Joe Locke: Perfectionist of Percussion

by Robert Shore, Metro News
July 6, 2008

'Leave your preconceptions at the door.' That's the advice of Joe Locke, widely regarded as the greatest vibraphonist of his generation, as he prepares to kick off a three-night residency at Ronnie Scott's.

Vibists rarely get the acclaim accorded to, say, pianists and reed players but Locke has no doubts about the expressive range of his instrument of choice. 'In the right hands, the vibes are capable of the same intensity as an electric guitar or saxophone,' he says. A dynamic performer, Locke is sure to make a few new converts to the pleasures of mallet on bar at these dates.

Not that the two-times winner of the prestigious Jazz Journalists Association's Mallet Player of the Year award has never dreamed of playing a more mainstream jazz instrument. 'I always say to people: "I'm a frustrated tenor saxophonist,"' he laughs. 'All my heroes are tenor saxophonists. And the style I've developed is trying to emulate tenorists.' Besides which, he adds, 'it looks cool carrying a sax over your shoulder'.

Locke began his jazz career young. An early association with the Spider Martin quintet brought the still school-age US mallet prodigy into contact with Dizzy Gillespie. 'Being in the presence of the creator of bebop was quite something,' he says. Locke remembers the trumpet legend 'sitting at the piano showing me harmonies' and concludes that the most important lesson he learned from the mid-century musical revolutionary was simply: 'It's all about chords.'

In addition to having more than 25 albums as leader to his name, there have been innumerable collaborations with the foremost jazzers of the past 50 years, including head-to-head duet dates with the grand master of the post-bop avant garde Cecil Taylor. The 49-year-old has also recorded with the likes of the Beastie Boys. Locke got a call from AdRock and co to help them out with the track Song For Junior on 1998's Hello Nasty album. 'I expected three guys bouncing off the walls but they were very laid back,' he says.They were also surprisingly knowledgeable about jazz, giving Locke precise guidance about what they were looking for.

Locke confesses that at the time he didn't realise how successful the Beasties were. A few weeks after the session he got a shock as he passed by Madison Square Garden and noticed that the Boys had sold out three nights at the famously vast venue.

For the Ronnie Scott's dates Locke will be joined by his new quartet, Force Of Four, featuring Robert Rodriguez on piano, Ricardo Rodriguez on bass and Jonathan Blake on drums. 'These guys are very rooted in the contemporary Latin music world,' the famously restless Locke enthuses about his new collaborators. 'Working with them has been stretching me, helping me to grow.'

Mon, Jul 7 until Wed, Jul 9, Ronnie Scott's Jazz Club, 47 Frith Street, W1. 6pm, £20 to £36. Tel: 020 7439 0747. Tube: Tottenham Court Road