The vibraphone is one of the more unique instruments to infiltrate jazz. A holy mash-up of the piano and the percussive, it’s the duck-billed platypus of musical instrumentation. In terms of cool, it’s unfairly lodged somewhere between the tuba and the clarinet. Its old-school practitioners now exude a breezy novelty quality, and the truly mentionable modern players can be counted on one and a half hands. One standout is New York mallet-man Joe Locke. Jazz fans in Japan can catch the vibraphonist on his current tour, featuring a pit-stop at Yokohama Jazz Promenade this weekend. On rave-ups, Locke frenziedly bangs the bars; on the ballads, he calmly coos with a restrained minimalism.
Seeing Locke live is quite the time. He puts his heart and soul into his instrument, wailing away in order to move the crowd. He’s as entertaining to watch as he is to listen to. Asked about his energetic on-stage persona, Locke says it’s no front.
“It’s about trying to get the notes out,” he says. “It’s a really physical instrument. The way I play is physical, to tap into the energy the musicians are feeding me. It’s not a premeditated thing. If it looks like showmanship . . . cool. But that’s not what it’s about.”
Aside from numerous solo ventures, Locke has played with heavyweights such as Dizzy Gillespie and Cecil Taylor. Beastie Boys fans may also recognize his flourishes on 1998’s “Hello Nasty.” The quartet on this tour, featuring fellow vibes-man Dan Thompson, looks to be inspired.
“This group plays for the audience,” he says. “We’re not playing to show people how smart we are. We’re playing to make people feel something, make them feel good. We have sophisticated arrangements, but our agenda is to play beautiful melodies, make you feel like moving. It’s gonna be a grooving affair.”
One can hear a tangible spiritualism in Locke’s playing. There’s a whisper of the church, a call-and-response, firmly rooted in the tradition. While undeniably technically proficient, there’s a soulfulness that he brings to an instrument not so associated with soul.
“I don’t practice a doctrine,” he says. “But one of my earliest memories was sleeping in bed as a child and my father playing Gregorian chants. Almost every night, as a benediction on the house. My father, he had been a monk when he was young. My mother was gonna become a nun. That influenced me. Also, I read (John) Coltrane’s prayer inside ‘A Love Supreme,’ and I thought, I wanna be that beautiful of a spirit. I wanna be one of those guys — a jazz musician. Then I moved to New York and found that not everybody was that damn spiritual!”
Hip to Japan, Locke is a fan of trumpeter Terumasa Hino and has recorded with tenor man Sleepy Matsumoto. Prior to his upcoming tour, he praises the country’s good vibes.
“I love Japan, the enthusiasm, the knowledge. There’s a healthy scene. I’ve always had my ear on the pulse of what’s going on in Japan. It’s an incredible culture of music with a very supportive jazz audience.”
The Joe Locke Quartet plays Suginami Kokaido in Tokyo on Oct. 10 (7 p.m. start; ¥3,500 in advance; 03-5347-4450); Kannai Hall on Oct. 11 as a part of Yokohama Jazz Promenade (12 p.m. start; ¥4,500 in advance; 045-221-0219); and Fukuyama Reed & Rose Hall in Fukuyama, Hiroshima Pref., on Oct. 12 (1:30 p.m., 2 p.m. and 4:30 p.m. starts; ¥3,500; 084-928-1810). For more details, visit www.joelocke.com. or www.jazzpro.jp.