I am a sucker for musicians who play overtly soulful music and then turn around and play the hippest modern jazz, especially when they find organic ways to integrate the two. That’s the mechanism by which James Williams drew me into this music, and from Mingus to Bird to Eddie Harris to Rahsaan Roland Kirk and on down the list that has always gassed me. On the younger end of that tip is vibraphonist Joe Locke who is one of the hippest and most technically facile vibraphonists active today, but can always be counted on for achingly soulful music as a player, composer and arranger of others’ material. Here are some of the tracks that most embody that to me. There are numerous omissions from this list from his own records and tracks by such diverse artists as Hiram Bullock, Eddie Daniels, Russell Malone, Grover Washington, Jr. and the Beastie Boys. But that’s a good problem to have, as evidence by the quality of the music below.
1 ) “Van Gogh By Numbers” from Live in Seattle by Joe Locke/Geoffrey Keezer Group
I still remember approaching the George Washington Bridge when I heard this super-intense track for the first time on WBGO. I knew immediately that a) it was heavy, b) it was Joe’s music and c) that I should seek it out on a time when I was not operating a motor vehicle. Which I did, and it’s easily one of my favorite albums of the last 20 years. Geoffrey Keezer is another great integrator of modernity and soulfulness and it’s unsurprising that his many collaborations with Joe are all worth a listen.
2 ) “I Can’t Make You Love Me” from Lay Down My Heart: Blues and Ballads
I find that it is comparatively rare to hear great jazz “covers” of contemporary (i.e. rock era) pop tunes – usually they’re either corny or they’re so hipped-up that they lose the character of the song. Joe has a great track record of finding the sweet spot with his versions of songs of that ilk, from Joni Mitchell’s “Blue” to “I Say A Little Prayer” (though I never asked whether it was Dionne Warwick or Aretha providing his template) and this song, popularized by Bonnie Raitt, is pitch-perfect.
3 ) “On A Misty Night” from But Beautiful by Joe Locke and Kenny Barron
Amidst all the other grooves that Joe explores so well, he also swings like crazy. No better way to demonstrate that than in a medium-tempo duet with the master Kenny Barron on an album full of soulful and lyrical moments. Having played duets with Kenny for 6 years as his student maybe I’m biased, but I don’t know if there’s any lovelier setting in which to get in the pocket and play.
4 ) “Twilight” from Beauty Burning
Joe has had a long association with pianist Darrell Grant, and this track (from a record that’s sadly out of print) is a profoundly soulful reading of one of Grant’s most beautiful tunes. Jeff “Tain” Watts’ backbeat keeps things at a slow burn and guest guitarist Paul Bollenback digs in hard.
5 ) “Verrazano Moon” from For the Love of You
Joe has composed some lovely ballads, and this one highlights the work of his frequent collaborator, vocalist Kenny Washington (not to be confused with the drummer by the same name). Though Joe certainly “sings” through his vibes, he also works great with those who do the real thing.
6 ) “Miramar” from Via by Storms/Nocturnes
This is another Keezer collaboration, this time in an unusually-orchestrated vibes-piano-winds trio with saxophonist Tim Garland. The music they create is gorgeous, and this ethereal version of a tune of Joe’s that also appears on Live In Seattle is a highlight.
7 ) “Blue November” from Force of Four
I’ll admit that my first impetus for checking out this album was the guest appearance on this slow, funky tune and one other track by my old buddy Wayne Escoffery, who has recorded two great records of his own in the piano-less group Veneration, with Joe laying down the chords. But while I came for Wayne, I stayed for all the deep, soulful music provided by Joe and the rest of the band.
8 ) “Nearly” from Stardust by Ron Carter
My first live exposure to Joe Locke was at the Blue Note in the fall of 2002. It was a double bill and Wayne got me in, as he was playing in Lonnie Plaxico’s band (along with keyboardist Helen Sung, who I also heard for the first time, mind-blowingly). It was a double bill, though, with Ron Carter’s sextet, and this was just a few weeks before I went into the studio with Ron and Ben Riley to record my “Patch Kit” album. So I was there mainly to hear him, but what stood out most was the work of the guests, Joe and elder statesman Benny Golson (who Ron referred to as “our hero”) on tenor. Both of them appear on this album and are featured on this slow, bluesy Carter original, as is pianist Sir Roland Hanna.
9 ) “Naima” from Phantoms by Eddie Henderson
Meanwhile, my first exposure to Joe’s playing of any kind was also through a Kenny Barron connection, in this case through an album containing 3/5 of Kenny’s classic quintet – Kenny, drummer Victor Lewis and master trumpeter Eddie Henderson, who would go on to employ Joe for several more records. On this slow Latin version of the classic Coltrane ballad, Joe gets a turn at the melody, adds great chordal textures and takes a gorgeous solo.
10 ) “Sword of Whispers” from Live at JazzBaltica by Trio da Paz with Joe Locke
Carrying on in the tradition of Gary Burton’s early days with Stan Getz, Joe can play the heck out of Brazilian music, and these days there is no better setting in which one could do so than with Romero Lubambo, Nilson Matta and Duduka Da Fonseca, better known as Trio da Paz. This is a tune of Joe’s that fits right in with the rest of their program on this uplifting record.