copyright © 2004 John Kelman
While vibraphonist Joe Locke has been on the scene for more than 20 years, it is only in the past half decade or so that his name has begun to reach a broader audience. This is in no small part due to his participation in two seminal groups: British reed player Tim Garland's Storms/Nocturnes Trio, which also features pianist Geoff Keezer and, perhaps most importantly, Locke's current group project, 4 Walls of Freedom, which has released two albums in the past three years to great critical acclaim, and has experienced its share of emotional upheaval in its short life, with the tragic death of original saxophonist Bob Berg.
With these two projects Locke has completely transcended his past reputation as a fine post-bop instrumentalist, demonstrating a more complete musical picture that includes everything from melodic chamber jazz to intensely personal compositions that bridge the gap between post-bop and a more lyrical contemporary style. But the road to where he is today has been a long one, paved with many great experiences and associations.
While Locke didn't exactly come from a musical family, music was definitely a part of his upbringing. "That's been misinterpreted a lot," says Locke. "A lot of people say my father was a classical music professor, but he was a classics professor; he was a scholar on ancient Latin and Greek literature. My brother played some acoustic guitar, but didn't go on to a career in professional music. And my mother plays; she was the product of a Boston Catholic education, and part of that was you learned to speak Latin and French, and you learned how to read music at the piano. So although she didn't have a musical nature per se, she could sight read.
"At the age of seven or eight," Locke continues, "I got interested in the drums. I remember going to the Bloods and Sacraments School in Rochester, and had drum lessons with Sister Sylvia, who was about 80 years old. She'd learn the lessons of every instrument the night before, and then teach the kids the next day. I took lessons on my little red sparkle snare drum, and went from there to getting a drum set. When my mother saw I was getting more interested in the drums and more serious about it, she said, 'If you're going to play the drums you have to take piano lessons, because rhythm is only part of the equation, and you need to learn your notes and you need to learn how to read music.' So she gave me piano lessons every Sunday morning, and by and large it would end in a fight, but by osmosis some of it started sinking in, and by the time I got to be 12 or 13, and found the vibraphone, I already had some grounding in drums and piano, and the vibraphone is right in the middle of the two instruments.
"It's a funny thing," he continues, "I wanted to play a melodic instrument, but I didn't want to become a piano player. I still considered myself a percussionist, but I wanted to play melody. There was a girl in my neighborhood, her name was Wendy Lipson, she was a friend of my sister Bea who is six years older than me, and she was very hip and had an important part in my becoming a musician. I remember going to her house and listening to Thelonious Monk's Underground, and John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman, and I think the first vibes record that I ever heard, a Mike Manieri album called Journey Through an Electronic Tube. I remember hearing this stuff at Wendy's house when I was eight or nine years old. And her dad, Joe Lipson, he used to play vibes. One day she said, 'Do you want to see something?' and she took me up to her attic and her dad's vibraphone was there. It was the first time I saw the instrument.
"So one day my mom saw an advertisement in the Want Ads for a Jenco vibraphone for $200, and we went and got it. I was 12 at the time, and I basically left it in my room for a year, and didn't know what to do with it — I threw dirty clothes on it, books — and then one day I cleared off the books and clothes and started playing, and literally never stopped."
While Locke had some formal music training, he is completely self-taught on the vibraphone. "I translated piano to vibes and that's what I still do. I got to take lessons with some wonderful teachers at the Preparatory Department of the Eastman School of Music. I remember taking orchestral snare drum, and as I entered high school and got more serious, I remember part of my percussion studies involved working out of the Morris Goldenberg book for xylophone, marimba and orchestral bells, working on etudes and taking some lessons in classical mallet playing, but that was the extent of it. I didn't get heavily into classical mallet playing. I was getting more and more into jazz and basically just learning. I studied improvisation with a brilliant pianist, Phil Markowitz; in the '70s he was a senior at the Eastman School and I was a 13-year-old, so he was my teacher, getting me into chord-scale relationships and playing over changes, which was a big help. Those studies taught me how to teach myself, so I got to the point where I could transcribe solos off records and figure out what they meant.
"When Phil left Eastman I studied with Bill Dobbins, who is an incredible musician and educator, and we did some more work with me transcribing solos, opening my ears up by transcribing some Hank Mobley, Coltrane, Milt Jackson and Bobby Hutcherson solos. I started to learn how to learn and I took it from there and have been self-taught ever since, but as a vibes player I've never studied with anyone."
