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Joel Ross Is the New 'Kingmaker' on Vibes

Photo: Lauren Desberg / Blue Note Records

Joel Ross is a young jazz star on the vibes with a working band in his Blue Note debut—working a vein that is modern but tied certainly back to a tradition that includes his inspiration, Bobby Hutcherson. Cracking good.

Joel Ross

Blue Note

3 May 2019

Young rising stars in jazz have a tricky road to run in 2019. They are uniformly well-trained—often mentored by brilliant musicians a generation older through the widely available training that supports the music these days—and able to play mainstream jazz with sparkle. But with little money to be made there or more progressive New Jazz or avant-garde styles, they might work the new vein of soul and hip-hop infused jazz that is natural to a generation whose parents were teenagers when, say, Three Feet Tall and Rising came out. Many try their hand at all these styles. Others leave behind improvised music for something less iffy.

Joel Ross, a 23 yearly vibraphonist with plaudits aplenty from the Monk Institute and from playing with folks like Herbie Hancock, Christian McBride, and Louis Hayes, has chosen to record a Blue Note Records debut that avoids just about every gimmick and positions him as part of a progressive tradition. Though Ross played on several of the more forward-looking hybrid records from last year (Makaya McCraven's Universal Beings and James Francies' Flight) his new Kingmaker is conspicuous in how it sidesteps the appearance of being another hip-hop/soul hybrid, as excellent as those efforts by others have recently been.

Instead, Kingmaker is a set of ten original tunes for Ross's working band (nine by Ross), plus a lovely vocal feature for guest Gretchen Parlato of a tune by New York singer-songwriter Bianca Muniz. While they are complex at times, each tune flows from the tradition of post-bebop jazz—they are lyrical, surging, propulsive, and—though tinged with elements of contemporary music—seem more linked to the jazz tradition than to any other form. While fresh, they call out to be compared to compositions by Cedar Walton or Keith Jarrett, by Joshua Redman or Brad Mehldau. They snap and sing like modern jazz, but they don't feel like they are straining to cross over.

"Prince Lynn's Twin", for example, starts as a harmonically complex modern jazz ballad, then Ross plays a figure that kicks it into polyrhythmic high gear, bass and the left hand of the piano playing a leaping bass figure together as the vibes and alto sax play a unison melody that jumps around with clever precision. The drums hold it all together, but not with a funk groove as much as a funk-informed modern jazz texture that includes Latin figures and syncopated accents that shift the tune from busy to short patches of gentility. In every twist of the composition, the band plays together. The group is made up of names less well known that Ross's: Immanuel Wilkins on alto saxophone, Jeremy Corren on piano, bassist Benjamin Tiberio, and Jeremy Dutton's drums.

The playing, generally, is informed by conventional modern jazz harmonies and tonality, but the edges pleasantly fray on some performances. On the title track, "King Maker", for example, Wilkins plays a passionate alto solo that largely sticks to blues tonality, but he pushes his tone to the limit and begins to creep into notes beyond conventional harmony. It's a joy to hear him ride the edge. Similarly, Corren's piano solo on "The Grand Struggle Against Fear" cogitates and agitates a bit, seeming like it might unwind, then suddenly invites Ross to enter, who pushes the tune into a busier place, only to find himself overcome by Wilkins—and they trade these statements back and forth. It's not the usual "trading fours" that jazz musicians have done for generations, though. Each statement is of variable length, giving way to its "answer" on emotional grounds rather than mathematical ones. The band duels dramatically on "Ill Relations" too, with drummer Dutton, thwapping behind the conversation like a funk drummer on jazz steroids. It gets the blood boiling.

One of the highlights on Kingmaker is a track that made me realize that I'd never heard anything like it before. On "Is It Love That Inspires You?", Ross performs with bass and drums only—with his percussive attack and Dutton's seeming equally matched. Ross is everywhere, playing a rat-a-tat melody and his own harmony, bassist Ben Tiberio locking in with him and with the bass drum. Why haven't we all heard lots of vibes/bass/drums performances before? Probably because few vibes players have these kinds of chops to play it all fully and to make it this interesting.

The band plays a good ballad as well. It's the drummer who composed "Grey", a contemplative tune that begins with Corren playing a strangely lovely off-kilter solo introduction that invites a beautiful melody from Ross. It is the weirdest, most daring composition in the set, and when the alto sax joins in, bringing the performance to a more intense level, you can the way that these relatively "mainstream" young musicians are capable of incorporating the energy they may have learned from predecessors like David S. Ware or Albert Ayler of, sure, John Coltrane. The more obvious and gentle ballad is the feature for Parlato, "Freda's Disposition", which starts as a voice/vibes duet. (How about a whole album of such duets? Ross is also capable of bringing to mind Gary Burton.) The arrangement is supple and sly, with Wilkins blending with Parlato's voice gently and then more boldly, giving way to a set of improvisations that become rhythmically daring despite the gentle feeling of the song's start.

That kind of variety within performances marks so much of Kingmaker. "Yana" begins with a slow exercise in a funky but unusual time signature, but the time doubles suddenly to allow the playing to blossom out into a flow that is still unusual but somehow gets you swaying. Again, Ross chooses to trade back and forth with a bandmate, in this case, Corren's piano, and the dash and delight as they one-up each other time and again finally evolves into several flashy moments when both are soloing at once. The shortest performance here is also the most sternly dynamic, another kind of variety.

The album ends with "It's Already Too Late", which has an insistent, repeated-note bass part that is matched by a strumming piano. Ross and Wilkins play the melody together, which lilts slightly in places but grows louder and more ominous as the song progresses. The band brings its volume and intensity up to a slightly distorted rock level on the third chorus, Dutton playing patterns rooted in Tony Williams-style drumming (military snare patterns and mad activity on the cymbals), one phrase repeating and distorting.

This band is sneaky. They play funk, but it never feels like jazz-hip-hop fusion; they play rock but are never obviously sounding like, say, Radiohead. They have floating pop/gospel elements, but only a few, and for all the tricky play with time, there is nothing off-putting or new-music-y or studied about the feel. It is also sneaking in the way the superb group interplay makes you realize that you haven't heard, perhaps, quite enough of the leader. Ross isn't merely a fast player with a strong sense of melody, harmony, and rhythm—he is surprising without being merely "out". If he were a trumpet player, he would be Ambrose Akinmusire, who also has a way of playing fresh intervals, intriguing sequences, cooly placed phrases that bend your ear with curiosity even if they aren't atonal.

I keep going back to "Is It Love That Inspires You?", the vibes/bass/drums song where Ross's imagination is set most fully loose and on its own. My ears hunger for more of his long-form playing even if his humility in sharing the sound-stage with his bandmates is mature and wise. Is Ross a game-changer on his instrument? (When I first heard vibraphonist Stefan Harris, I asked the same question. Ross studied with Harris, but I like Ross even more.) Time will measure his art.

In the meantime, Ross is everywhere, including on a new recording by tenor saxophonist Melissa Aldana, Visions, where he sounds like he is appropriately secondary to the leader and even to pianist Sam Harris. But he is paying his dues, as a young player should. Soon enough, Kingmaker suggests, he will be sitting on some kind of throne.


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