In a career moving from one milestone to the next with accelerating regularity, the past decade has represented particularly extraordinary artistic growth for vibraphonist Joe Locke as a composer and leader. Beginning in 2001 with the Storms/Nocturnes Trio collaboration with Geoffrey Keezer and Tim Garland, and moving forward with projects under his own leadershipranging from the Four Walls of Freedom group and Milt Jackson Tribute Band to the more recent Force of FourLocke's deep understanding of the jazz tradition, married with a profound and unrelenting modernism, has established him as the most multi-dimensional vibraphonist of his generation, and also as one of the most imaginative, lyrical and emotionally arresting leader/composers in today's jazz arena.
With the release of the Joe Locke /Geoffrey Keezer group's Signing, the much in demand follow-up to their Live in Seattle ( Earshot Awards' 'Best live performance of 2006'), Locke's career is set to kick into yet a higher gear as he simultaneously forges a new relationship with the forward-thinking Motéma imprint. The award-winning artist and the award-winning label plan a strategic collaboration in the coming year and a half to release a series of three Locke projects, each designed to demonstrate a different facet of his unerring lyricism, unfettered imagination, and show-stopping virtuosity.
Signing, a powerful studio follow-up to the highly acclaimed Live in Seattle, is Locke's quintessential choice to kick-start his new relationship with Motéma. I had a lot of different projects fleshed out in my mind, but I knew The Joe Locke / Geoffrey Keezer Group had to be first out of the block because I feel that what we do really defines who I am musically" explains Locke. I love doing all kinds of other things, but with The Joe Locke / Geoffrey Keezer Group I feel like there are no qualifications; if I could be doing anything it would be this."
After successfully touring in support of Live in Seattle, the foursome of Locke, pianist/keyboardist Geoffrey Keezer (Art Blakey, Wayne Shorter, Jim Hall, Christian McBride), bassist Mike Pope (David Sanborn, Chick Corea) and drummer Terreon Tank" Gully (Dianne Reeves, Christian McBride, Kurt Elling) went on to other artistic projects but, as the vibraphonist explains, I'd always had it in the back of my mind that we needed to continue Locke/Keezer and do Chapter Two."
Signing finds the reunited group more mature, both individually and collectively, without losing any of the incendiary chemistry that defined its debut. We haven't played in a long time," says Gully, but it speaks to the band's chemistry that the tracks on the record are almost exclusively first takes." Keezer agrees: It felt like the band had been on tour for six months." Locke adds, We didn't rehearse because we all live in different cities, so we just came in, talked the tunes down in a cogent and coherent way, and recorded them. Signing has that same 'this is a brand new experience' kind of immediacy; even though it's not a live record it has some of that energy because we were all in this 'Ok, here comes the unknown' space. We just went with it, and got the vibe straight away."
All the more remarkable when, from the opening title trackone of four Locke compositions it becomes immediately clear that this is deep music, filled with underlying challenge and complexity, but never at the expense of lyricism and accessibility. Whether it's the undeniable grooves, or the melodieswhich may float over a 13/8 figure, as they do on a rework of Locke's episodic Storms/Nocturnes piece, Her Sanctuary," but remain singable just the sameSigning makes an instant and lasting connection. It's called Signing because it's about the desire to make direct contact," Locke says. Sometimes we fall short and we don't find each other in the effort to communicate, but we're out there trying to be heard and trying to listen, sending signs. That's what it's all about."
Working off the energy of an audience, live albums often burn with greater fire than studio dates, a pitfall Signing manages to avoid. There are three tunes where the tinderbox really gets ignited," says Locke, like in the middle of the opening track, when Terreon steps out. Keezer's original, 'Darth Alexis,' also goes to some beautifully dramatic peaks, as does 'Her Sanctuary.' There's a lot of fire, but a lot of control as to when to pull it out and when to pull back."
This balance of controlled abandon is a perfect way to describe Locke's performance throughout, whether he's winding his way through the changes to a definitive rearrangement of John Coltrane's classic Naima," or interacting with Keezer on the pianist's Darth Alexis." It's that empathy, shared by Locke and Keezer, which positions them as the most emotionally arresting piano/vibes team since Chick Corea and Gary Burton.
The Lost Lenore," one of the more compelling tracks from Storms/Nocturnes' eponymous 2001 release, is given a more visceral and urban treatment here, propelled by Gully and Pope's unshakable yet finessed groove. Two other ballads speak to a love of simplicity and directness shared amongst the group. Keezer's arrangement of Imogen Heap's Hide and Seek" is surprisingly faithful to the original, yet the distinctive sound of the group brings a powerful wildcard to the mix. Locke's This is Just to Say," based on a William Carlos Williams poem, ends the album on a consonant note. In the song, I wanted to express the unadorned beauty and directness of the poem," Locke says. Sometimes stating something simply is all you need to do, which ties back to the theme of this record."
Amidst everyone's stellar performances, Mike Pope stands out, perhaps, as Signing's biggest surprise, turning in a career-defining solo on Terraces" and effortlessly dancing around Gully's time-shifting pulses on Darth Alexis," focusing on electric bass on all but two tracks. He's a triple threat," says Locke. He also engineered and mixed the record, and did a fantastic job making sure that the voice of each instrument was faithfully and fully realized."
Locke is equally enthusiastic about Gully. Terreon's contribution is amazing. Some younger drummers have told me that they consider him the daddy of a new movement in drumming, and the beats he puts on this record are really, really fresh. If it was another drummer, no matter how great, it would be a different record. Take the title track, for example. It's coming from hip hop and drum 'n' bass, but Tank's musical and rhythmic sophistication takes the tune to another level. He's able, at the drop of a hat, to turn everything upside down or sideways, and yet keep it in-the-pocket. His stamp is all over this record."
I'm grateful that my creative juices are really flowing right now," Locke concludes. Geoffrey and I both feel that Signing is collectively our best recording to date, which is a lot to say, but really how we feel." With this music that I've making with my kindred spirits in The Joe Locke / Geoffrey Keezer Group, and with the powerful wind at my back that I am feeling from Motéma now, I feel like the sky's the limit and the best is yet to come!"
The Joe Locke/Geoffrey Keezer group will soon release a video and be on tour to support this release in the US and Europe with the first leg of the tour commencing on the West Coast.