Jazz vibraphonist Joe Locke tackles big concepts with his music, so it's not surprising that he describes his latest work, "Subtle Disguise," as the "total expression of who I am as a musician and human being." It also probably unavoidable that such an admittedly autobiographical concept would also touch upon life in America in 2018.
Those are good reasons why Locke's latest effort, which will be released on Origin Records next week, is so compelling and appealing, and why next weekend's two shows in Boston are noteworthy for both jazz fans and music fans in general.
Locke grew up in Rochester, N.Y., and since his debut album in 1990, he's released 30 albums as a band leader, and appeared on another 65 as a sideman. Widely acknowledged as one of the premier vibes players in the world, he's on the faculty at the Manhattan School of Music in New York City, and lives in a converted schoolhouse, in suburban New Jersey, an hour outside the city.
Locke finds inspiration for his original music in various source material, and with assorted formats. His 2011 album "VIA," for instance, found him in a trio with Geoffrey Keezer and Tim Garland, while the next year's "Wish Upon A Star" was a collaboration with the Lincoln, Nebraska Symphony Orchestra. In 2013, Locke's "Lay Down My Heart" was an album devoted to ballads and blues. His previous album, 2015′s "Love Is A Pendulum" was a suite based on a Barbara Sfraga poem. Several years further back, Locke composed "Four Walls of Freedom," a suite with six movements, based upon the writing of the monk Thomas Merton, and designed for the late saxophonist Bob Berg.
Clearly, Locke, 59, loves having his music inspired by definite themes. The new album includes his core quartet - who will accompany him in Boston - of pianist Jim Ridl, bassist Loren Cohen, and drummer Samvel Sarkisyan, along with special guests Raul Midon and Adam Rogers on guitar, David Binney on tenor sax, and vocalist Alina Engibaryan. Incredibly, the nearly 69-minute album was recorded over two days.
"My core quartet guys were a huge part of this," said Locke. "We got the architecture of the music together first, and then it was easy to get the other musicians in to do their parts. Raul and David and all of them picked up on it so fast, and really grasped the emotional intent of the music. This album was sort of a dream come true for me, doing this with these particular people had been on my wish list. I definitely wrote specifically with them in mind. I wanted Adam, David and Raul featured, and for that last song, a tribute to (late vibraphonist) Bobby Hutcherson, I knew I wanted this fantastic young vocalist, Alina, to sing the words."
Most pop groups spend weeks or months in the studio doing and re-doing tracks, so the efficiency with which this work was done is very impressive.
"My quartet and I had played this music in a New York City club a few weeks before the recording sessions," Locke explained. "Then we had done it again, just before the sessions, with David Binney as a guest. Adam and Raul just began playing the music at the sessions. That was just how we approached it. We have just done a week at Jazz at Lincoln Center now, and we will tour as a quartet, and sometimes with a guest guitarist and vocalist. But I am happy with how well the music stands up as a quartet. It's exciting music to play, and a wonderful thing to play your own music.
"Most of the songs on the record are first or second takes," Locke added. "We knew the music well, and the guests are such great improvisers they fit right in. Usually, I've found, the magic happens on the first or second take. Everybody really had this music under their belts, so a main goal was to capture that sense of spontaneity. Everyone really comes through on the record, and you can hear that in-the-moment life force."
There are certainly no boring pieces in the nine-cut album, which opens with the fierce urgency of "Red Cloud," a song written after Locke had read a biography of the Oglala Sioux chief. It's a deeply textured piece, with a drive and momentum that embody determination, yet Locke's facility for creating dazzling melodies runs throughout.
"When we recorded the album we had no set order for them," said Locke. "It became pretty obvious, though, that 'Red Cloud' was the piece most representative of what this album's about. If there was one thing we could use as a sort of mission statement, that was it."
Locke also includes a cover of Bob Dylan's "Who Killed Davey Moore," a song about the boxer who died after a 1963 title fight, which takes the perspective that as no one wants to accept the blame, everyone is to blame, from promoters to trainers, the other fighter, even the media hyping the bout. Locke's version is a bright, swinging take, where Midon's vocal is tossed off, as if everyone wants to move along to the next thing - an apt way of portraying the song's theme.
"The song is a metaphor for passing the buck," said Locke. "Everyone is saying 'you can't blame me.' For today's atmosphere, it's a very meaningful theme. Musically, it is basically a blues, which gives jazz musicians a great chance to take it places, but the lyrics tell an important story."
The other cover on the album is the well traveled blues "Motherless Children," which is given a contemporary jazz fusion style, lending it an otherworldly feel.
"I think we tried to keep that 1927 Blind Willie Johnson tune close to the bone," said Locke, disagreeing when we suggested it was surreal. "A song about separation, the difficulties of families staying together, is timeless. I had no political motive when we did that, but it is also not lost on me how it relates to what is going on at our borders, and the devastation it causes families. Many people have recorded that song over the years from Eric Clapton to Rosanne Cash. My template was the Steve Miller Band version, which I first heard on my sister Bea's records, as a teenager. So that song is also a tip of the hat to Bea, who we lost last year, for all the music she introduced me to."
The title cut embodies "Subtle Disguise" in more ways than one, as it is based on an old Miles Davis composition. The song itself begins as a mysterious, film noir soundtrack, but as it explores the simple roots of the melody, and shifts focus from vibes to piano, it becomes more like an adventure theme, the anthem behind a mighty quest, as it ends in an incendiary Rogers guitar solo.
"I love the ride Adam Rogers takes us on at the end of that," said Locke. "He gets to the emotional juice of the song in a beautiful way. There is a definite arc to that song, from the mystery at the start to the anthem at the finish, when Adam is just testifying and takes the listener on that wild ride. It is based on a 1950s Mile Davis tune, but takes a circuitous path from that."
Perhaps the most lovely song on the album is "Make me Feel Like It's Raining," a musical ode to Bobby Hutcherson. The tune that concludes the album, "A Little More Each Day" is simply a reworking of the same tune, with Engibaryan singing the lyrics Locke wrote. The song is an elegant melody where Locke's mastery of tone and vibrato is paramount, as is the way he lets the music breathe, where the space between notes is as important as anything he plays.
The composition was inspired by Hutcherson's reply when he was asked what he wanted as a listener when it came to music. The late vibraphonist replied "Jerk me around! Jerk my soul around! Make me smile and laugh. Make me sad. make me feel like it's raining."
"I wrote that song for Bobby Hutcherson, the day after he passed away last year," said Locke. "I hope the harmonic progression references Bobby's way of using harmony, that kind of slippery way his key centers keep changing, yet it was all done so smoothly no one noticed. He was so important to my life as a musician, a personal touchstone. I had not thought of that as a vocal piece, but one day I was sitting at the piano, just playing that melody. The lyrics just came to me, and they all deal with Bobby's life. When Alina sang it, I believe she was also thinking of her mentor, the late Al Jarreau, and so she was able to get very much inside the words in a deeper way, thinking of Al and what he meant to her."
Locke also plays the innovative new OmegaVibe on this record, a product of Malletech Instruments. Locke noted that famed marimba player Leigh Howard Stevens had founded the company to make mallets, then began making marimbas, and now has forged ahead with vibraphones.
"There probably hadn't been any big changes in making vibes in 40 or 50 years, but now Leigh is making state of the art instruments, bringing vibes into the 21st century," said Locke. "With myself, Stefon Harris and Warren Wolf all endorsing OmegaVibes, they have some of the world's best players bringing them into the forefront."