PortFolio Weekly

PortFolio Weekly
February 19, 2008

Vibraphonic Jazzman

by Jim Newsom

Joe Locke is one of the busiest jazz musicians around. His Jazz on Granby concert Friday night is almost a respite in what is a hectic schedule of touring and recording in a variety of challenging settings.

“Life has been such a blur lately,” he said in a recent telephone conversation. “I just got done with a European tour with a project called Sticks and Strings. And I have a new quartet project called Force of Four that’s going into the studio March 6th and 7th to record a new album for Origin Records; then we’re going on tour in the States and Europe this summer.

“I’m doing some work as a guest soloist with a wonderful musician from Colombia named Edmar Castaneda. He plays an instrument called the Colombian harp that’s a diatonic instrument; he is an incredible virtuoso. He has a trio consisting of harp, trombone and percussion. I thought that can’t work, but I heard him in Italy and it just blew me away. I’m doing some festivals with him this summer—Saratoga, Tanglewood, the Red Sea Festival in Eilat, Israel.

“I’m getting ready to go into Dizzy’s at Lincoln Center here in New York with a project called ‘Moment to Moment: The Music of Henry Mancini.’ I had done an album in 1997 when I was on Fantasy Records, and we’re going to revisit that music but this time with a vocalist. It’s an all-star band with Clarence Penn on drums, George Mraz on bass and Geoffrey Keezer on piano. And we’re trying a great vocalist from the west coast named Kenny Washington. These Mancini tunes that I had arranged all have words—‘Moon River,’ ‘Moment to Moment,’ ‘Two for the Road.’ We’re going to be doing six nights in New York with that group.”

Not bad for a guy who started out playing rock-n-roll drums when he was seven years old and picking out melodies on the family piano, whose mother wanted him to play glockenspiel in the marching band.

“I lost my mother this year,” he said. “But I think about her every day and the fact that she came into my room one day and said, ‘Joe, there’s an ad in the paper for something called a vibraphone. The vibraphone is something like a glockenspiel isn’t it? Let’s go look at it.’

“We went and looked at it and it was $200.00. It changed my life.”

In a way, the vibes are like a huge glockenspiel, but you could hardly carry a set around in a parade. When he got that first set, he was a little overwhelmed.

“I was twelve,” he said, “and they sat in my room for a year. I didn’t know what to do with them; they just sat there and collected dust. A year later, I took the dirty clothes off ‘em and the books, and I just started playing them. And I never stopped.”

He tried to incorporate the instrument into his rock band:

“I was trying to get them to play softer and softer so you could hear the vibes. Now I have amplification and pickups and MIDI, so I can play louder than the guitar player now!”

But it was listening to guys like John Coltrane, Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock that got him into jazz and improvisation. After that, he was hooked. When he graduated from high school in Rochester, New York, he hit the road with a local saxophone player named Spider Martin. From there, he got the chance to play with some of the giants of jazz like Dizzy Gillespie and Mongo Santamaria, and moved to New York City in 1981 at the age of 22. Within a few years, he was working with other greats and fronting his own bands. In the last decade, he’s become recognized as one of the best in the biz himself.

Because of his diverse musical background and eclectic listening habits, Joe Locke revels in the wide range of settings he gets to play in. For Friday night’s show, he’s planning to dig into a setlist made up primarily of familiar material.

“For the Jazz on Granby concert,” he said, “it’s all about the tradition and melody and playing beautiful music—the jazz tradition. I really enjoy coming from a pure jazz place and honoring the Great American Songbook. If you’re doing music by Cole Porter or Irving Berlin or Henry Mancini, those are beautiful melodies and you don’t have to do a lot to alter them or contemporize them. I love doing contemporary music or doing interpretations of classic rock music or doing stuff that’s out on a limb, but I also enjoy honoring the real jazz tradition and the great songs. Honoring the songbook of the great artists from the past is going to be a big part of the Jazz on Granby concert.

“I’m thinking the audience may enjoy a preview of what the New York performance is going to be, and give them some of the Mancini music. Things like ‘The Pink Panther’ and ‘Moon River.’ I thought the folks in Norfolk would enjoy getting a first glimpse at some of that. Music is about communication, and I think it’s lovely when the audience can identify with the melodies that you’re playing.”

He’s also looking forward to playing with John Toomey’s trio:

“The nice thing about working with John Toomey is that he’s such an ace player. He actually enjoys playing stuff with some intricacies so I can send charts down to him that are a little more involved than the average stuff, and he just eats it up. I love it.”

Joe Locke seems to love everything that life has brought his way. His upbeat disposition is apparent in person and onstage. He’s obviously having a great time.

“I feel very fortunate,” he said. “When we start playing as kids, there’s no guarantee that what we come up with in the laboratory of the practice room is going to be heard past those four walls. So I feel really lucky that, all this time down the road, I’m actually able to travel around the world and play music. And there are some folks out there who really want to hear it!”

Joe Locke
Friday, February 22 – 8:00 pm
Roper Performing Arts Center
623-4141; www.jazzongranby.com

copyright © 2008 Jim Newsom. All Rights Reserved. Used by Permission.


"Joe Locke's Good Vibes"
April 12, 2005
An earlier interview with Joe Locke.