The 23-year-old vibraphonist Joel Ross, who has been hailed as the most exciting player on his instrument since Stefon Harris, just released his debut album, KingMaker, on Blue Note Records. The music on it is cool and malleable; it flows with undercurrents of neo-soul and various fusions, but can also snap tautly into modern mainstream jazz. Openness and liquidity run throughout Ross’ music, and so does an emphasis on communication.
“I enjoy most when we are all communicating and playing with each other and trying to achieve that highest form of listening and responding and playing with each other,” Ross said in a phone interview recently.
Take for example “Ill Relations,” the fourth track on KingMaker. The solos don’t just emphasize a single instrumentalist’s virtuosity or ability to build toward some grand conclusion; Ross and alto saxophonist Immanuel Wilkins trade passages while the rhythm section (Jeremy Corren on piano, Benjamin Tiberio on bass and Jeremy Dutton on drums) supplies constantly shifting accompaniment that’s as lively as the blowing on top.
Kept alive by this constant surge of melodic and harmonic material, Ross’ music never feels routine or repetitive. And in his burgeoning career, he brings a commitment to communication into multiple projects, whether playing the hard-bop/hip-hop fusion of Marquis Hill, joining other creative young talents like Adam O’Farrill and Maria Grand in his Parables octet, or serving in Peter Evans’ Being and Becoming ensemble.
Ross and his band Good Vibes are on the road now, in support of KingMaker. In advance of their tour stop at Blues Alley in D.C. this coming Tuesday, May 28 (featuring bassist Or Bareket and drummer Kush Abadey on this trip, plus Wilkins and Corren), Ross talked to CapitalBop about his desire to challenge himself, his style of communicating as a bandleader, and how he’s developed as a writer and player since recording KingMaker in late 2016.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
CapitalBop: Let’s just get right to it: Why the vibraphone? It’s not the most popular or easy-to-transport instrument, so how did you pick it?
Joel Ross: I have a twin brother and we both started playing drums when we were 2 or 3 years old. We went to church every Sunday with our family so eventually we started playing there, because our godfather played drums there so we’d watch him play. Eventually, in fifth grade — I think we were about 10 years old — we joined the school’s concert band. And I’m the younger twin, so I’m pretty sure he made me play the mallet instruments so he could stay on the drums, and the snare and the bass drum and the timpani. So that’s where I learned how to play, like, xylophone and orchestra bells.
The same year we auditioned for Chicago’s all-city concert band, joined that ensemble, and then also auditioned for the all-city jazz band. We both auditioned on drums but with him being better, they took him and they said to me, “Well, since you play mallets in the concert band, you should play vibraphone in the jazz ensemble.” I didn’t want to do that because I wanted to play drums! My dad and the percussion instructor, who became our percussion teacher, insisted that I play the vibraphone, and I’ve been doing it ever since — begrudgingly sometimes, but it’s a part of my life now.
CB: But there had to be some connection, some resonance between you and the instrument, for you to keep playing it, and to now be in the position where you are. So what made you stick with it?
JR: I look at it less like it’s a “resonating” thing. I have a love-hate relationship with it. At least, definitely when I was younger, I was such a small guy, having to physically lug around such a large, awkward instrument. I don’t like to move a lot of heavy stuff, so there was some disdain in that.
But I guess I liked how it was still similar to a drum. For the past year or so, I’ve been getting back into practicing the drums again and figuring out more rhythmic stuff and how that information relates to the vibraphone. I would probably then say the rhythmic aspect, but at some point, it was just like any other instrument I would try to play, I’d go back to the vibraphone and it was just the easiest instrument. It’s the easiest instrument for me to communicate on. I very much love the piano and the drums more, and I write at the piano, and I practice everything at the piano and the drums. But when it comes to performing and playing with other people and communicating … it all comes out better on the vibraphone.
CB: The connection between drums and the vibraphone reminds me: On KingMaker, your playing seems to try to navigate your instrument’s ability to be both a melodic instrument and rhythmic one. What’s the balance?
JR: Improvisationally, if somebody is soloing or I’m soloing or such, I definitely focus on communicating through the rhythms that everybody is playing. I won’t say more than the melodic material. Because of what’s going on with my ears, I don’t necessarily have to worry — plus, it’s music I wrote, so I know the harmonies well enough so it’s not a thought; it’s something I don’t have to think about anymore. That just leaves open communication more than just hearing melodic material; I can also respond to what someone is doing rhythmically. That’s normal for jazz improvisation and communication, but I think I tend to focus on it more. Plus, the timbre of the mallets I use allows the vibraphone to come off more as a melodic drum than a mallet instrument.
CB: Something that strikes me about Good Vibes is how much interplay there is — even if someone is soloing, it’s not drawn-out or individualistic. It feels more like one person leading a collective improvisation. Was that intentional? What’s your vision of the group’s interplay?
