In conversation with joe locke

by Eugene Marlow

It’s not easy squeezing dynamics out of a percussion instrument such as the vibraphone. But to watch Joe Locke play the instrument with his nuanced four-mallet technique is to realize it can be done.

When you’re good, you’re good. But when you’re Joe Locke your skill and musicianship are reflected in a prolific career. Locke has released more than 25 recordings as a band-leader. His most recent offering, Force of Four (Origin 2008) with Robert Rodriguez (piano), Johnathan Blake (drums), and Ricardo Rodriguez (bass) has been virtually universally praised. Locke has also appeared on almost 100 albums as a guest artist.

               Joe Locke (Photo by Alexandros Lambrovassilis)

As a jazz musician, Locke was precocious, having played with such luminaries as Dizzy Gillespie, Pepper Adams, and Mongo Santamaria very early in his career. Since moving to New York City in 1981, Joe has performed or recorded with Grover Washington Jr., Kenny Barron, Dianne Reeves, Eddie Daniels, Jerry Gonzalez's Fort Apache Band, Rod Stewart, The Beastie Boys, Eddie Henderson, Hiram Bullock, Bob Berg, Ron Carter, Jimmy Scott, Geoffrey Keezer, The Mingus Big Band, Randy Brecker, Russell Malone, the Moutin Brothers, and the Trio Da Paz, among many others.

He has also toured extensively. At the time of this interview, 49-year-old Locke had just returned from a concert trip to the Red Sea Jazz Festival in Eilat, Israel.

It was an incredible trip. It was my first time to Israel and it was fantastic.

Why did you go there?

I went with Edmar Castaneda, the Colombian jazz harpist. I've been doing some touring with him. I've been doing some festivals and performances with the trio. We had a wonderful, wonderful time at the Red Sea Jazz Festival. It was fantastic.

What kind of audience did you have?

We had a big, enthusiastic audience for two concerts. Main stage performance. Really, really incredible enthusiasm, incredible energy. The audiences there are just wonderful and receptive.

You're a world traveler, you've been all over in your career. Do you find the international audiences are more sophisticated and more appreciative of the music than American audiences?

I think you have to look individually at each place you go. You can't just say audiences other than America are better than America. You have to look individually at specific places. I say that because I just came from Eilat, Israel. It's a time right now for jazz there in that country. There is some good energy happening around jazz there now. There was an amazing amount of young people there who were knowledgeable, excited, turned on, enthusiastic about jazz. And so the result of that was this incredible return of energy back to the stage. We give off a lot of energy when we play and to have that energy returned to you in kind from the audiences is really an amazing experience.

Why is that?

I would need to spend more time there to discover why. I really am not sure why. But there's energy around jazz. There's an amazing amount of talent coming out of Israel right now, amazing amount of talent. I spoke to a professor at the Berklee School of Music (Boston) who said maybe 50% of their students and scholarship students are coming from Israel. And if you look at the New York scene it helps me to understand why. There was just an article recently about the influx of Israeli jazz musicians who are making an impact on the New York scene. When you go there and see the amount of talent that's living there and the energy around the music, you understand why there's such an influx into New York of these Israeli talents. I don't know why it's happening, but it's definitely happening.

So, to answer your question about audiences elsewhere, the audiences in Israel were great. I also play in Italy a lot. And there are enthusiastic audiences in Italy. I just played in Paris, France with the Moutin Brothers on the 10th anniversary of the Moutin Reunion Quartet. And there was a wonderfully enthusiastic audience. But that really speaks not just to the popularity of the Moutin Brothers, François and Louis. They are one of my favorite bands currently playing in jazz right now. We did a 10th anniversary concert at the La Cigale in Paris.

I'm just wondering whether or not globally there's more of an interest in jazz than there is in the United States. As I'm sure you know, in the United States jazz is suffering, jazz radio is shrinking. There seems to be a shrinking audience for jazz in the United States. I'm wondering how you respond to that.

It's unfortunate. It's definitely true. I wonder why in Israel there is such an energy and positive life force around this music and in the U.S. it seems to be dwindling. You know it's really a shame. And it's at a time unfortunately when there are more great young players in America than there ever has been. The amount of talent and the bar musically is so high right now, higher than it's ever been. And the amount of creativity, and the amount of talent, and the amount of incredible players are more than ever. And there are less and less places to play.