While Milt Jackson and Bobby Hutcherson were to be the players Locke modeled himself after the most, his influences were broader and, to some extent, surprising.
"I remember really loving Gary Burton, although he didn't become a major influence on my playing. And someone else who I think I've gotten a lot from is Mike Manieri, who is just a wonderful player. I've never transcribed him, but I always got a lot out of his playing, and I think I just internalized some aspects of his work, so he's someone I always like to acknowledge. There's just a way Mike plays that seems to bridge a generational thing for me; there were certain licks that were very identifiable Mike things that I heard easily and could incorporate into my playing in a very natural way. I didn't really have to study them hard, they were just so musical, and there was so much clarity that I could translate them easily to myself. Mike is one of the true giants of the instrument and of the music. I don't only admire and respect him as a vibraphonist, I admire him as a pioneer in a lot of areas. He was at the forefront of the fusion movement with the White Elephant Big Band, Steps and other groups, and as a person and a creative artist I really admire him.
"But as a vibes player, for the language, I spent a lot of time listening to Coltrane, especially the early '60s stuff, trying to take some of the ideas he had and some of the harmonic devices he was using around that time, superimposing them over standard forms. I was influenced a lot by the album Crescent; I remember copping as much of that language as I could and translating it to the vibes. It's really interesting because a lot of this stuff is really applicable to the vibes, and it opened me up to some interesting possibilities, that the notes you play over certain chord progressions didn't have to be so locked into what was right and wrong. So I got a lot of mileage and inspiration, as countless of us did, from listening to Trane. And, of course, like a lot of people of my generation, I was influenced by people like Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter and Joe Henderson."
Moving to New York
In the early '80s Locke made the big leap and relocated to New York City which, at the time, was a hot bed for both established players and a whole new generation of musicians.
"The amazing thing about moving the New York was the young guys moving there at the same time as myself, how gifted they were and how I realized I had a whole lot of homework to do. People like Brian Lynch, Jim Snidero, Marvin (Smitty) Smith and Jeff (Tain) Watts. It was around that time that Branford Marsalis was starting to break into the scene. And the list goes on and on.
"I thought that I would be moving to New York to hear the great musicians who were my heroes, like Dexter Gordon, Michael Brecker, Sonny Rollins and Freddie Hubbard, but I got just as much inspiration from guys my age who were letting me know that the time that I was practising — or not practising, more to the point — they were at home getting it together and that I'd better step up to the plate. So that was really inspiring."
While sitting in with more established names at the clubs was de rigeur, it was much more difficult as a vibes player to break into jazz circles.
"It's pretty hard to carry your axe around and say, 'Can I sit in, can I set up my vibes and play one tune with you?' So it was a very slow road. I think at the time that I moved to New York, in the post-bop scene I was in, the real hardcore straightahead scene, the vibraphone had lost a lot of its credibility. There weren't people around who were really pursuing that kind of language on the instrument. There were people like Dave Friedman and David Samuels, who I hold in very high regard, but they were doing a very different thing, and I think at the time, that there was a large gap between Bobby Hutcherson being around and laying down all this incredible music, and the time that people like myself and Steve Nelson eventually came along."
Still, perseverance and making connections resulted in Locke getting more and more work.
"There were people who were very helpful to me when I first moved to New York. One of them was Jerome Hunter, a bass player from Philadelphia who started calling me; I did a lot of gigs with Jerome, Byard Lancaster and J.R. Mitchell, a lot of interesting people from Philly who I used to go down and work with. At the same time I remember doing some playing with Calvin Hill and, in particular, Bob Moses, who was very helpful to me, very vocal in telling people about me and very supportive.
"But, if it's not too bold of me to say, people like myself and Steve Nelson gave the vibes back some of its credibility, people started to dig the instrument again, and it started to feel like it didn't die with Milt Jackson and Bobby Hutcherson, that there were guys who were really swinging on the instrument and playing the language of the art form on a high level. And what's very heartening now, is that I see that happening a lot more after this quiet period of the '70s and '80s. I'm seeing young players come up under me that are even younger than Stefon Harris; people like Tim Collins, who is a former student of mine, who is playing really well.
"I think what it really comes down to these days is that there are so many people on other instruments who are playing profound music. There's a whole younger generation of musicians coming up who are already established, like Seamus Blake, Chris Potter, Kevin Hays and Kurt Rosenwinkel; the music is being played on such a high level that vibes players who want to be involved in the music had better be taking it seriously."
