The annual “Jazz at the Estate” concert, an outdoor festwithin-a-fest that highlights Cape May, New Jersey’s Exit 0 Jazz Festival, is nothing if not scenic. The day-long show takes place on the grounds of the Emlen Physick Estate, a Victorian house museum in the middle of the quaint seaside resort town. The stage is set against a dilapidated barn, giving a rustic, picturesque feel to the performances. But from his perspective onstage, Joe Locke was looking down onto an empty, V-shaped patch of gravel formed by the conjunction of two sections of folding chairs. Squinting against the midday sun on a hot late-May afternoon, Locke lamented the lack of seating nearer the front of the stage. “I wish you were closer,” he shrugged.
In the moment, it was a simple, off-the-cuff utterance. But taken out of context, “I wish you were closer” could serve as Locke’s mission statement. The vibraphonist creates music that exults in intimacy and open-hearted expression. Locke’s approach can be seen just by glancing at the titles of his albums, especially those released in the last few years since he signed with the Motéma label: For the Love of You, Wish Upon a Star, Lay Down My Heart, and most recently, Love Is a Pendulum.
“The most important things in life to me are relationships,” Locke, 56, said that morning in the restaurant of his beachfront hotel. “They’re the things that I’ve gotten the most joy from and I’ve struggled the most with, and there’s a lot of juice in both the joy and the struggle. I’ve learned about myself — and continue to learn about myself — not just by looking in the mirror but through the prism of relationships. Whether it’s friendships or romantic or familial relationships, they’re all different manifestations of love.”
According to some of his closest collaborators, Locke is as committed to deeply felt communication in life as he is in his music. Drummer Terreon Gully, who played on and served as co-producer for Love Is a Pendulum and has been working with Locke since 1998, says, “Joe has a huge heart, and you can hear it in his music. He’s one of the few musicians that I can call just to say, ‘What’s up?’ and ask about each others’ families. He’s a real friend and good brother.”
Pianist Geoffrey Keezer, whose collaborations with Locke date back to a run at the Village Vanguard in 1995 and include a co-led quartet and a number of duet performances, adds, “Beyond his musicianship, Joe is a really decent human being and a good friend. I feel like we can talk about real shit beyond the typical male bonding over sports and beers. That human connection that we have, that friendship that is so deep and real, has a lot to do with how we interact musically as well.”
Love Is a Pendulum explores the idea of love in several different guises. The suite which forms the bulk of the album was inspired by a poem of the same name by writer and musician Barbara Sfraga, each stanza of which describes a different metaphor for love. “I love the poem,” Locke says. “Even though she wasn’t being dogmatic in any way, telling us how to live and how to love, there are some lessons in the poem that I needed to hear for myself. In ‘Love Is the Tide,’ for instance, love is powerful. It will drench you with its power, and like an undertow it’ll pull you down and pop you up. It’s not a romantic notion of love, but it’s a real, earthy one that I can identify with.”
Coming three decades into a prolific career documented on dozens of recordings, Love Is a Pendulum stands out as a highlight. The inspiration offered by Sfraga’s poem drove Locke to compose complex but expressive pieces that vividly communicate the central image of each metaphor. “Love Is the Tide” moves with an urgent ebb and flow; “Love Is a Pendulum” swings back and forth between opposing emotional poles; “Love Is Perpetual Motion” sets up an intense groove to spur ferocious improvisations from guest saxophonists Donny McCaslin and Rosario Giuliani.
However programmatic the concept and intricate the compositions, however, Locke and his core quartet never let the cerebral overwhelm the emotional. The compositions serve to frame fluid, impressionistic playing by the vibraphonist, who regularly gets swept up in his urgent interplay with the quartet. The album’s palette expands with the inclusion of Victor Provost’s steel pan on two tracks, Theo Bleckmann’s painterly, wordless vocals on “Love Is a Planchette,” and the aforementioned saxophonists.
Locke says the writing of the album took place over five years. In its early stages, he work-shopped the music with pianist Robert Rodriguez and bassist Ricky Rodriguez (no relation), who were members of his quartet Force of Four. That band had since disbanded, but Locke was so struck by the extent of their impact on his conception of this new music that he brought them back into the fold. “I realized that they had already contributed something so personal to the music that I needed them,” he says. “Terreon has been a dear friend for a long time, and he proved to be absolutely perfect. With what each one of those guys contributes, I almost feel like the combination of these musicians and this music was meant to be. When I listen to the recording, I’m bowled over by how aligned the stars were on that day and a half in the studio.”
Finding inspiration in poetry or literature is nothing new for Locke. As he describes it, “I come from a family of words.” Locke’s father was a scholar of ancient Latin and Greek, his mother an English and French major at Columbia University when she was younger. “Books had a place of respect in my house. My father would have graduate students over when I was a little boy, and they’d read poetry — Chaucer or Dante or Borges. I moved into music early, but I always found that when I was moved by something deeply it tended to be literature; it tended to be how words are put together. Somehow words to me translate into music.”
