Joe Locke, Behind the Subtle Disguise.

Written by | Artists, Interviews, Magazine, Summer 2019

Vibraphonist Joe Locke is widely considered to be one of the leading voices on his instrument. Born in California and raised in Rochester New York, Joe moved to New York City in 1981 where he quickly established himself as one of the city’s first call Vibraphonists. Since this time, Joe has built an expansive discography both as a leader and sideman. Joe has won numerous awards and polls, including being a six-time recipient of the Jazz Journalists Association’s “Mallet Instrumentalist of the Year” Award.

Editors Note: This article is an abridged version of the article that appears in the Summer 2019 edition of the Jazz In Europe Magazine. The Magazine is available here. 

Late last year Joe released his latest album Subtle Disguise (Origin Records) bringing his total discography as a leader to over 35 releases. I recently had the pleasure to spend a few hours with Joe to speak about this and a great deal more. While Joe’s discography is extremely eclectic, with performance settings ranging from intimate duos through to large symphonic settings, this latest album features his current working quartet along with guest appearances by Raul Midón, David Binney, Adam Rogers and Alina Engibaryan.

Being somewhat familiar with Joe’s oeuvre I felt with this album there was something different,  yet I found it elusive to be able to put my finger on exactly what this is. I asked Joe about his thoughts on this. “Well yes, I would agree with this, I’ve always felt that I have two distinct aspects as a musician and especially over the last decade I’ve been very conscious of this. The first aspect is that of a composer. I’ve always wanted to push myself or better said, challenge myself as a composer, There is a sort of intellectual need there, I want to write music that challenges myself. The other aspect is just to play music to folks, to play in a visceral way, to make them feel better, I think that this is the essence of what music is about. I as have a need to play music that touches the heart, music that you feel below the waist as I like to say. It should touch the chakras. You know, sometimes I just want to make music you don’t have to think about but just makes you feel something. Music that puts you in touch with your sadness or makes you want to dance a little bit. I feel more than ever that this album is a coming together of these two aspects.”

I asked Joe if he could give me an example. At first, he spoke about the 2015 release “Love Is A Pendulum” – a five-movement suite he composed based on a poem by Barbara Sfraga. Joe said “Although there is definitely some heart imbued stuff on that recording it was actually me satisfying my composer agenda. If you then take the album I released before this “Lay Down My Heart: Blues & Ballads” this is an example where I specifically wanted to satisfy that other aspect, to play for people. That album was all about beautiful melodies and songs that were one way or another imbued with the blues. So as I said before, on this latest album I feel both these aspects come together and I’m no longer warring with myself over these two divergent needs.”

We went on to speak about the music on the album in a little more detail. One of the tracks on Joe’s new album titled “Make Me Feel Like It’s Raining,” is dedicated to Bobby Hutcherson who passed away in 2016. With Bobby playing an important role in Joe’s development as a musician I was interested to ask Joe about the origin of the composition. “Bobby was someone who I loved and still love, he was my touchstone and was in my mind the bellwether of the vibraphone. In fact, if it wasn’t for Bobby my path and trajectory as a musician would have been substantially different.”

Some years back they held a tribute for Bobby at Birdland here in New York. Unfortunately, due to touring commitments I couldn’t yet they asked me if I would write something that could be read at the event. I remember being in a hotel room somewhere in Europe writing down my thoughts about Bobby Hutcherson and I realised that my own life in music came as a result of this incredible paradox of finding my own voice by failing miserably at trying to sound like Bobby Hutcherson.

Bobby was such a kind and generous human being and when I finally got to know him as a person and even be embraced as a friend by him and his family I came to realise that all the incredible music he made was indeed a reflection of the human being making it. The song “Make Me Feel Like It’s Raining” I wrote just after he passed away, I just sat at the piano and in my sadness just wrote this piece. The title of the tune came from an interview Bobby did that I read. In this interview, Bobby was asked by the interviewer – What do you want to hear from a young musician? He answered, Man, I want them to make me laugh or cry, jerk my soul around, make me feel like it’s raining outside. That really touched me.”

Moving on, I asked Joe about the motivation to do the Dylan cover “Who Killed Davey Moore?”. “Well, when I realized that I was going to collaborate with Raul Midón on this project I thought it would be great to have him sing on this Dylan song “Who Killed Davey Moore?” that I had done an arrangement of. He’s that kind of musician who has this deeply soulful approach to singing and with the arrangement being in a 15/8 time signature which is challenging at best, I knew Raul would be up for it, he has such a well-schooled background and he just nailed it. But, to go back to your question, Dylan wrote the song from the headlines back in 1963. During the heavyweight championship of that year, Davey More was hit so hard by his opponent Sugar Ramos that he fell into a coma and later died in hospital. Dylan’s text refers to the passing of the buck, from the sports writer to the manager to the referee to crowd all of which said, Hey, I’m just doing my job! – I’m not responsible. I saw the song as a metaphor for the passing of the buck that’s so prevalent in our culture and our government at the moment.”


As we continued to speak about the album and the material, a consistent thread started to emerge. Joe mentioned a lot of the material for the album was written over a number of years. The songs were inspired by current events and once written he just left them to one side on his desk for future use. Once the album was complete, Joe realised that through much of the album there was a political theme or at least a statement present in the music. “I’ve been asked about this, I remember one journalist said Wow, this is a really political album, the reality was that it wasn’t meant to be, but on reflection how could it not be on some level given the times we’re living in. How can you not be affected by the things going on in the world and for me especially what’s going on in our country at the moment.”


Last modified: April 29, 2020