Steeplechase and Some Early Connections
While Locke began to build a reputation through the '80s, it was only in the '90s that he began to cultivate a solo career, first through an association with Steeplechase Records.
"I'd have to start off by saying that my association with Steeplechase sprang from my relationship with the great trumpeter Dr. Eddie Henderson — an amazingly fruitful relationship that has lasted over 13 years. I first recorded as a sideman with Eddie, Victor Lewis, Wayne Dockery and Kenny Barron on an album called Phantoms, and after making that record Nils Winter from Steeplechase called and said he'd like me to make a record of my own. So I went into the studio and recorded an album called Present Tense with Ron McClure, Larry Schneider, Ronny Burrage and Kenny Werner, and that was the beginning of a series of six records for the label and it was really good.
"So at the same time I was recording as a member of Eddie Henderson's band as well as making records under my own name, and that was an important thing to happen because it gave me projects to work towards, and when you have a project that's out there on the calendar one tends to focus, practise and grow musically. I'd take each project I was preparing for very seriously and I'd learn something getting ready for each session. It gave me the chance to write music knowing it would be recorded and it also started to slowly give me confidence in the studio, to the point where I now know that while I like to be prepared for every session, I also know that over preparation isn't a good thing either, that when the light comes on I'm just expressing myself in the moment. I think that comes from hundreds of hours of being in the studio and being put in the position to create instantly. It's something I feel very fortunate to have — a forum, if you will, as I was making a record about every 18 months."
Locke has always made the best of every situation he's been in, but his association with Eddie Henderson may be one of the most influential of his career.
"It was of primary importance to me. First, Eddie is a grand master on his instrument and he's a real artist, someone who transcends the music on the page every time he plays. And I had the chance to be on the bandstand with him night after night for many years, whether it was a weekend somewhere, or a tour; I was always learning from listening to someone who had really gotten it from the source. And he always had a great band, the rhythm sections that Eddie had were always stellar, whether it was Kenny Barron, Victor Lewis and Wayne Dockery or Ed Howard, Billy Drummond and Kevin Hays.
"And the repertoire that Eddie was dealing with was very challenging, including some of the more involved pieces by Wayne Shorter, Joe Henderson, Herbie Hancock from the mid-to-late '60s, as well as his own music. I was also given a forum as a writer and was able to bring some of my own compositions to the band. It was great to play in a front-line situation with trumpet and vibes; I think that's going to remain a very, very important relationship. No matter how much longer I'm able to stay here and keep doing music on this earth, I think the relationship with Eddie is going to remain one of the important ones."
Milestone, Billy Childs and Gene Jackson
Following his six albums for Steeplechase, Locke moved to Milestone for three albums, Sound Tracks, Moment to Moment, and Slander and Other Love Songs, all featuring pianist Billy Childs and drummer Gene Jackson.
"Billy was someone I was in awe of from a distance. I remember the first time I heard his music was on a Windham Hill record of his called His April Touch, and it was one of the best records I'd heard in a long time. Billy is just astounding as a player and a composer; I really think he's an American treasure. I was familiar with his playing from his work with Freddie Hubbard and Bobby Hutcherson, but then when I heard His April Touch I saw the scope of his gift as a composer.
"I remember I went to a concert he gave at Columbia University and I expected, if I was fortunate enough to meet him, to meet a very erudite, intellectual and probably distant kind of man, you know, someone who would look down his nose at someone like me. And I met him backstage and he was totally down to earth, really funny, very warm and gracious. We kept in touch, and when I had the chance to record I called him and this friendship started that continues to this day. He's not only a great jazz musician, but he's someone who is as at home with the symphony orchestra as he is with a set of blues changes. His writing for orchestra is second to none, he's an amazing composer and he's turned me onto a lot of classical music which I wouldn't otherwise have been hip to.
"I also worked, on all three albums, with Gene Jackson. He's simply one of my favorite human beings. He's a great person and he's 100 percent serious about the music. He really cares about the music, and he's a great drummer with a great feel and a great spirit that he puts into the playing."
Working with Pianists
Until recently, almost all of Locke's work has been in tandem with a pianist, which some might find odd, considering that both are chordal instruments and have the potential of getting in each others' way. How has Locke managed to work so well with so many fine pianists, including Frank Kimbrough, Kenny Barron and David Hazeltine?