JR: I enjoy most when we are all communicating and playing with each other and trying to achieve that highest form of listening and responding…. I definitely do focus on the band thing, from studying Miles’ quintets — especially the second great quintet, which is my favorite group. Particularly, I spent two or three years listening to Live at the Plugged Nickel almost every day, just studying the group interplay, how Miles would direct the band from what he played or didn’t play. I’m just really big on that type of group interaction and trying to communicate without words, trying to — we’re still working on this — communicate, like, “We’re going to stay here, in this section,” and then use the melody to cue. I think it’s simple stuff, just using the melody as a cue to go on.
So when it came to the album, I very much preferred trading, trading with everybody … it’s easier for me to communicate because I think of it as a conversation. If we’re talking to each other, there’s more than can be said. We don’t always need 10-minute solos. That also leaves more time to devote to the actual material of the song; if no one’s taking a 6-minute solo, that leaves more room for the actual composition.
The timbre of the mallets I use allows the vibraphone to come off more as a melodic drum than a mallet instrument.
CB: I know you’ve been working with other projects like your “Being A Young Black Man” [suite] and the Parables octet. What led you to put out this material first?
JR: Well, we did this first. This album, we recorded it in December 2016, and I was just kind of holding onto it. I’ve had it, and I talked to Don Was at Blue Note and said, “I already have this, let’s release it.” So that’s how KingMaker came about, being the first thing. Also, I’m still figuring out what I to want record. I mean, I have the next five albums planned, but I’m still figuring out the specifics. That stuff will be coming out real soon too, I hope.
CB: I know Tyshawn Sorey played in the “Being a Young Black Man” group at the Jazz Gallery, and Parables features Adam O’Farrill and Maria Grand. All of these musicians are well-known in what we might call the avant-garde or creative music circles. Is that a direction you want to move towards?
JR: The thing about me being a vibraphonist is that I’ve been able to be put in a bunch of different situations. So when I first moved to New York, I joined Marquis Hill’s Blacktet. That’s sort of like hip-hop-based hard-bop jazz. That was the first time I was the primary comping instrument. And then I played with [saxophonist] Melissa Aldana; we just recorded. That’s its own type — I’m not good with labels. When I first moved to New York, I was still doing a bunch of stuff with Jazz at Lincoln Center, which is definitely closer to the tradition. And then I’m also in trumpeter Peter Evans’ ensemble Being and Becoming, which I guess you could say that’s complete avant-garde. I have all of those in me because I’m playing in all those situations.
I am definitely building bands around people and not the music, because the music is going to be me. So I’m just hiring people, people’s characteristics and personalities to play that music. I called Tyshawn for “Being A Young Black Man” because he’s a very open player and I wanted that openness over that music. I also called Marcus Gilmore, because there’s a bunch of music we didn’t play at the commission, so we did a show a year later called “Young Black Man Revisited,” and I wanted Marcus’ thing on that … I don’t see it as a genre thing, and it’s just bringing people together to play what I wrote.
CB: Do you now write with people in mind or do you more look for people to fit the music afterwards?
JR: Well, just from doing so many things, now I’m writing music and playing it across all of the groups. So I’ve been writing some small-band stuff, angular grooves and stuff that I’ve used as intros for Good Vibes, and then last October I had an ensemble with Jeremy Dutton, Adam [O’Farrill], Maria [Grand] — that was a bunch of new music I was working on. And then I did a quartet — Immanuel [Wilkins], [drummer] Craig Weinrib, and a bassist from Philly, Nimrod Speaks — in the style of Ornette. Good Vibes played, Parables played.… These groups have their respective music, but I wrote these pieces that I just brought to each band, and we played them the way we would play the other music. That’s where a lot of the music I’m writing is now.
A lot of the music on KingMaker I was writing just to challenge myself because I couldn’t play some of those harmonies or riffs. So a lot of the music, when I wrote it, I couldn’t play it.
CB: Is that process different than how you wrote KingMaker?
JR: Oh definitely! A lot of the music on KingMaker I was writing just to challenge myself because I couldn’t play some of those harmonies or riffs. So a lot of the music, when I wrote it, I couldn’t play it — back when I was at school in California at the Brubeck Institute. When I moved to New York, finally I got some cats who could play it, so I had to get it together quickly. It was hard: We spent a good amount of time trying to play this music. Now actually we haven’t played it in two years; we kind of stopped playing it after we recorded it. We’re looking to getting back into it because I definitely do feel like now we can play it better.
CB: Is the music still challenging for you to play?
JR: The music itself? No. The challenge now — I’ve been in this space where I want to write a piece of music and do anything to it: Know the piece of music so well that you can change what’s on the page. I mean, that’s jazz. Now the challenge is trying to get to the point now where, like I was saying with communication, I want it to be so unspoken that we can do that as a group, as one unit.