Publicity photo by Lauren Desberg/Blue Note
Joel Ross – Kingmaker album launchJazz Standard, NY. 6 June 2019. Review by Dan Bergsagel
The Jazz Standard announcer has announced, and we wait for Joel Ross and ‘Good Vibes’. And we wait. Someone comes on stage, but they are alone, and they are holding sticks, not mallets. It is Jeremy Dutton who straddles a stool and starts to play: building focused drums – toms racing the bass drum, hi-hat as an independent thing occasionally snapping away. By the time the rest of the band slouch on, the crowd are simultaneously mesmerised, and worried that he’s already run out of beats before they even get started.
It’s an unconventional start, but one which suits the musical approach Joel Ross is bringing to the world with his debut record as a front-man: KingMaker, out on Blue Note. Ross is about the group, and is as happy to leave his vibraphone and lean on the plush red back wall of the stage watching the others as he is improvising alone front-of-stage. Everyone gets ample time to do their thing.
Ross has said that, for him, it’s a challenge to get expression out of these cold bars. And the way that comes across is through striking with clarity, and twitchy, accurate pedalling. Ross is a two mallets guy, not four. But he slips neatly between leading the group with ringing melody, to where he seems so comfortable, following in behind the piano or alto, bringing grooves and rhythmic accents to the fore. Once fancies that the tutelage of former Blue Note stablemate vibes great Stefon Harris, and hints of Bobby Hutcherson, might be coming through, but Ross seems confident enough to pick his own path. He sits within the group more like Jim Hart, a vibes player who is just as assured and convincing behind a drum kit.
Good Vibes thrives on the interplay between Ross’ vibes and Immanuel Wilkins on alto saxophone, whether they’re trading solos, or storming through a head in unison before one or other drops in to ghost. While the dialogue between alto and vibes is the most well developed, often driving Wilkins to moments of spiritual intensity, Ross also punctuates the classical, slurred runs of Jeremy Corren on the grand piano, with clean contrasting incisions.
The release of a Blue Note album comes as a sign that things should be taken seriously, and Ross has accordingly been treated to national press coverage, with a remarkably informative interview on NPR teasing out some motivations. Ross has said the new music scene isn’t just about chops, its about expression, “Not so much the what, it’s the why”. It is interesting how this echoes threads in the current music scene in London, where tags of jazz or fusion or afrobeat are being consciously discarded, but it is also tangible in the way Ross plays. Like a marionette twitching, jumping, accurate with focused arm movements but a loose body. This visual, of the act of playing, is what is lost on the record; the indecision, the visible thought process and bar selection. At times hovering, shaking and halting, in a live show you see his many nearly notes as well as hearing the realised ones. Ross is a Schrödinger’s cat of a musician –constantly capable of many sounds, the act of observation seeming to force him to choose a quantum musical state. When he chooses it seems to drag the mallet down with a magnetic certainty, and stick the head to the bar.
The Good Vibes set feels like it’s still being formed. Unlike the slick record, the stage craft is in progress: mumbled band introductions, the opening long pause, haphazardly running pieces together leaving an audience wanting to applaud but straining to figure out when to do it. While this might unsettle the crowd, it doesn’t seem to affect Ross and co. Ross grins, bounces around while Kanoa Mendenhall on bass continues to anchor the group, whilst trying to restrain giggles. You might also expect them to plumb the depths of KingMaker in putting together the set, but it seems that Good Vibes are more interested in new pieces, giving a relatively small amount of time over to any album playback.
Brought up in stature as a side man for others – notably playing with McCraven and Francies – Ross’ approach is as a leader who is still very much part of the team. And he’s using his platform to boost up his peers; it certainly feel like there’s more talent to find in Good Vibes than just vibes: Wilkins is developing a bold signature alto sound which is certainly worth following, and Dutton really is a delight with deft percussion touches and rhythms continuing far beyond his eye-catching solo start.
So finally, what have we got? First and foremost in Ross we have an empathetic composer and egalitarian band leader, who is perhaps a drummer and pianist second. “I have a love-hate relationship with the vibraphone”, Ross reports. The piano can be most powerful when it’s treated as the percussion instrument it is – drums their most evocative when the tonal qualities are brought forward. Despite any avowed reluctance which Ross may declare about being a vibraphonist, it feels nonetheless that he has managed to strike the magic balance of rhythm and melody, deftly toggling between lead and support on an instrument that can be sometimes awkwardly caught in between.
Joel Ross’ Good Vibes will be at Pizza Express Dean Street on 10-11 July BOOKINGS