"Here's the thing, I hold four mallets when I play, but I'm really a two-mallet vibraphonist in most situations. When I'm holding the four mallets I play with the two inside mallets, and when I'm playing with piano players 90 percent of the time I'm not using the two outside mallets. The outside mallets are there for ensemble stuff and I'm very agile with four mallets; a lot of the pianists I work with write tricky stuff where I need to use all four mallets, but when it comes to soloing I'm basically influenced by horn players, and the two-mallet vibraphonists like Bobby Hutcherson, Milt Jackson and Dave Pike, and so my concept is a linear horn-like kind of thing."
John Priestley and Sirocco Records
In 2000, Locke recorded his first album with John Priestley's three-year old British label, Sirocco Records. The first recording Locke made was Beauty Burning, a quartet record featuring Frank Kimbrough, bassist Ray Drummond, drummer Jeff Watts and, on some tracks, guitarist Paul Bollenback. Indicative of the freedom that Priestley affords his artists, when it came time for the next record, rather than suggesting what might be done, he asked Locke what he'd like to do. "So I said to him that I'd really like to do a project with some like-minded musicians who also want to acknowledge some of our other influences.
"The concept for the band Storytelling came out of meeting vocalist/multi-instrumentalist Mark Ledford in '86. At the time I had written some original music; I like to write lyrics, songs coming more out of a pop/folk sensibility. But I'm not a singer, and when I heard Mark I knew I'd found my voice. He sang some of my music the way I heard it in my head, only better. And Mark is a musician like me and a lot of my friends and colleagues who have a broad scope of musical interests. Mark had worked with Jon Hendricks in a real bebop thing; with Stevie Winwood and Earth, Wind & Fire; with Prince and Pat Metheny, and all of that informs his work. He's just a great musician, someone who can deal with music whether it's a piece by Joe Chambers or a song by Bill Withers, Bob Dylan, Neil Young or Joni Mitchell; he can deal with it in a really honest and well-informed way.
"So the first record we did, Storytelling, came out of that, and we made it with Jeff Watts, Eric Revis, Henry Hey, Paul Bollenback and Tim Garland. It was a thrill to go into the studio, and I'm very proud of Storytelling because it was made in a day-and-a-half and I think it sounds like it took a week or more to make. And we went in and the result was what I was aiming for only I think we hit the mark even higher than I anticipated."
While there is a lot of current market hype about jazz bands interpreting contemporary popular music, Locke doesn't see it as a new thing at all.
"The fact of the matter is I think musicians are inspired by music that resonates with them spiritually, emotionally and personally in some deep way that makes them want to adapt that music, and it can come from a variety of sources. On an earlier album of mine, Slander and Other Love Songs, I did "Tuesday Heartbreak" by Stevie Wonder; it's just something that lends itself to being used as a blowing vehicle as much as any other jazz tune. It's relevant, it's pertinent, and it's a tune that I loved, so why not do it? I think that we want to address music that has meaning in our personal lives, and that can be a song from the Great American Songbook or anywhere else. There are songs from the Great American Songbook that maybe, at one point in my life, didn't have great meaning for me, but after certain life experiences took on great meaning. There's a song, "A Time for Love", that I didn't understand until I heard it sung by Abbey Lincoln, and for some reason that lyric and Abbey Lincoln's voice made the song resonate for me.
"So I think people making an issue of jazz musicians doing songs from the rock vernacular, the rock lexicon. I don't think it should really be a big deal, I think it's something we're all doing. Christian McBride's doing it, Nicholas Payton's doing it, and when I talk to my friends and colleagues about it, there's nothing about it that has to do with commercial reasons. We do it because we dig a particular song and we want to do our slant on it. We have an honest motivation that goes beyond trying to attract a particular audience; we love music and we do things that have meaning for us.
"The thing is that the freedom I've had in recent years has had a lot to do with John Priestley, the fact that John has not only allowed every project I've wanted to gestate and bear fruit, but he's insisted that people associated with the label are doing individual creative work. For me, whether it's Storytelling, Storms/Nocturnes or 4 Walls of Freedom, it's been an opportunity for me to make music that's not in the same cookie-cutter fashion some producers would like. They might want me to make a quartet record that sounded like a Bobby Hutcherson or Milt Jackson record; instead I've been able to make music that is much more personal and it's been wonderful to have that freedom. I've been really fortunate because even though I've never had a major record deal with a lot of money thrown at me, and the doors to the kingdom have never really opened up for me, in some ways it has been like that because someone has always come along who has allowed me to continue growing. And in the past few years it has been John Priestley and Sirocco Music, who have been behind the scenes at the germination and growth of Storms/Nocturnes and 4 Walls of Freedom."
