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CD Review: Joel Ross, Kingmaker: A Paean to Heritage and Community

By Jeff Cebulski

Joel Ross. Kingmaker. Blue Note, 2019.

Joel Ross-Vibraphone

Immanuel Wilkins-Alto Sax

Jeremy Corren-Piano

Benjamin Tiberio-Bass

Jermy Dutton-Drums

The latest, newest generation of jazz artists spawned from the 21stCentury American cacophony has one thing that unites it: an organic relationship between them and their music. This integrity is meant, I think, to transcend a perceived old-fashioned idea of the relationship between musician and audience, that the audience pays for what it expects and then rules the proceedings. The ’60s began to tear away from that paradigm (Dylan, Coltrane, for examples), but the ’70s and ’80s did some backtracking (remember those albums Freddie Hubbard and [even] Wayne Shorter produced for Columbia?). Today’s jazz musician sometimes has to ride a fine line between “pleasing the masses” and “doing what I want to.”

The latter group is, fortunately, gaining. Essentially, the younger generation is insistent on doing its thing, and we are invited to come along or be left behind. This tension, of course, is not always comfortable—I feel it every summer here in Chicago as the Jazz Festival planners attempt to assuage the varying, generationally-divided tastes of its crowds. But given the breadth and depth and caliber of the new generation, as well as its connections to healthier thoughts, one would be smart to pay attention.

I say all this after listening to the new Blue Note album Kingmaker by Chicago native Joel Ross, a vibraphonist whose rise has been gradually witnessed here and noted, now, in the Big Apple, to where Ross moved in order to form a band, Good Vibes, that is revealed on this new recording. To say that Ross’ relationship to his music is organic is an understatement; he carries deep memory and association into every composition and has crafted a group statement that represents a nod inward to his mentors and outward to his collective, spiritual vision.

I think it would be safe to say that fans of Brian Blade and his Fellowship Band would really dig Ross’ music, not because it is a mirror of the music but because their leaders want to impart deeply felt ideas to uplift our awareness of the necessity of family and community in a world of increasing societal dissonance.

The vibraphone, Ross’ chosen musical vehicle, is locked into a limited ambiance, kind of like the banjo—it’s hard to make it sound angry or disturbed. Pound as hard as you want to, and it still sounds like golden rain landing on our souls. What Ross does on Kingmaker is create a proto-spiritual yin-yang effect, where his articulate mallets rain holy water on Good Vibes, which communicates the various moods. This dichotomy is most apparent on songs like “The Grand Struggle Against Fear,” “Ill Relations,” “With Whom Do You Learn Trust?”, “Grey,” and “It’s Already Too Late,” all of which point to the serious, earthbound themes that Ross’ oblation douses in grace.

Each member of Good Vibes has his own niche in the proceedings. Ross’ visionary partner, alto saxophonist Immanuel Wilkins, can create sufficient dissonance, profundity, and sweetness. Bassist Ben Tiberio is a find; pay close attention to his “Interlude” that leads to the title cut. The backbone he provides uplifts the entire album. Pianist Jeremy Corren accompanies the proceedings adroitly; his dense chords create the sonic heft in “Gray,” a tune that reminded me of the pensive, dramatic music from earlier Christian Scott albums like Yesterday You Said Tomorrow. Drummer Jeremy Dutton serves as counterpart to Ross’ mallet musings, especially on the rhythmically complex “Yana.”

Family is a subject for Ross. “Prince Lynn’s Twin” is an homage to his father and twin brother. Wilkins and Ross begin a dreamy melody, only to abruptly move into a much more frantic pace that then settles into a give-and-take with the original theme before Corren, Tiberio, and Dutton take over, leading to an improvised ‘conversation’ between Wilkens and Ross. On “Freda’s Disposition,” the wonderful Gretchen Parlato provides his niece with an angelic, reassuring lullaby. Yet the instrumental break represents some of Ross’ more vibrant, insistent playing—that dichotomy working almost in reverse. Corren provides corresponding commentary that seems to offer a counterargument—some of his best playing on the recording.

The centerpiece, “Kingmaker,” begins with a mild crescendo that ultimately joins everyone in a climb upward to Wilkins’ most expressive moment, a sometimes-dissonant statement that has touches of Eastern flavor. Ross’ playing here suggests that while the flesh is weak, the spirit is willing, and the song eventually is taken over by his more playful optimism. Tiberio’s effort in keeping up with the ‘debating forces’ is impressive.

Like a lot of jazz emanating from his home town, Joel Ross’ new album suggests that the most compelling music of this genre evolves from a community (see: the albums from Blade, Makaya McCraven, Steve Coleman, and, of course, the recent Art Ensemble nugget). While Ross needed to leave his home community to come up with a working musical community, his Chicago family—real and extended—should still be proud, supportive, and anxious to see what comes next. With his Good Vibes and their Kingmaker, this rising star is wise to hang not too high, but not too low, just high enough to shower blessings on a parched congregation.

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