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The many aspects of Joe Locke’s musical personality represented in ‘Makram'

Joe Locke
Nadja von Massow
Joe Locke

Vibraphonist Joe Locke honed his mallet palette working with notables including Grover Washington, Jr., Kenny Barron, Cecil Taylor, Ron Carter and The Spanish Harlem Orchestra. And that’s the short list. His diversity continues on his new recording, Makram, titled after the talented Lebanese bassist Makram Aboul Hosn. There’s a swinging “Love For Sale,” featuring the quartet with pianist Jim Ridl, bassist Lorin Cohen and drummer Samvel Sarkisyan. A tribute to Roy Hargrove adds horns; the Middle Eastern title track finds the mood with the oud and riq. Joe even goes it alone on a gorgeous reimagination of Billy Strayhorn’s “Lush Life.”

Recently, Joe and I chatted about the new release and his approach to a life in music. He brings this spirit live to the Jazz Forum in Tarrytown, N.Y on April 14 and 15.

Watch our conversation here:

The many aspects of Joe Locke’s musical personality represented in ‘Makram'

Interview transcript:

Gary Walker:  Hello folks, and welcome to the WBGO Studios, where the vibe that we share with you each and every session is hopefully something that you'll walk away with and just feel better about the world around you. Joe Locke has made the world feel better over the years through his work with people like Grover Washington Jr., Kenny Barron, Eddie Henderson early on, as well as Eddie Palmieri, Ms. Dianne Reeves, and On the Inside Saluting with Milt Jackson and Mike LeDonne, a mutual admiration society with David Hazeltine. His co-led recordings with Geoffrey Keezer are just something of amazement and his work with the Lincoln Symphony Orchestra.

But he can get right down and do it all by himself both off and away from the instrument as much as on the instrument.  I'm talking about just the way he looks at the world. Consider, if you will, the title of one of his recordings, Slander and Other Love Songs. What a pleasure it is to welcome to WBGO Studios today to talk about a brand new recording and what he's been up to—vibraphonist, marimbaist and mallet master, Joe Locke.

Joe Locke: Gary, it's so good to see you. Thanks for having me. I was just reminiscing about all the great conversations we've had over the years and it’s great to continue the conversation today.

We should also mention that Joe is a master educator. I remember one such session that he did for us in the WBGO Kids Jazz concert series over at NJPAC. The kids stormed the stage at the end of his session when he asked if anyone would like to come up and play. There were about a hundred people that came up, and that's just because of your approachability, not only at your instrument, but away from your instrument too. It's a pleasure to chat with you here today. You have a new record that is just out last month called Makram. Talk about the impetus for the title of that recording.

I was teaching a few years ago in Europe at a conservatory. I was inundated with content from a lot of folks who seemed self-involved and narcissistic. They were sending me tracks of themselves playing, not even making time for a good morning. Instead of saying, ”Hi Joe, how are you?” it was “Check me out. Here's my music. Listen to this, listen to that.”

But then I got an email from a gentleman named Makram Hosn, who was a graduate student. He thanked me for my masterclass of the previous day. He said, “Joe, I'd like you to hear this.” I thought, “Oh, here we go again, another self-involved video,” but it wasn't that. He said, “This is a digital animation an artist did of Stravinsky's ‘Rite of Spring.’ I got so much joy from it and I hope it brings you the same joy that it brought me. Have a beautiful day and hoping to see you later on campus.”

It reaffirmed my faith in people and I got to spend some time with him in the ensuing days. We forged this friendship. Every time we connected, I further appreciated him as a person. Before I wrote the song, I had a communication with him and I said, “Makram, what are you up to?” He said, “Well, I'm here in Beirut, where we just had an explosion at the port. For the last 48 hours I’ve been digging through rocks to find survivors.” This is the kind of person he is, besides being a wonderful composer and bassist in classical and jazz genres.

He's someone who is just a very special human being who as I said, reaffirmed my faith in people. I was sitting at the piano one day. Sort of noodling and this melody started to emerge. All of a sudden it hit me. I said, “Oh, I'm writing this for Makram Hosn.” It just dawned on me who I was writing it for, and that became the composition ‘Makram’ and I decided to title the album to someone very deserving of a song being dedicated to him, so I was really happy to do it.

Joe Locke 'Makram': Behind The Scenes

The nucleus of the band includes the pianist Jim Ridl, whom you've played with many times before. The same with Lorin Cohen on acoustic and electric bass and Samvel Sarkisyan on drums and cymbals. On the title track you also add the oud and it's interesting because just about a week ago, I had a chance to chat with Rickie Lee Jones. She did a version on her upcoming recording of “Nature Boy” that featured throughout, including the introduction to the tune, the oud. Talk about the gentleman that you secured to handle that.