Despite the emphasis on reading, there was no shortage of music in Locke’s life during his childhood in Rochester, New York. His older siblings brought home records by Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix and Queen, while his father routinely came home from a day of teaching to unwind with Beethoven or Mahler. “At night sometimes he used to like to play Gregorian chants,” Locke recalls. “I remember waking up in the middle of the night and hearing monks singing downstairs. It was a beautiful way to grow up.”
Locke was initially attracted by the drums, though his mother insisted that he supplement his musical education with piano lessons. By age 13, he was playing drums in a rock band when his mother suggested that he play glockenspiel in the high-school marching band. “I won’t even delve into the psychology behind that,” he laughs, looking back on what at the time seemed — and still seems — like a very unhip choice of instrument. “I don’t think it would’ve done much for the chicks,” he says, shaking his head.
A newspaper ad for a used vibraphone caught his mother’s eye one morning, and thinking the vibes were “something like a glockenspiel,” she took her son to have a look. “A set of vibes costs thousands of dollars, but here was a Jenco vibraphone for something like $250. I used it for my first professional jobs. If there had been an ad in the paper that day for a glockenspiel, I would probably be a jazz glockenspiel player today.”
Locke’s initial inclination was to bring the vibes into his teenage rock band, but soon realized they weren’t an ideal fit in that context. At the same time, he began studying jazz with pianist Phil Markowitz, who would later co-lead a quartet with Locke for the vibraphonist’s 1983 debut recording, Restless Dreams, which also featured bassist Eddie Gomez and drummer Keith Copeland. Mike Mainieri’s 1968 album Journey Through an Electric Tube was one of the first vibes-led albums he discovered, and set him on a path of discovery that led through both then-current fusion sounds and classic acoustic jazz.
While he took some college prep classes at Eastman School of Music though still in high school, Locke never attended college. Less than a week after graduating high school he got a call from the little-known saxophonist Spider Martin and joined his quintet. Touring the East Coast with Martin, 17-year-old Locke had the invaluable opportunity to work with elders like Philly Joe Jones, Dizzy Gillespie, Mongo Santamaria, Pepper Adams and Jimmy Owens.
In 1981, Locke moved to New York City “completely without a plan. I had $200 in my pocket and a set of vibes.” His earliest experiences came from playing on the street, often alongside saxophonist George Braith. “There was an amazing culture of great jazz being played on the streets when I moved to New York,” Locke remembers. “Back in the ’50s and early ’60s, you had 52nd Street, then in the ’70s the loft scene became the place where musicians would work things out. In the ’80s, real estate prices were starting to soar and musicians took it to the street. We would play for 12 hours a day. Looking back on those times, there was a lot of dues-paying but, boy, those are really cherished memories because that’s where a lot of bonds were forged and a lot of music was learned.”
By the end of the decade Locke had progressed to the point where he was playing almost exclusively in venues with walls and a ceiling. He played and recorded with Dr. Eddie Henderson, Kenny Barron and Grover Washington, Jr. By the dawn of the ’90s he was recording regularly as a leader, at a pace that has rarely eased since. He’s played duets with pianists as diverse as Frank Kimbrough and Cecil Taylor; led several bands, including Storytelling (featuring vocalist Mark Ledford), 4 Walls of Freedom, and Storms/Nocturnes (with Keezer and saxophonist Tim Garland). He even recorded with the Beastie Boys on the hip-hop trio’s 1998 album Hello Nasty.
The Joe Locke/Geoffrey Keezer Group’s 2012 release, Signing, was the vibraphonist’s initial outing on Motéma, a relationship that has led to a strong resurgence in his career and music. Since then he’s released an album with the Lincoln, Nebraska Symphony Orchestra and Lay Down My Heart, a covers-focused set subtitled Blues & Ballads Vol. 1. A second volume is on the horizon, providing a good balance with the fully original Love Is a Pendulum. “They’re really two different sides of myself that I really like to explore,” Locke says. “The Blues & Ballads series is so beautiful because the umbrella of that title is a big one. And, as far as the music, there’s a deep, deep well to dip into and to pull music up from. As I get older I really appreciate the sound of the vibes in that languorous, open, slow context, so I love playing ballads.”
Live in Cape May (with Jeff “Tain” Watts subbing for Gully on drums and Robert Rodriguez playing Rhodes instead of piano), the music became even more urgent and combustible, despite struggles with distortion in the sound system. Locke’s vibes and Rodriguez’s Rhodes moved in intersecting ripples; Watts and the band leader traded whip-crack rhythmic volleys. It was easy to sense Locke’s excitement about this project, which he sees as a culmination of a long and rich life in music.
“I feel like this is the fruition of a long journey,” he says. “I think that Love Is a Pendulum has the most meaning and is more essentially me than any record I’ve ever made. I was hoping it would raise the bar as high as it could be artistically but still communicate to folks. I don’t want to make music just for other musicians. I feel that this music has all of the things that I want as a listener: I want to be affected in my head, in my heart and below the waist.”