The last time I saw vibes master Joe Locke, he was burning it up underneath an overpass at the late lamented Kingston Jazz Festival; unfortunately, the stage set-up there didn’t allow me to get a close look at him working. For his appearance last Saturday at the Athens Cultural Center, I was close enough to see Locke’s breath fog one of his bars when he blew on it to “make” the black-and-gold instrument pulse. (“Sorry about that,” he murmured immediately, apparently suffering a stab of uncharacteristic self-consciousness.)
This level of intimacy came courtesy of Planet Arts’ outstanding one2one concert series, which gives you a concert and a pre-show question-and-answer session in one reasonably-priced package. It’d be easy to just talk about the experience at the physical level, given the size of the performance space at Athens Cultural Center: The main gallery is pretty spacious for a reclaimed storefront, but between the low ceiling and the backs-to-the-wall crowd that jammed its way in prior to the Q&A, things were a bit close.
But things went far beyond the physical as the affable Locke quickly warmed to the audience’s questions, talking openly about everything from the first time he heard (and saw) a vibraphone to how both he and bassist Jay Anderson prefer to teach students out of their homes. “Sometimes,” he told us, “It’s sitting down, making pasta, and saying, ‘Let me play you this…'” In between, Locke named Chicago and Santana as the gateway bands that led him to jazz, talked about the experience of playing with Colombian harpist Edmar Castaneda and raved about marimba player Ed Saindon, calling him “the guru of mallet jazz.” (“You’ve got to search ‘Saindon’ and ‘marimba’ on YouTube,” he enthused. FYI: I followed his advice, and the results are pretty cool.)
Locke opened the concert portion of the program by leading Anderson and drummer Jaimeo Brown into a glowing free-for-all, acting and reacting to each other’s ideas and answers. The tone from Anderson’s beautiful double bass was as fat as a Christmas turkey, while Brown scraped his cymbals in a circular motion with the back of his drumsticks, creating the same effect as brushes but with a tougher backbone. The meditation took on a Middle Eastern tone as Brown went from sticks to hand-drumming; Anderson dove down into the lower reaches to make his own comments. You could easily hear Locke vocalizing the notes as he pounded them out, and Brown matched his intensity with every rise and fall. Eventually, things coalesced into a smoking version of John Coltrane’s “Naima,” and it was Game On.
All the passion you hear in Locke’s voice when he talks about jazz? You see every inch of it when he plays. Of course, when I say “play,” what I really mean is “assault.” If Locke ever learns karate, he’ll be breaking stacks of boards by the end of the first week. All the music affected him physically, whether it was his lightning-fast runs on Duke Ellington’s “Caravan” or his crunching single chords on Thelonious Monk’s “I Mean You.” At one point during “Naima,” Locke was so moved by the intensity of the moment that he jumped back from the vibes like he’d been shocked, earning whistles and war whoops from the crowd. Nonetheless, Locke can also bring things down to an elegant whisper, which he did on the beautiful ballad “This Child of Mine” and “My One and Only Love,” which the group effortlessly morphed from a ballad to a blues.
Although this trio had never played together before this evening, the chemistry Locke shared with both Anderson and Brown overcame that obstacle pretty quickly. The non-verbal communication Locke and Brown shared was palpable as they traded appreciation, approval and encouragement with nothing but glances, nods and smiles. Anderson’s rapport with Locke showed up the best on “One and Only” when Locke’s introductory lines kept breaking Anderson up with laughter that was either an inside joke or Anderson’s expression of how cool he though Locke’s ideas were.
Anderson’s lines were as thick and rich as you could want, with a tautness that made the notes just snap. He’s also a fast thinker, slipping “Softly As In a Morning Sunrise” so deftly that I initially thought that was the tune Locke had called. Brown’s a former student of pianist Armen Donelien (who was in attendance), and we saw that when Brown “played” the melody to “I Mean You.” Like Locke and Anderson, Brown has an exquisite sense of lyric and touch that accommodates his partners as well as it supports them; that said, the noise he brought to the break-out closing jam was simply monstrous, and the call-and-answer between Locke and Brown was two heavyweights trading knockout punches at the end of a really great fight.
The drive from Athens to Albany is pretty long, especially late at night, but after this show, I had no need for coffee, sugar-free Red Bull or any other artificial stimulant. I was amped, and the high school student sitting next to me at the concert was literally vibrating during the closer. It’s moments like this – when the music is stripped down to its bare essentials, without string sections, studio magic or corporate meddling – where the music gets so powerful, you could jump off a building because you know you’re going to fly. I couldn’t have ended my 2011 concert season better.
Review by J Hunter
Photograph by Jahn Jaeger
Camille Parlman’s review and Harry Forman’s photographs at Nippertown
Elizabeth Choinsky’s review and Jahn Jaeger’s photographs at Nippertown
Jeff Nania’s review at Metroland
Rudy Lu’s photographs at Albany Jazz