I had recorded the title track “Makram” in the studio and I was going to release it just as a quartet track. I spoke to Makram and he had sent me some music with the oud on it as well as an instrument that's sort of a like a Lebanese tambourine, called the riq. I said, “If I send the tracks to you, could you ask your colleague if they could put themselves onto the track and send it back to me?” And that's exactly what they did. It really further solidified the Middle Eastern nature of the melody. It also made the connection to Makram even more fleshed out because of the Middle Eastern nature of the instruments. I love the sound of the vibes and the oud together.

 It sounds magnificent. It’s kind of a magical, the synergy that takes place there.

I did an album in the late seventies, I think in 1977, with a wonderful altoist named Mark Gross, and with Mulgrew Miller, Brian Blade, and Darryl Hall. That was the band. I think the oud was played by a man named Amos Hoffman. The name of the album was Riddle of the Sphinx, and that's where I first heard the sound of the alto vibes and oud combined. It brought me back to that recording from 1977. It's a beautiful sound.

We build our sense memories during the course of our lives. If it's right and we're living right, we hold on to some of those nuggets, those pieces of treasure. We bring everything with us. Marak has a lot of originals on it, not only by yourself, but also from Jim and from Lorin as well. It's also bookended by some tunes you might know. The front tune is a Cole Porter classic, “Love for Sale.” You've been comfortable with standards throughout your life. I remember one of your recordings that was all movie themes. That was just fantastic.

I actually remember on that movie theme album that I had run out of ideas and I called the pianist Billy Childs, who was playing with me on the recording. I said, “Billy, can you come up with anything on the theme from ‘Sounds of Silence? I can't think of anything. I can't think of an arrangement.” He said, “I'll get back to you in 48 hours.” He got back to me. He had taken Bach’s “Prelude in D Minor” and connected it to the melody of “Sounds of Silence” and wove Bach’s “Prelude” throughout the Simon and Garfunkel song. It was just brilliant, absolutely brilliant. When I think about that film music album, I always think of that Billy Childs arrangement and how he just made that to order in a day.

That's the mantra of any creative, improvisational and music-oriented individual. It doesn't just doesn't happen in the group setting, but it can also happen when you're all by yourself.  I turn folks’ attention to the other bookend on this recording where you move all by yourself through Billy Strayhorn’s “Lush Life.” As I listened to it, all of a sudden it kind of meshed with “Round Midnight.” I was like, “Oh, why didn't I think of this?” Well, I'm not a musician for starters, but why haven't I heard this kind of thing before? That kind of melding of ideas is something that informs you each and every day.

I have to tell you a couple things about that track that I wanted to close the album with. I was speaking to Doug Beavers, the head of the label Circle Nine, and we decided that the album needed something sort of like a “Kiss on the forehead” at the end of the album. I said, “Why don't I play something solo?” I chose “Lush Life” by Billy Strayhorn because I read the David Hajdu book, Lush Life, and I finally understood that besides being a monumental musical talent, he was a man of conscience. He was a man who put his money where his mouth was in terms of social and racial justice issues.

He was the person who got Lena Horne involved in social justice issues. He was with Medgar Evers the night before he was assassinated. I have a very special place in my heart for this man who, even if he hadn't written or played a note of music, he still would have been an American treasure because of what he stood for and the way he acted on it. That's number one. Number two, in relation to playing solo vibes, he was the person who laid down the gauntlet. This also makes me emotional. The person who laid down the gauntlet for me and challenged me to do a solo vibes recital was Michael Bourne. At first, I said no. And then I rose to the challenge.

I remember when Michael told me this story. He said, “I approached Joe Locke and said I'd like him to do a solo recital in the afternoon.” We're talking about that long running festival that Michael put together every year at Mohawk in upstate New York. Michael said, “When I asked Joe about it, Joe's response was ‘Why doesn't anybody want to play with me?’ He said, “No, no, no. Not at all. It would just be a very special afternoon.” I hear it in my head. Not only did you rise to the occasion, but talk about the bells that you brought and that you hung above the vibraphone.

Wow, that's amazing that you remember that. I had done a percussion symposium somewhere, and there was a company, the Malmark Company, they made these things called cymbells, which are tuned sort of like caroling bells. They are tuned and mounted and you can play them like a piano keyboard. I thought, “What a great thing to do, to put these on the side or in front of the vibraphone and to try to combine the sound of the vibraphone with the sound of the sim bells.” At that concert I did “Naima” by John Coltrane. I played the accompaniment on the vibes and the melody to Coltrane's song on the sim bells. It was just such a fun and novel thing to do.

It was a very special afternoon and it opened the door for you. You went on to do a number of solo recitals.

I've done many solo recitals since, and every time I do, I think of Michael. I also remember that first solo recital I did. My favorite solo pianist was sitting in front of the vibraphone in the front row, Fred Hersch. As if it wasn't nerve-wracking enough to do my first solo recital, to have Fred Hersch sitting in front of me. He was extremely kind after the concert and was very gracious and supportive. So thank you, Fred.