I base this on conversations I've had with people like Terry Gibbs and Mongo Santamaria, and Dizzy Gillespie over the years just talking about what their schedules were touring. Terry Gibbs told me that he would start in New York and play for three weeks at Birdland and then go on to Chicago and do a six-week run there, and then go to Seattle and do four weeks there, and then go to the west coast and do three weeks at a club, four weeks at another club. By the time they got back to New York it was almost the beginning of the next year and time to start over again. The musicians would work maybe 40 of the 52 weeks. We're talking six days a week with two shows on Saturday or Sunday.

It's difficult to string together a series of one-nighters now. And yet it speaks to the power of the music. The music continues to grow in spite of the fact that there's just not much of an audience. So the music continues not only to endure, but to flourish and to grow and to evolve. I think that says a lot to the power of the music and the musicians playing it. By any means necessary the musicians are going to forge ahead. I’ve never put that sentiment into words before, but it says a lot about the power of the music at a time when the cultural bar is just dropping. I think people are affected by popular culture. Jazz should be part of the popular culture. Jazz is, has been, and should be part of the popular culture. It should be a music that reflects what is happening now.

I'd like to shift gears. I've seen you perform a couple of times and I've seen other vibists like Milt Jackson with the Modern Jazz Quartet, Gary Burton, Cal Tjader, and more recently Stefon Harris.

Oh, yeah, all the greats.

Not only do you play great notes and great lines, but there's a great deal of showmanship to your performance. It's not just you coming out with your mallets and you play, it's a show with a great deal of personality, not only in your playing, but also your body language and how you relate to the audience. Where does it come from?

The showmanship, quote, unquote, is not a pre-meditated intention that I have. The physicality of my playing is a result of trying to get the notes out. I'm playing a four-mallet grip. It takes a lot of strength, it's very physical. In order to play the lines I play with the energy in the moment that I need. It's very physical. And so if it comes across as showmanship, then so be it. But it's the physicality. I'm in the moment when I'm playing. So whatever physicality is happening there is a reflection of me playing the instrument and getting the notes out.

My personality is my personality. I'm a very social creature. I'm an outgoing person, although I have a dark side. So I need to be happy. I need to express joy because I spend a part of my waking hours in a dark place, to be perfectly honest. I have a dark side and I struggle with it. So when I'm playing music that's my time to be in a joyful space. And I need to be in that joyful space. So I'm expressing that when I'm playing and it is very important to me. It's not about showmanship. The term showmanship seems almost like it's, of course, you weren't saying it in that way, but it seems to me, it almost sounds like a pejorative to me. And for me it's my connecting to the music or to the audience and the musicians I'm playing with is something very, very important to me and something I need to be a happy human being.

I appreciate that response. When I heard you play in Rochester, New York, at the Radio Programmers Conference in June (2008), you made a very interesting remark, and I presume you were referring to your much younger years when you were practicing, when you were woodshedding. You said there was no guarantee that what you were practicing in your room was going to be heard anyplace else. I'm paraphrasing.

No, that's almost exactly right. That's exactly what I said, that there is no guarantee. The ability to play and to do this for a living is such a gift, it's almost immeasurable it's such a gift. Although I still have goals I haven't attained, if I look at things with clarity I feel like I've won the lottery at its highest, when the bank is at the fullest, I've won the lottery. This life in music I have is beyond the wildest dreams that I aspired to when I was a kid practicing in that bedroom. And there was no guarantee that any of that work was going to go past those four walls.

Where were you born?

I was born in Palo Alto, California, but I left when I was a year old and moved to Rochester, New York where I grew up.

So when you come to Rochester you come home. When did you first feel the musical impulses?

I was 7, 8, and I was tinkering at the piano. We had a piano in our house and I was fooling around with melodies. And then I wanted to play the drums. Then I took lessons with Sister Silvia at Blessed Sacrament School. She was about 88 years old and she taught all the musical instruments. I don't think she really played any of them. I think she'd study up the night before on whatever instrument she had to teach the next day and then she'd impart what she learned the night before to the student. I had a little red snare drum and I'd take my lesson with Sister Silvia. I got more into the drums and more into the piano, and the vibraphone was a perfect median between the two. I considered myself a percussionist and I was a drummer, but I was really into playing piano and into playing melodies.

Why did you gravitate towards jazz? You could have been a classical player?

I was into making things up, always. I started writing. I was writing my own songs early on and picking out things I heard on records and heard on the radio and picking out melodies. I gravitated to improvisation from almost the beginning.

