Joe Locke with Kenny Washington, For the Love of You

There’s a world of a difference between being a masterful instrumental accompanist and collaborating with a singer. Beyond the prerequisite set of ears and in-the-moment intuition, a deeper appreciation of the meaning of the lyrics—in order to truly find a song’s core—becomes even more essential than in instrumental readings. Vibraphonist Joe Locke has, more than most, a profound ability to get to the heart of a song—in particular, songs beyond the typical jazz purview—whether it’s in an instrumental setting or with a vocalist.

Just as he did with previous albums like the aptly titled Storytelling (Sirocco, 2001), Locke’s For the Love of You combines material from the Great American Songbook with more contemporary fare—this time by The Isley Brothers and Neil Young—as well as Ennio Morricone’s often-covered theme to Giusseppe Tornatore’s modern film classic, Cinema Paradiso (1988). Also featuring three Locke originals, For the Love of You brings together an ace quartet of friends old and new, as well as singer Kenny Washington on eight of its 10 tracks.

While his broad vocal range and jazz background make Washington an ideal vocal mate for Locke’s richly harmonized arrangements, he’s also a singer who thankfully avoids unnecessary vocal gymnastics. Instead, with a voice that loosely resembles Stevie Wonder but with greater restraint, Washington breathes new life into the lyrics to Mandel’s and Webster’s enduring “The Shadow of Your Smile”—a song that could be considered past its prime but which, with Locke’s unexpectedly up-tempo and sophisticated yet eminently accessible arrangement, becomes exhilaratingly modern.

It takes a lot of courage to open a set with a ballad, but that’s just what Locke does, with an elegant, smoky version of Mancini’s and Bricusse’s classic, “Two for the Road.” It not only highlights Washington’s soulful delivery, but also the empathic relationship between the vibraphonist and pianist Geoffrey Keezer, with whom Locke goes back many years—from the recently reformed Storms/Nocturnes Trio, with British saxophonist Tim Garland, to the collaborative Joe Locke/Geoffrey Keezer Quartet and one of 2006’s best releases, the effervescent Live in Seattle (Origin, 2006). It’s not easy to have two chordal instruments without stepping on each other’s toes, but Locke and Keezer manage to work like left and right hands that do, indeed, sense what the other is doing, shifting emphasis without ever tripping up.

As soloists, Locke and Keezer both deliver. Locke’s solo on the amiably swinging “Old Devil Moon” is a marvel of virtuosity and lyricism, while Keezer shoots for more modal territory, all the while navigating the song’s changes like threading a needle. On the instrumental tracks, the quartet’s rhythm section keeps things moving with a combination of visceral drive and facile flexibility. Ubiquitous bassist George Mraz swings hard on Locke’s “I Miss New York (When I Been Gone Too Long),” and takes the place of a vocalist with his singing arco on Morricone’s balladic “Cinema Paradiso;” while on Locke’s knottier, Latin-esque “Bright Side Up,” equally omnipresent drummer Clarence Penn keeps things light but effortlessly bright. On the latter, Locke’s sense of melodic construction—both in the song’s form and in his solo—shines with special strength, while Keezer’s vamp-based solo is like a jazz history lesson, even briefly quoting from the late Joe Zawinul‘s “Gibraltar,” one of fusion supergroup Weather Report‘s best tracks from Black Market (Columbia, 1976).

But at the core of For the Love of You is the simple truth of song. Few artists could transform Neil Young’s spare and directly stated “Birds,” from After the Goldrush (Reprise, 1970), into a lush jazz tune with absolute respect andinnovation. Locke has, throughout his career, demonstrated a special affinity with—and astute judgement of—vocalists and the deeper meaning of song. For the Love of You is another triumph from a vibraphonist who continues to release albums of unfailing consistency and profound resonance.
Tracks: Two For The Road; Old Devil Moon; For The Love Of You; Verrazano Moon; I Miss New York (When I Been Gone Too Long; Birds; The Shadow Of Your Smile; Cinema Paradiso; Pure Imagination; Bright Side Up.

Joe Locke: vibes; Geoffrey Keezer: piano; George Mraz: bass; Clarence Penn: drums; Kenny Washington: vocals.

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