You referenced one of the true musical and personal giants, Billy Strayhorn. But he’s not the only one that shows up here on this new recording. I'm talking about a tune that you wrote, “Raise Heaven,” which is a dedication to your good friend Roy Hargrove.

I wrote that song just in sadness at the passing of Roy. I hope that when people hear the song that they understand what I was trying to do in the beginning of the song was to reference Roy's love of playing ballads in a pure jazz way. His love of the tradition and of ballad playing. The bridge of the song kicks into a back beat and a pocket. That's where I'm trying to reference his love of rhythm and blues as exemplified by his work with Common, Erykah Badu, D'Angelo, the RH factor, all the stuff that he did in that context.

When he passed away and they had that concert performance at Jazz at Lincoln Center, there’s a reason it went on for 12 hours. The only reason that it ended was because they had to turn the lights off. Everything that Roy played, whatever the context, if it was straight ahead jazz or R&B, he never played a dishonest note. He was genuine and he was the real article. I'm gratified to have had the opportunity to record that song as a tribute to this amazingly beautiful musician and beautiful human being.

There's an added almost orchestral feel to that tune in part because of the addition of Doug Beavers on the trombone, and also Eric C. Davis on the French horn.

Also, Jennifer Wharton on the trombone and tuba. They over-dubbed themselves to create a seven-piece brass septet. The writing was Doug Beavers. I was going to release this as a quartet, but In a conversation with Doug, who is an incredible arranger. We decided to add the horn choir and I think it does something to the emotional resonance of the piece. It just sort of elevates the piece in the places where it wants to lift. I'm very grateful to Doug for that beautiful arrangement.

I think the baddest tune on that D'Angelo Voodoo record is a tune that he and Roy co-wrote called “Spanish Tinge.” Without a doubt, it's the highlight of that recording. But as you referenced a second ago, nobody could play a ballad the way Roy Hargrove could.

I used to love to hear him sing because he sang the same way he played with direct emotional honesty. It all came from a genuine place.

Now the additional people that you just referenced, Doug and Eric and also Jennifer, they show up once again on a recording. Many times as we look around our world, our response is similar. We just shake our heads. But when you're a musician, you have the ability to create. And you created something for the world around us with the piece, “Algae for Us All.” Do I need to ask specifically what the inspiration was? It was probably a whole bucket full of things. Just recently they're shooting down drones in international waters. Things are getting really tense in the world, aren't they? 

I just wrote it and it came from a place of sadness because of where I see this country that I love heading toward. There seems to be some kind of global move toward right wing ideology. It's very disconcerting and saddening to me. I wrote that song just out of a sadness for the fact that those philosophies seem to be on the rise. I hope they don't win the day. That's all I can say, you know? But I also have to say something positive. I have great admiration, respect and gratitude to those people who, in the face of adversity or in the face of having to swim constantly upstream, continue to fight the good fight for social justice, as well as for things that I think are super important. Even at a time when I would understand people throwing up their hands and walking away. I have great admiration for people who continue to strive for all the things that I grew up with.

Gary, our entire lives are exemplified in the Martin Luther King quote, “The moral universe bends slowly, but it bends toward justice.” Our entire lives have bent that way. But if we look at the overall history of this country, our generation was sort of an outlier. It was a really positive generation of moving towards social justice and civil rights. Now we're seeing even some of those things over the last 60, 70 years…I can't get my head around it, where people actively want those advances unraveled and they want to go back to a place where things were unjust and unfair.

To right the ship originally was filled with many frustrating, sad and angry days. But out of it came something really positive.  And before you know it, as Martha Reeves would say, “We were dancing in the street,” because we thought we were going in the right direction. 

I think we still can, but there are forces which really want to go to a time which they think was better for them and their ancestors but was abysmal for so many others. That's what I was reflecting on when I wrote that song, “Elegy.”

When I first moved to New York in 1982 and was lucky enough within five weeks, to get a one day a week gig at a little station in Newark called WBGO, the very first guy that I interviewed was a guy named Vic Juris. We became fast friends. In fact, he even gave my brother a couple of guitar lessons. All the way up to the very end, his creative spirit would not be tamped out. He inspired Jim Ridl and Vic has been on some of your recordings in the past as well. Jim wrote this wonderful piece called “Song for Vic Juris.”

I heard Jim at a solo recital and in that recital, one of the pieces he played solo piano was “Song for Vic Juris.” I was so moved by it. After the concert backstage, I asked “Jim, can we please record this on the upcoming album that we're doing?” He kindly gave permission to record it. It's a tribute to someone who was, as you said, an incredibly special human being. He was someone who was considered by all the guitar masters—Pat Metheny, John Scofield, John Abercrombie, Mick Goodrick, Larry Coryell—considered by all of them to be their equal. He was just a monumental cat. It always delights me when I meet someone that I have absolute respect for and get a chance to finally meet them and realize that they're as good human beings as they are musicians. He was the exemplification of that.