Who were you listening to at that point?

When I was a kid I was listening to rock and roll. When I was 12 to 16 I was playing drums in a rock and roll band with older musicians and writing original rock music. Then, like most people my age, I got to jazz from listening to fusion music, from listening to Weather Report and Chick Corea and Return to Forever, Herbie Hancock, Headhunters, and going backwards and finding this saxophone player, Wayne Shorter, who’s in Weather Report, and found he played with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers and had records of his own on Blue Note. And so I would go back, I would do the research and find out that there was this world of music of acoustic jazz that I came to through the door of fusion music, actually from rock and roll to fusion to acoustic jazz.

Did you study formally anyplace?

My story is kind of unusual. My father was a classics professor, that is, a professor of ancient Latin and Greek. They say in other articles on me that my father was a classical music teacher. He was a classics professor.

I'll try to get that right.

And he was teaching at the University of Rochester that the Eastman School of music is affiliated with. Because he was a professor at the school, I got a discount on lessons in what is called the preparatory department of the Eastman School of Music. So the whole time I was in junior high school and high school I studied privately at the Eastman School of Music. I got a real good education studying with the same professors, teachers that a lot of the college students would study with. I got to study with John Beck and some amazing people, and Bill Dobbins. But by the time I was a week out of high school I was already on a road with a band. So I didn't do a college degree. I became a professional directly out of high school.

Lots of folks didn't finish college degrees and have been very successful, Bill Gates of Microsoft among them.

I think you get to the music however you get to it. And now I'm on the faculty of the Manhattan School of Music (New York City) and I just joined the faculty of the Royal Academy of Music in London. So I'm not feeling bad about my lack of a degree.

What's next for you? You talk about aspiring to certain goals. What are you aspiring to now?

I really find that more and more it's important that the best thing I can give as a musician is to give my self. It keeps becoming more and more imperative for me to play my own music and to lead my own ensembles. It's important for me in the near future to continue doing what I'm doing now, which is to be playing, either leading my own ensembles, playing my own music, or playing with artists from whom I am learning and growing. And that is my goal to continue doing that. I am being more selective about what I accept as a sideman, just because it's more important to me to play my music, because I'm the only person who can put my music out into the world. And there are great opportunities happening now. I can't speak about it too much, but what's in the works now is a live recording with a symphony orchestra that I'm very excited about, about playing more in that context and playing my own music with a symphony orchestra. And to continue writing. I'm writing for big bands, for large ensembles. I'm expanding a suite of music I wrote for Bob Berg, the great saxophonist who passed away a few years ago. I'm expanding a six-movement suite called “Four Walls of Freedom.” I'm expanding that suite for big band and I hope to be doing some performances and touring with a big band with that suite. And continuing to perform with “Force of Four” my new quartet. We just came from a month long tour in Europe and the west coast of the United States that was really successful and inspiring.

Is there something you would want to talk about that I haven't asked you about?

I don't take any of it for granted. It's all a gift.

You're the kind of performer who, to put it in another context, jumps off the page, you jump into the audiences' lap from the stage.

I am very turned on, whether it is at gigs, at concerts, or in a situation where I'm teaching as a visiting artist. There is something I love about sharing what I do with really inspired, switched on, young people. That's really inspiring to me. At the gig the other night with Trio Da Paz at Dizzy’s Club Coca Cola (Jazz At Lincoln Center) this little girl came up after the set and we spent about 10 minutes at the vibraphone showing her how to hold the mallets and playing. I got an email from her parents a couple days later saying it was just a red letter day for her and she'll never forget it. And that's really nice, you know, for me, because I remember being that same little kid and seeing music for the first time. And to this day at 49, I'll never forget experiences I had at 8 and 9 and 10 of seeing music live. So to be able to give that back a little bit gives me a great feeling.

That will be a perfect place to end. Thank you Joe Locke.


November 13, 2008 · 2 comments

  • 1 JW // Nov 17, 2008 at 07:10 PM
    What an honest, heartfelt interview. Kudos both to Joe as well as Eugene! I hope to see him live soon!!
  • 2 Ed Saindon // Nov 17, 2008 at 08:49 PM
    Thanks for the great interview Joe Locke is not only an incredible musician, but what sets him apart and makes him truly special is his positive energy, spirit and sense of humanity. Ed Saindon