The Willow and Made By Walking — The Beginning of Storms/Nocturnes
In '98, Locke recorded a duet record with Frank Kimbrough, Saturn's Child, with the simple premise of making highly lyrical music. "Up until this time, when my relationship with Sirocco began, I think I was considered by most to be this post-bop vibes player, and I never considered myself that, even though it was certainly part of the equation. But having the chance to do the duets with Frank gave me a chance to explore the larger palette and give people who were listening to the music the picture that I was more than just a post-bop player."
Interestingly enough, the follow-up to Saturn's Child, The Willow, found Locke and Kimbrough expanding the sonic palette by adding Tim Ries on woodwinds and Jeff Ballard on hand percussion. Around the same time Locke made a recording with British woodwind player Tim Garland, Made By Walking, and the final track on that record, "Trinity," had a certain synchronicity with The Willow in its combination of vibes, piano and woodwinds. That track was to be the germination of an ongoing musical relationship, the Storms/Nocturnes Trio.
Following the sole trio track on Made By Walking, it was clear that this instrumental grouping, which Garland had been considering for a some time, was going to work. For Locke it was an opportunity to play with two artists he held in extremely high regard. "Tim Garland is an amazing musical spirit, and he's such a prolific writer. He has two children and is constantly busy with his teaching and composition, yet he can write a plethora of music with all these distractions. And Geoffrey Keezer is one of the greatest musicians that I have ever met in my life. His gift is just amazing, and the fact that I've been able to make music with these guys, done several tours with them and night after night been able to be on the same stage, and learn and grow from these two men whom I have so much respect for and who, in turn, trust me enough as a musician to take chances with night after night — it doesn't get any better than that. It really works as a trio, and in concert it's so much fun, because people come not knowing exactly what to expect, and they really catch three guys in the throes of it."
With two recordings under their belt, '01's Storms/Nocturnes and '03's Rising Tide, the group has had the opportunity and longevity to develop a style that cleverly blends staggering written ensemble passages with complete improvisational freedom.
"There's a lot of writing, but there's also a lot of freedom. I think there are two factors: one is that the writing is just so good, Tim's writing is so clear and well thought-out, and the other thing is that Geoffrey underpins the whole thing, and when I do something he is so on point that he can make a lot of what is spontaneous sound more written only because he's such a great musician and he's able to adjust to what Tim and I are doing as soloists. He's dealing with all the harmony underneath us, all the chords and bass lines. In the ensemble passages there is a lot of four mallet playing going on, and then in the open blowing I'm mainly playing with two.
"One thing I love that Geoffrey does, that some people might think is a written part of the music, is that after a sax solo or bass clarinet solo or whatever, I'll start to play and at some point in my solo we'll both go to the high end of the instrument, and Geoffrey will do this accompaniment that sounds like a toy piano or orchestra bells, which I love. He explores the whole sonic range of the piano in Storms/Nocturnes, whereas I think a lot of pianists might play just a standard jazz accompaniment, and he doesn't do that. At certain points he'll take over the function that maybe the vibraphone would have and I'll take over the piano function for a few moments. And these are really exciting things."
While Locke is almost exclusively occupied with his 4 Walls of Freedom project these days, Storms/Nocturnes is still very much a going concern. "Right now it's on hiatus. Tim is involved with Bill Bruford's Earthworks and other things and Keezer has been doing the Christian McBride band, but we will definitely continue to record and tour as a group. I'd love to do a live record with Storms/Nocturnes, and that's one thing that's been talked about; the other thing is doing a record with the trio and a chamber orchestra. That's something that's on the back burner, and hopefully we'll be able to do it someday. There is some string quartet stuff on Rising Tide, and I'd love to see what Tim would do with a complete orchestra."
The Beginnings of 4 Walls of Freedom
Locke's next project was to turn into a career-defining move for him creatively, critically and as a means to stretch himself as a player and writer.
"I was talking with John Priestley after we did the two Storytelling records. I remember we were doing a concert in England with Storms/Nocturnes and on a break we were chatting and he said, 'What would you like to do for your next project?' I said that I'd just finished reading The Seven Storey Mountain, the autobiography of Thomas Merton the Catholic Monk, and that there was a quote that really had an impact on me, 'the four walls of my new freedom,' and I had started to write a suite called "4 Walls of Freedom" that I'd like to do."
