why is this guy talking about Walt Whitman?' And I'll say to them, 'You may not get what I'm talking about now, but you may get it five years from now, or ten years from now, or twenty years from now.'" Locke identifies profoundly with the poem's narrator: "He's standing on the Brooklyn Ferry, crossing from Manhattan to Brooklyn. And he's seeing the sea of humanity, and he's saying he's connected to all of these people, watching the boats and watching people moving about their day...and each one is going about with their lives, and each one is dealing with the tos and fros of existence. He's saying, 'I'm with them,' and not only with them, but with the generations hence." Locke often shares this passage in particular (from the 1871 version of the text):

It avails not, neither time or place—distance avails not;
I am with you, you men and women of a generation, or ever so many generations hence;
I project myself—also I return—I am with you, and know how it is.

Just as you feel when you look on the river and sky, so I felt;
Just as any of you is one of a living crowd, I was one of a crowd;
Just as you are refresh'd by the gladness of the river and the bright flow, I was refresh'd;
Just as you stand and lean on the rail, yet hurry with the swift current, I stood, yet was hurried;
Just as you look on the numberless masts of ships, and the thick-stem'd pipes of steamboats, I look'd.

And in those words of Whitman, Locke gets to the heart of art. "It's this feeling, talking about connection. Ultimately, whether it's jazz or literature or poetry or painting, that's what it's about. The analogy I like," he continues, "is that we used to sit around the campfire for safety, and to feel together, and to feel a sense of community. We'd be afraid together or we'd be jubilant together or we'd tell stories about those who came before us, or our plans of what's to come. [Now] we've lost the campfire, but anytime we come together or share our humanity in community, we're seated at that campfire again, and we desperately need that, and Whitman speaks to that in 'Crossing Brooklyn Ferry.'"

Locke once experienced that profound sensation on a trip to Venice, after ending up in the Scuola Grande di San Rocco: "I walked into this room, and there were all of these frescos by Tintoretto. I just sat and looked at one for minutes and minutes and minutes. It was a painting of Christ, after he had been removed from the cross," he explains.

I'm not religious, and I wasn't moved by the narrative of the painting, but I was still incredibly moved [at that moment] because I felt the hand of the artist reach through the painting to grab me, four hundred years later. I felt like he came through the painting and, not that he touched my heart, but he grabbed it, or shook it. And it was a palpable, tangible feeling. Like the feeling of having a once-in-a-lifetime, out-of-body experience. I felt that Tintoretto was alive. That painting was alive. His theme was alive. He had created it, and by the creation of that painting, it still lives, because it was communicating to me. And it was profoundly affecting, and I think that's what Whitman is talking about in "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry," and it's what comes across when I listen to [Coltrane's] A Love Supreme. And that's the correlation between music and literature for me, because it doesn't matter what the form is. We just talked about three different disciplines, and where's the juice? The juice is in how it touches us.

Photo credit: John Abbott

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