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Joe Locke: Lay Down My Heart

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The first album here is a quartet date with modest aspirations. In his liner notes, Joe Locke says it “is meant to provide respite for folks who work hard every day and need an opportunity to slow down…” The second album, with a 65-piece symphony orchestra based in Lincoln, Neb., is ambitious by definition. It was released early in 2013 but was initially intended for the orchestra’s subscribers and concert attendees. It is now available at the usual retail and online sources.

The subtitle of the quartet album is Blues & Ballads Vol. 1. Locke and his vibraphone are well qualified for such a program. The instrument’s lush sonorities tend toward melancholy, perfect for blues. Locke is a patient ballad player. His vibrato makes notes of concentrated emotion linger in the air.

Lay Down My Heart can indeed work beautifully as soothing background music, but it contains substantive content for those who prefer to pay attention. On “Ain’t No Sunshine,” Locke celebrates Bill Withers’ irresistible 42-year-old blues hook, but then he improvises new, spilling, tumbling ideas. Pianist Ryan Cohan takes a gently nasty solo.

Tune choices are creative. Sam Jones’ “Bittersweet” is an odd, piquant blues with a bridge. “I Can’t Make You Love Me” is a song with maudlin lyrics, but Locke firms up its sentiment. “Makin’ Whoopee” is surprisingly slow and dignified. Locke marks out the melody of “The Meaning of the Blues” as if pondering its sadness for the first time.

The quartet album is romantic but the symphonic album is sumptuous. The arrangements by Tim Garland and Ryan Cohan (who is again in the piano chair) are bold and austere. They avoid the cloying quality that plagues jazz albums with strings. Locke’s finest work as a composer is “Available in Blue.” Until now, it has been a haunting, ambiguous short story. In the context of the orchestra, with its vast elaborative details and depths of texture, it is a novella. On “Where Is Love?” the orchestra responds en masse to Locke’s lines, in whispers or roars. The piece has grandeur. So does the title track, although not as you expect. The strings want to sigh and Locke’s quartet wants to burn. “Moon River” is also imposing, with a prelude by arco bass choir and rich layers of woodwinds, then Locke out front, strings seething behind him.

Originally Published