Locke describes the premise best in his liner notes to the record: "It was the truth behind this paradox which inspired the suite, a truth which resonates for me on many levels. As I've grown older, I've actually learned that situations and events which seem to impose limitations can actually teach some liberating lessons, that the limitations themselves can be the harbingers of new possibilities. In musical terms the four walls of freedom are represented by melody, rhythm, harmony and form. Although we're adhering in a disciplined way to the dictates of the suite's structure, the members of the quartet are still completely free within that structure, and by a process of give and take, can create something new and beautiful, not in spite of the limitations, but because of them. The title itself suggested that 4 Walls of Freedom be a quartet project, each player contributing equally to the construction of this sonic 'room'. Furthermore, it was an essential aspect of the quartet's make-up that the vibes function as the solo chordal instrument. As a vibraphonist normally accustomed to playing with pianists, the responsibility for all of the harmony initially seemed daunting, but ultimately yielded great creative freedom. It's all a matter of perception. I'm limited only by my imagination. In that process, I feel a strong connection between Merton's sentiment and my own personal quest."
Locke not only envisioned the instrumental line-up for 4 Walls of Freedom, but had a specific saxophonist in mind. "In the process of writing the suite I heard a saxophone in my head, and I realized the saxophonist was Bob Berg, so I called Bob and asked if he'd be interested in doing the suite, that I had a couple of movements done and it just hit me that I was writing it for him. He asked to take a look at the music, so we got together and he liked it, so then I was able to finish the suite knowing it would be for him.
"Gary Novak is someone who I'd admired from a distance for a long time. He was someone who I was nervous about meeting because he's so great, he's just that good. When Bob and I were talking about drummers for the 4 Walls project his name didn't even come up because we just assumed he was still with Alanis Morissette, as he had been for the past four or five years. Then, one day, I got a call from Bob who said, 'I'm on the other line with Gary Novak, and he just quit Alanis Morissette.' So I said, 'Bob, you know what they next question is, don't you? Ask him if he's available.' So he did, and Gary said he'd love to do it.
"Gary's a guy who has a deep respect for the jazz tradition, but is also someone who really works and lives in the rock world. So he's somebody who understands contemporary music. He knows how to play a backbeat and feel great. He can put a rock sensibility into something, but he's also somebody who grew up listening to all the great jazz drummers, and to the Count Basie Bands. His father is Larry Novak, the great Chicago piano player, and Gary once said to me that he learned from his dad most importantly not what to play but rather what not to play. He taught him what the great older cats don't want to hear behind them.
"James Genus is somebody who is just the first call by all of us in New York and around the world for that matter. He's just a great bass player and a wonderful guy. We had all worked with him many times and were really comfortable with him, and I knew that he'd fit the concept of 4 Walls of Freedom; it just worked out so wonderfully."
Armed with the 4 Walls suite, another piece called "Suite di Morfeo" and the tune "Crescent Street", Locke and the group recorded the first, eponymous album and with it, Locke managed to transcend simply making an album of strong material well-played, instead creating a concept that had a distinctive sound and identity. "One of the things that I was very happy about was that when I wrote this suite of music knowing who the players were going to be, I knew what kind of energy and spirituality Gary, James and Bob would bring to bear, so I was able to write this music that had been gestating in me for a long time, knowing that it was going to be executed by these musicians."
Making a Piano-less Quartet Sound Huge
"One thing I'm very proud of is that normally a piano-less quartet with vibraphone sounds somehow smaller; this quartet, in some ways, sounds bigger than a quartet with piano. I think the reason, sometimes, that a quartet with vibraphone sounds smaller than a quartet with piano is because the music being played was really intended for a piano, but the vibraphone is trying to fit the bill the best it can. In this case I was able to write specifically knowing that there wasn't going to be a piano, so I wrote bass lines fitting with melodies and the vibraphone fit in between those spaces so it would sound as full as possible. And I'm really happy that the quartet, sometimes, actually sounds huge.
