Have we been dealing with two different Joe Lockes for all these years? To some, the vibraphonist presents as a technically adept and intellectually curious seeker, constantly pushing through to new levels of possibility and commitment with his music. But for others, Locke is a conduit to understanding the human condition. This is a dichotomy that obviously speaks to vantage points and perspectives, with neither understanding ringing false. And while the existence of said split isn't at all surprising when considering a listener's potential takeaway from Locke's body of work, it's something that the artist himself has also wrestled with in the past. "For me, this album is the fruition of a long journey of self discovery as an artist, where I no longer see the different aspects of my musical personality as separate or at odds with one another," he notes. "I have discovered my own lingua franca, connecting the seemingly disparate styles I enjoy playing."
That statement, pulled from the press release for Subtle Disguise, isn't some mere marketing soundbite. To hear this music is to understand that Locke's stock neither rests solely with his four smoking mallets or his ability to pierce the psyche but, rather, with his gifts in rectifying said forces into one powerfully direct current. Blending the personal, the political, and the poetic into an artfully assembled package, Locke makes a profound statement about our times.
Opening with "Red Cloud," a hypnotic-turned-intense original that takes its name and inspiration from one of the most significant leaders of the Oglala Lakota, Locke gets down to business right away. With help from his core quartet, featuring pianist Jim Ridl, bassist Loren Cohen, and drummer Samvel Sarkisyan, and with the searing suggestions of guest saxophonist David Binney upping the ante, Locke hits a home run on his first at bat. Following that with a funky, metrically-slanted take on Bob Dylan's "Who Killed Davey Moore?" featuring vocalist-guitarist Raul Midon, the vibraphonist shifts musical gears while playing to the great folk bard's explorations of morality and man's hurtful insouciance.
As the album moves on, a gorgeous blend of the universal and the topical carries forth. With the title track, Locke, Ridl, and guitarist Adam Rogers explore the masks we all wear from time to time with a pointed and passionate grace; on the soulfully shimmering "Make Me Feel Like It's Raining," Locke salutes vibraphone trailblazer Bobby Hutcherson with warmth and tenderness; and through the literal centerpiece, "Rogues Of America," our present-day leaders are revealed as they truly are while Locke and company probe the depths with drive and electric purpose.
Subtle Disguise's second half proves equally moving and meaningful, opening on a version of "Motherless Children" that brings Midón and Rogers back into the fold to assist with a nod to the Steve Miller Band's rendition of that Blind Willie Johnson classic. It's Locke's tribute to his sister, Bea, who first turned him onto that blues-rock take. Then two of the most impactful compositions to ever come from Locke's pen—the cosmically pure "Safe And Sound (At The Edge Of The Milky Way)," taking name and image from an Albert Finney- delivered line in the film Orphans, and the charged "Blondie Roundabout," referencing Locke's manager, Nadja von Massow, and the energetic aura that surrounds her—arrive back-to- back. Both numbers previously appeared as notable inclusions on Parts Unknown (Origin, 2017), a Locke-enhanced gem from the John McLean/Clark Sommers Band, but each takes on a more organic appearance here.
While Locke could have easily ended with "Blondie Roundabout," using energy as his parting gift, he opts instead to raise heart and influence in his closing. Moving over to piano, he invites vocalist Alina Engibaryan to take the spotlight on "A Little More Each Day," a vocal rendition of "Make Me Feel Like It's Raining" that features some of Binney's most simple and directly soulful playing on record. It's but one last way that Locke shows himself and lays out what must be an intrinsic belief in John Keats' well-quoted line: "Beauty is truth, truth beauty—that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know."