By Jeff Cebulski
Joel Ross, a noted instrumentalist not yet twenty-five, has gained national interest faster than the proverbial speeding bullet. Beginning as a church-nurtured wunderkind here in Chicago, where Ross discovered the vibraphone, he subsequently moved on to advanced learning at the Brubeck Institute in California, at which he made important connections, leading to a move to New York City, where he created a band and began what seems certain to be a climb to stardom.
His recording career and national attention began auspiciously, as part of Matt Stevens and Walter Smith III’s crew on In Common. Having a new album on the Blue Note label hasn’t hurt, either. Recorded a bit more than two years ago, Kingmaker is getting rave reviews while Ross is seen as an heir apparent to people like Milt Jackson, Bobby Hutcherson, and a mentor, Stefon Harris.
Ross is now busy performing with his band Good Vibes, including a gig at Newport later this summer, as well as participating in occasional stints as part of a stereophonic percussion duo (with drummer Jonathan Pinson) in trumpeter Marquis Hill’s Blacktet. One of a number of thoughtful, studious younger jazz musicians, Ross graciously found some time to converse with me about Chicago, his instrument, his band, and his music.
Jeff Cebulski: When did you get your first sense that your development as a vibraphonist was going to become something special?
Joel Ross: I wouldn’t say that I ever thought anything was ‘special;’ playing music had already long been a part of my life, so once the vibes were introduced it was just a continuation of playing music. What was special were the peeps my age like [pianist] James Francies, [flutist/vocalist] Elena Pinderhughes, and [trumpeter] Adam O’Farrill, who I was starting to meet who inspired me. Meeting folks like them was when I knew I wanted to excel because I wanted to play with them more.
JC: What, to you, was crucial about your Windy City musical upbringing?
JR: If I had to point any one thing out, it’d be my upbringing in the church. Consistently attending church with my fam almost every Sunday for the first eighteen years of my life definitely ingrained that Black Gospel sound in my ears, so when I started getting into jazz and heard Milt Jackson for the first time, I could hear the church right away. Turns out he sang in church before he played vibes so, boom, there was that connection.
JC: I have always thought the vibraphone was a paradoxical instrument, a percussive vehicle that is limited in fidelity but wide in expression, sort of passive-aggressive. Is that a fair observation?
JR: At first I was inclined to agree with you, but as I really ponder the question I realize it’s not much of a paradox at all. First and foremost, the vibraphone is a percussion instrument so it is meant to be struck, no different than a snare drum, bass drum, cymbal or woodblock. Secondly, as a member of the mallet family, you’re tasked with the same goal of expression as you would for a marimba, xylophone, glockenspiel, or tubular bells. You could say the percussion family as a whole is limited in fidelity; you can only hit a drum so hard or so many times before the head breaks; vibes usually only have the three octaves to work with. But the music doesn’t come from the instrument, it comes from the musician. It doesn’t matter what instrument is being played, it’s up to us to use said instrument to make art. History has already shown that expression won’t be limited to twelve notes.
JC: For us non-musicians, can you help us understand the main differences between conventional methods of musical training and the “ear-training” method you were introduced to by Stefon Harris?
JR: I’m no authority on the subject but the way I interpret it is that both methods involve basic rote practices like singing and identifying different bass notes, intervals, pitches, and chords at the piano and picking out/trying to sing the notes, etc. What stands out most in my mind regarding Stefon’s method is that we attached emotion to the harmony as a way to intuitively identify harmony as soon as we heard it. For example, there’s a chord my school group agreed was called “The Baby Chord” (ex: C13(b9)), which meant that every time we heard the chord (when we were first learning about it) we’d look down and cradle our arms and ask ourselves “Would I look at a baby like this?”. So now almost every time I hear that chord, I know what it is because it evokes that emotional response.
JC: Kingmaker appears to be both a celebration and an early culmination of the evolution of your Good Vibes band. When did you know you had the group you wanted to play and record with?
JR: Well, I moved to NYC with the full intent on starting a band; one of the cats who was at Brubeck with me, an amazing Houstonian drummer by the name of Jalon Archie, moved to New York, too, and so I knew we were automatically gonna play together (we talked about the band all the time at the Brubeck Institute), but he moved back to Houston shortly.