"There are also some places where I use MIDI vibes sparingly, just for a little bit of a pad underpinning the vibraphone sound, to make it sound more orchestrated. And I open the suite with this really overdriven guitar sound that is actually being triggered from the vibraphone. It's just something that works with the concept of the group, it's autobiographical really. "Surfacing", the first track of the suite, is about how things sometimes come to the surface, from deep in one's psyche, in an aggressive and sudden way. I thought that opening with solo vibraphone would be too pretty; I really wanted to have an aggressive, in your face kind of sound to open the record. And I wanted it to be emitting from the vibraphone."
Before the project was recorded, the group spent a week at Ronnie Scott's in London, honing the group sound and the dynamics of the material. "We played the music exactly as it went down on the CD for six nights in a row and then we flew back to the States, took a day off, and went into the studio and recorded it, playing it basically live as if we were at Ronnie Scott's. It's also interesting that Gerard Presencer, who guested on flugelhorn on some of the tracks, was opening for us at Ronnie Scott's. My assumption was, when we realized that we were going to be doing the recording with him, and that he would be opening for us, that he could sit in with us, get into the music and be ready for the recording session. But, instead, he bowed out of that each night saying that he wanted to give his lip a rest. So he never actually played the music with us, and so what you're hearing on the recording is Gerard playing those songs for the very first time, and it says a lot about what a jazz musician he really is, because I think he could easily have played with us every night and worked out his ideas, but he chose not to because he wanted to be completely spontaneous at the recording session.
It was not long after the recording of 4 Walls of Freedom that Bob Berg met with the tragic highway accident that took his life, in December 2002.
"That was a very bitter thing, there's such sadness around it. A month or two after the recording we went to Seattle to play at a new club called About the Music, which has since closed. It was supposed to be billed as the Bob Berg Quartet, but Bob was so excited about the 4 Walls project that he said we should go in as 4 Walls of Freedom. So we played a wonderful weekend in Seattle, and at that time Ed Howard had joined the group, so we did the weekend with Ed, Gary, Bob and myself. We flew back from Seattle and two or three days later Bob was killed. So that was the last time we played together, and Bob played his last gig with 4 Walls. I don't know if I would call it solace, but it gives me a good feeling to know that his last gig was a really good one. I remember him back in the green room, lighting a cigarette and saying, 'Yeah, cats, that was a really good hit,' and feeling good about the gig; that he was happy with his performance and that there was a really good feeling on stage and off. On the record I used some lines from Randy Brecker's eulogy, some words he spoke for Bob at the funeral, and I think they were really appropriate, because he was just this incredible human being and the comments Randy made about him as a man and as a player were as on the mark as you could possibly be, from someone who knew him and loved him like a brother."
Enter Tommy Smith
With Berg's tragic passing, a difficult choice had to be made in terms of selecting someone to fill the saxophone chair. Locke decided to enlist Scottish saxophonist Tommy Smith, a player with a larger reputation in Europe than in North America. "To say he was perfect would be an understatement. How he came in with a deep respect for Bob Berg, and yet with an incredibly strong identity of his own; what is amazing to me is that he gets the emotional intent of each song, regardless of whether it's a tender ballad or a more aggressive tune, he gets my intent and puts it across on each song, for which I'm so thankful. He's not just one of the greatest saxophone players of his generation, but maybe one of the greatest musicians of his generation."
Bassist Ed Howard, who replaced James Genus in the bass chair, is another player for whom Locke holds great respect. "Ed is someone I've known for a long time and he's someone who has an incredible strength of character as a person, and he translates that into his bass playing. If you knew him you would hear, in his bass playing, who he is as a person; he's incredibly supportive and strong, a real strong character. He's a lot of peoples' favorite bassist, drummers especially. And when he took over the bass chair he was an obvious choice because of how well-loved he is by all of us for his strong and supportive bass lines, but also because he and Gary have this incredible hook-up; just the feeling of these two guys playing time, locked in together, it just works."
With the new line-up of the band in place, and strong critical acclaim for the first record, doing a follow-up record was a no-brainer. "The new record, if I would cite a difference, has more open space, and there's more lyrical material, although there is still a lot of energy on it."
The title, Dear Life, was something that Locke struggled with. "I was afraid to call it Dear Life because I felt it sounded too heart-on-the-sleeve, too emotive; that it was too touchy-feely, but when I wrote the song, which is a very simple piece of music, the phrase 'Dear Life' came into my mind. As an aside, since we've been on tour I get a lot of comments about that song, about how people are touched by it.
