Frank Kimbrough/Joe Locke: The WillowLiner notes for Frank Kimbrough/Joe Locke: The Willow (OmniTone)

Lots of things aren't as they seem.  Language is full of proverbs and witticisms endorsing that one can't judge a book by its cover; one has to dig deeper into it to appreciate its worth.

Take, for example, Saturn's Child, the debut recording of Frank Kimbrough and Joe Locke.  A common initial reaction was that the album —with its contemplative, low-key, sometimes introspective bent —was simply a 'nice' or 'pretty' album.  But when people listened to the recording, when they moved from the surface and dug into it, they found out what a musical gem it was.

Saturn's Child prompted adroit critics and reviewers —and fans —to call it "crystalline," "sublime," and "a masterpiece."   So, in thinking about that album's success and how to match and perhaps surpass it, it was with some trepidation that Frank and Joe went about planning their next recording.

The result is before you: The Willow, which in Joe's words is "an extension of the mood concept of Saturn's Child, the focus being on beauty and melody or the intrinsic beauty of a melody."  There are more gorgeous, original, improvisation-inspiring compositions from the duo, but this album thoughtfully extends the concept in other ways that play themselves out through the recording.

The Willow leads off with "The Moon for Her," a delicate and touching tune by Britain-based saxophonist Tim Garland, a friend of Joe's and a member of Chick Corea's Origin band.  The song, based on an Eric Carle children's story about a father who brings the moon down for his little girl, starts with just the duo but later introduces the quartet sound, letting the listener know that some things are the same and some things are different.  "The cajon is really dramatic in that," notes Joe.  "When the percussion enters for the first time, all of a sudden you have this 'heartbeat' that starts."

The effortlessly lilting "Just Suppose" makes its recording debut here, nineteen years after Frank wrote it.   Trumpeter and composer Ron Horton, whom Frank describes as the ad hoc archivist of the Jazz Composers Collective, discovered the tune and brought it to Frank.  " I hadn't really forgotten it, but it was pretty far back in the recesses of my memory," explains Frank, adding that the tune had never really found a home in any of his ensembles …until now. 

The voluptuous title track "The Willow," written by composer, arranger, and big band leader Maria Schneider, introduces multi-tracking to the duo concept in a score reduction by Frank.  Tim Ries, who like Frank is also a member of the Maria Schneider Orchestra, is heard overdubbed on alto flute and bass clarinet in the theme sections of the world premiere recording of the tune.  Notes Frank, "Maria was kind enough to give me a score, so that I could make sure I had all the harmonies correct."

Frank's buoyant "Pick-up Sticks" is another tune that finds its home here; he wrote it for his Noumena quartet, but held it until this recording where, he says, "all of a sudden, it worked," providing an excellent vehicle for Joe to introduce marimba to the timbral tapestry. 

Collaborative exhilaration is on show in "Highland," a tune written by Joe while on tour in Scotland and recorded —after about six or seven false starts —in one inspiriting take.  Joe likens it to "Trouble Is a Gorgeous Dancer" on Saturn, calling it "more virtuosic, more through-composed, more 'notey.'"  "I thought it would be nice to have something like that on this record, too," adds Joe.  Note particularly the serpentine coda and the effortlessness with which the pair execute it.

Even when the group expands in quartet pieces, like Joe's "Now I Lay Me Down," the sensitivity to the duo and the "song" glow through.  "I mean, Ballard is so organic and is such a beautiful spirit and so giving, and Tim Ries is an absolute genius.  How he approached every single song," bubbles Joe "is 'I'm gonna play what this song requires.'"  Ries' solo on the album's "pop" selection "Truth Be Told" is right in synch with the organic groove of this extremely melodic tune.  Joe wrote it "with more of an R&B ballad kind of vibe."

It's easy to forget, while listening to "Truth Be Told" and some duo tracks on this record —especially tunes like "Forsythia" and Joe's heart-wrenching "Broken Toy" —that there is no bass on The Willow, only Frank's adroit left-hand voicings and sensitivity to the music …and a grand piano two feet longer than on the previous recording.  It was a natural, unconscious response to a beautiful instrument, admits Frank, "It's just something you go to because it's there and it sounds good and you want some more of it."

One composition that certainly leaves the listener wanting more is "For Duke," the album's closer, a richly delicate melody evocative of Billy Strayhorn and Duke Ellington's music, a tune with a breathlessness to it, particularly accentuated by the near-telepathic sensitivity and respect only two true collaborators can have for each other and a melody.  Another first take, it was also the last track recorded during the session and left everyone, on listening to its playback, speechless. 

Describing the preparation for The Willow, Frank recounts, "Everything was pretty malleable right up until we went into the studio.  I remember Joe saying on one occasion and I remember myself saying to Joe on one occasion at least, 'I don't know if this is going to work.  I don't know if this is right.'  You just have to check it out and see what happens." 

Now it's your turn to check it out and see what happens to you.

—Frank Tafuri

[Read complete interview with Frank Kimbrough and Joe Locke.]

©2018 OmniTone