He absolutely was. I considered him a friend until the very end. Just a special human being. Now, it’s April 14 and 15 when you will be at the Jazz Forum in Tarrytown, New York. I knew you were going to be in our area. And what is April the 15th? It's tax day. As the commercial says, don't do your taxes. Send them out and go up to the Jazz Forum in Tarrytown and find yourself getting that feeling of what it's like to be stepping on the stars. That's what it's about.

Well, come to the Jazz Forum on the 15th and I'll do your taxes for you.

We're talking with H&R Locke—the man who will do your taxes as you relax at the Jazz Forum in Tarrytown. What a pleasure it is chatting with you. Lorin adds a piece to this recording called “Interwoven Hues.”

The thing about this album that's important for me to reference is that it represents different aspects of my musical personality. There's stuff on the album that's more compositional in nature. Also that’s more reflective in nature such as “Love for Sale.” This particular piece, “Interwoven Hues,” is straight-ahead and swinging. The song that Lorin wrote reminds me of something that Cedar Walton would've written or Horace Silver. It's coming out of that really straight-ahead, sort of post-bop bag and just really fun to play. Lorin Cohen has an album called Home on the Origin label. The writing and playing on that album was so beautiful. I insisted on all the guys in the band contributing a song of their own, and he contributed that piece. It’s just such a groovy and fun piece to play. It's got some nice changes and is just fun to blow on and swing out.

Nothing is more special than to watch Joe Locke blowing and swinging out. The new recording says it all and shows a taste of his diversity that made up your bag over the course of many years. I still remember that record you made with Trio da Paz, which was just magnificent. Also, your work with the Spanish Harlem Orchestra.

Oh, that was such a blast.

How about you and Jeremy Bosch together on that one tune?

I'm so glad that you mentioned Jeremy Bosch because I didn't know him before doing that album. I knew that he sings with Spanish Harlem Orchestra. I heard this flute solo and I said, “Who is this flute player?” And they said, “That's Jeremy Bosch. He's my favorite flute player.” Amazing player. He's a bad cat. It’s been a blast. It's been so much fun. To get a chance to play and record with these people because I moved to Middletown, New Jersey about seven years ago. One day I walked into my dry cleaner and I said to Joe Cruz, my dry cleaner, “How was your weekend?” And he said, “It was phenomenal.” I said, “Why was it so great?” He said, “Because I went up to the Bronx and saw my favorite band.” I said, “Who's that?” He said, “The Spanish Harlem Orchestra.”

A month later, I get a call from Oscar Hernandez asking me to be on the album. While I was in the studio with Oscar Hernandez and Doug Beavers and the Spanish Harlem Orchestra, I asked Oscar, “Would you make a short video shoutout to my dry cleaner, Joe Cruz. The next time I went into the dry cleaner, I said, Joe, “Check this out.” It was Oscar Hernandez saying, “Hey,” to my dry cleaner, Joe Cruz. From that day on, Joe Cruz gives me free dry cleaning now.

The next time you see a Joe Locke performance, look at that perfect crease.

Joe Cruz also came down to Baltimore to see me with Eddie Palmieri and I introduced him to Eddie backstage. It turned out they went to the same high school together and they grew up in the same neighborhood. When Eddie hit the stage, he dedicated the entire set to my dry cleaner, Joe Cruz. It was such a beautiful moment.

You made his year and maybe his decade. Let me ask you a final question. You're in a car. The car, it would probably be an SUV so you can get the vibes in the back. You're out on the road. Where are you going and what are you listening to?

That's a great question. I'm going to Sandy Hook Beach to watch the sun go down. Probably to go for a bike ride with my bike in the back of the SUV. On this particular day, I'm listening to Joe Sample with Lalah Hathaway because I just want to hear something that makes my heart sing and feels good below the waist. So that's what I'm choosing, what I'm listening to

That bike path there at Sandy Hook, isn't that magnificent? When you go past, talk about sense memory, when you ride your bike past the Polaris missiles that are still there.

I moved to New Jersey from New York seven years ago, and I absolutely love it. It was such a beautiful change of venue after 35 years in the city, and I just love it here. I love Jersey. It's a beautiful place.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

In jazz radio, great announcers are distinguished by their ability to convey the spontaneity and passion of the music. Gary Walker is such an announcer, and his enthusiasm for this music greets WBGO listeners every morning. This winner of the 1996 Gavin Magazine Jazz Radio Personality of the Year award has hosted the morning show each weekday from 5:00 a.m. to 9:00 a.m. And, by his own admission, he's truly having a great time.