"I was talking recently about the correlation between literature and music. There's a piece on the record called "Wind In Your Willows", which is inspired in part by the children's book, The Wind in the Willows. There are other pieces that are inspired by literature, but if I was going to put a book with the song "Dear Life" it would be the autobiography of Pablo Casals, entitled Joys and Sorrows. For me, "Dear Life" talks about loss and regret, and sadness and pain and at the very same time the elation of being in the moment, and joy and happiness and how they are all part and parcel of each other. There's an aspect of that for the guys in the band, the loss of Bob Berg was a source of great pain, but there are other things as well. I'm 45 now, and there are things which have happened in my life that are the cause of great sadness and regret, and these things are carried with me and inform me as a musician. You can't help but be affected by these things, and at the same time I've experienced great happiness, joy and beauty, and it's almost as if the painful things in life make those moments of joy more profound, because they stand in contrast to the times of pain and they make times of elation and joy even deeper and more meaningful.
"So I wasn't going to call the record Dear Life, even though in my head and my heart I knew that was the name of the song. But at the end of the recording date, which went really well, I was packing up my vibraphone and someone walked up to Gary and said, 'Man, you really played your butt off,' and he just said, 'Oh, man, I was just hanging on for dear life.' And when he said that it was almost like a sign to me. I stopped and looked over at Gary and thought, 'He just said the title I'm trying so hard not to call the record.' The words just came out of his mouth and I thought that was a sign, critics be damned, I have to use it."
What is most remarkable about Dear Life is how, with a 50 percent change in the personnel of the group, it still manages to retain its unique sound and identity.
"There are a few things that I could point to as to why that is. One thing that perhaps unifies the two projects is that my writing has become more personal, I'm able to put more of my own story into the writing. There are a lot of composers who I don't consider myself worthy to be in the same room as, and some of them are guys I play with, but one thing that I do think is that my heart is connected to my pen. I think the writing on the "4 Walls of Freedom Suite" was coming from a very personal place; a lot of that music has high energy, but whether it's energetic or, for example, the second movement, "Prayer", it's intensely personal and the songs tell a very personal story. And I think that's even truer of the second record. The songs come from my life experience and hopefully that's a uniting thing.
"Of course, the other reason would have to be Gary Novak, how his playing is such an important aspect to the sound of the band. His presence, playing and identity as a rhythmic force are so strong that his appearance on both records is a big reason why it sounds like a band.
"I really feel that 4 Walls of Freedom is the fruition of a long journey thus far for me. I'm really heartened that the other guys in the band are as into the project as I am and we all hope that we can continue working as a band for a long time to come. I think the only way that the music can develop in general terms, not just my music, is through longevity; to continue doing it, and for the same people to play together for a long period of time, so I just hope I can keep doing it."
While 4 Walls of Freedom will be taking precedence for some time to come, with some room potentially for Storms/Nocturnes, Locke recently guested on guitarist Vic Juris' new disk Blue Horizon, which will be released by ZOHO Music in September 2004, and this was also something of a special project for him. "I think Vic is one of the most important musicians on the scene and working on that project was one of the best experiences I've had playing music. I feel like his writing, his songs on the record are so him. And his playing, and the other guys on the record — bassist Jay Anderson and drummer Adam Nussbaum — they're just so great. I consider Vic a peer with the greatest guitar players of the last generation like Metheny, Scofield, Abercrombie and Frisell. Vic is clearly the equal of these great artists and I think they would agree with that statement. He's somebody who is always pushing the envelope, always excellent, someone whose scope is enormous."
Meanwhile, with his primary focus being 4 Walls of Freedom, and Dear Life receiving critical acclaim equal to the first record, Joe Locke's star is clearly on the rise. And as long as the journey has been, it's one that has been filled with accumulating successes, promising even greater ones in the future.
C o m m e n t s
joe locke 1 of 1 wendy lipson August 25, 04
i was just sent a link to this sight by one of my reiki students who read this excellently presented article about joe, his background & his music. i happen to be that "hip" friend of his sister who introduced him to the vibes in rochester when he was just a handsome little guy with lots of talent. thank you for such a rich and well-crafted presentation of joe's work, his attitude toward music and the integrity of his self-expression. the song of his honest heart could be heard as i read this piece. thank you for permitting me this precious glimpse of joe for i have not seen him since he was a boy, finding his first set of vibes in our attic in rochester, n.y. . wendy lipson 371 first street park slope, brooklyn new york 11215
( if possible, would you please tell joe that i send my love and it's okay to contact me if he or you wish to do so.)
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