Jazz reviewers receive complimentary CDs so they can determine whether you should pay to hear them. It's a charmed life. But Joe Locke & 4 Walls of Freedom's new album, Dear Life, creates a problem for a conscientious critic: It's good if it's free, but you might not want to run out and buy it.
Vibraphonist Locke, who also composed six of the album's nine tracks, leads a quartet consisting of saxophonist Tommy Smith, bassist Ed Howard and drummer Gary Novak; they communicate well and display impressive chops throughout. Josh Heineman drops in to add a dash of programming to Ron Carter's "Cut and Paste," and the additional colors enhance the quartet's imaginative take on the tune. Locke shows off his exquisite tonal control on Renee Rosnes' "Manhattan Rain," and the album closes with the quirky "Malonius" and the gorgeous, make-out-session-worthy "Verrazano Moon."
For 15 bucks, though, the faults of Dear Life start to add up. The first six tracks use a slow intro-head-solos-head form, which strips the playing of some spontaneity. "Eva" sounds for most of its length like an R&B backing track in search of a singer to lend it some soul. Some of Locke's melodies, like those on the title track and "Ennui," sound a bit too tired to spark interest, and sometimes Smith's attempts to make them come to life go 'round and 'round without getting much of anywhere.
With so many albums boasting more than four tracks that succeed without qualifiers, Dear Life is worth a reviewer's time but not your money.