Due at the Pizza Express Soho on 19 and 20 October with his quartet, Amaranth, vibraphonist Joe Locke has, over a decades-long career, established himself as one of the most expressive musicians in jazz. Interview/feature by Rob Adams.
With an often flamboyant style, vibraphone star Joe Locke is a player who both grabs and holds the attention because the essence of his music is a direct, soulful connection with his audience.
The Palo Alto-born, Rochester-raised instrumentalist began playing music at the age of eight. Drums were his first instrument but his mother insisted that he learn the piano, too. Then, when he was thirteen, by which time he was drumming in a rock band, she encouraged him to play the glockenspiel in his school’s marching band.
Although not an instrument likely to impress his rock bandmates, the glockenspiel inadvertently led to the vibraphone when Locke’s mother saw one advertised in the local paper in Rochester. She assumed it was something like a glockenspiel.
“A set of vibes costs thousands of dollars,” says Locke. “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.”
By seventeen, Locke was working with saxophonist Spider Martin and was given the opportunity to play with jazz greats including Philly Joe Jones, Dizzy Gillespie and Mongo Santamaria. In 1981 he moved to New York with a set of vibes and $200, a gamble that has paid off with gigs with everyone from singer Dianne Reeves to symphony orchestras to the Beastie Boys.
Amaranth brings together four conspicuous talents: Locke, saxophonist Jaka Kopač, bassist Ameen Saleem and drummer Vladimir Kostadinovic. It’s a group of musicians who can create magic in the moment and a lasting impression.
LJN: Where and how did you meet Jaka, Ameen and Vladimir and how long have you been working as a quartet?
JL: Last year, Jaka, Vlad and Ameen had a tour planned with Orrin Evans, but he had to cancel, so they asked me if I’d like to do a tour instead. In the initial conversation, I felt some chemistry and kinship and decided to do it. After a lovely tour, we made the decision to try to make it a going concern. Before that initial tour I did not know them, now I feel that they are family.
LJN: What were the qualities in each musician that made you want to work with them?
JL: Vlad has the qualities I look for in any drummer: a deep sense of swing and a knowledge of both the tradition and more modern styles of playing. Jaka is a soulful and poetic saxophonist. He is very melodic and tells a story when he plays. Ameen is the quintessential bassist – quiet off the bandstand, strong and supportive on the bandstand. Still waters run deep.
LJN: What repertoire will be you playing at the Pizza Express?
JL: We’ll be playing mostly my original tunes or songs by the other members of the band, with a standard or two thrown in.
LJN: How do you decide on the tunes you’ll play?
JL: For me storytelling is very important. Songs which I have a narrative that touch the heart are always a priority, followed by pieces which hit below the waist, If you know what I mean.
LJN: How did you decide to give the group the name, Amaranth?
JL: I thought Amaranth was the perfect name for this group because the amaranth is a beautiful flower which blooms only once a year, just as this band does when we convene on an annual basis.
LJN: In other groups (with Geoffrey Keezer for example) you’ve had a harmony instrument alongside the vibes; what attracts you to working without, say, a piano or guitar in Amaranth?
JL: I like to be challenged and being the only harmonic instrument in this group is a beautiful challenge.
LJN: Have you recorded with this line-up?
JL: We just finished recording our first album about three hours ago here in Genoa, Italy!
LJN: What feelings would you like the audience to take away from the Pizza Express gigs?
JL: I would like them to feel satisfied and nourished by the music. I would like them to feel that they are better for having been with us for an evening.
LJN: What question do interviewers never ask that you wish they would ask?
JL: What are you reading lately? [Joe is currently reading a collection of short stories by Alice Munro]
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Categories: Feature/Interview (PP)