I met and played with [drummer] Jeremy Dutton when I visited and played in Houston with pianist James Francies one time, and we ended up attending the New School together once I moved, so it was pretty much a no brainer that I’d call him for our hits. I met the pianist Jeremy Corren first actually, back in high school my senior year and fell in love with his playing back then, so by the time I moved to New York and found out he was there too, I called him for everything. I met the bassist Ben Tiberio at the Vijay Iyer-run Banff program up in Canada with Jalon and our good high school friends James Francies and Elena Pinderhughes. He was by far one of the best bassists I’d ever played with and a super-cool dude at that. I went back to Brubeck constantly hitting him up making sure he was gonna move to New York after he finished school where he was. He did move shortly after that; we ended up being roommates back around when we recorded the album in December of 2016. And lastly, after Corren, Ben, Jalon and I notched a couple gigs under our belts I met [saxophonist] Immanuel Wilkins. Good Vibes was playing at a Dizzy’s Club late-night set and he came through the session that was afterwards. He played and sounded amazing, so I hit him up for a session/rehearsal. From then on I knew we’d probably be playing together for the rest of our lives, and he’s quickly become my brother and best friend.
That was the group, and we ended up playing many gigs at the Jazz Gallery thanks to Rio Sakairi, and the late night sessions at Smalls thanks to Spike Wilner, which culminated in us going into the studio and recording that music. We sound pretty young on the recording in my opinion, but that’s the sound we were in and that was a part of our journey, so I’m thoroughly happy with the result and looking forward to the next project.
JC: You said you moved to New York to form a band. Why was moving there a necessary part of that goal?
JR: New York has long been the place to be for jazz—or any art career really—so it was pretty much a no-brainer. I did two years of school in California straight out of high school so most of my peers were already in New York. It was just a matter of time before I’d move, too.
JC: Besides location, what are the main differences between the Chicago and New York jazz scenes, in your experience?
JR: I can’t really speak on the topic based on experience. As I was saying above, I went away to California right out of high school so I didn’t get to experience playing in Chicago much on a professional level, though I did get a lot of public performing experience largely through the Jazz Institute of Chicago. I moved to New York after that and got into the scene but didn’t play in Chicago much until I joined Marquis’ [Hill] group, then started playing with Makaya [McCraven], too.
JC: How much of your music is a fully-composed idea as realized by your band vs. an idea that is co-created by the band members, starting perhaps with a fragmentary melodic or rhythmic idea?
JR: I usually bring already written music or ideas to them, and we figure out how to play it. From there I might tweak things, but they already know I’m open to any ideas they might have. I tend to send things before because I don’t like to spend time learning how to play the music. We don’t rehearse often so when we do get together I wanna be able to work with what we can do off the page, not still figuring out the charts.
JC: You have stated that you were encouraged [by Bobby Hutcherson] to write music about your life. How much of your Chicago experience shows up on the new album?
JR: Almost every tune on the album, with the exception of “Grey” (Dutton’s tune) and “Yana.” Every other song was influenced by family members (“Prince Lynn’s,” “KingMaker,” “Freda’s”) or friends ("Angel”), questions (“Is It Love,” “With Whom”), arguments (“Grand Struggle,” “iLL Relations,” “Too Late”), and other experiences from high school. Bobby Hutcherson gave me those instructions, and I wrote most of the music while I was at the Brubeck Institute in California, so it was sort of reflective writing in a way.
JC: Is there a song on the new album that, in your view, is uniquely representative of your band and the musical concept/form you are trying to accomplish?
JR: Nope, there isn’t any one song or thing. My interest and concepts keep changing, as does life, as does the way we play. We recorded this music two years ago, so we’re different musicians, different people. All I’m trying to do is play music with my friends and bring folks closer to God.
To which I, and I think many here in Chicago, can say: Amen.
Read the review of Joel Ross's Kingmaker: A Paean to Heritage and Community
"Jazz with Mr. C" is written by Jeff Cebulski, a jazz enthusiast and regular contributor to Chicago Jazz Magazine. Contact Jeff at firstname.lastname@example.org