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A look inside The Jazz Gallery

Photo by Jati Lindsey.

Joel Ross is a man of few idle moments. While touring his acclaimed debut record KingMaker (Blue Note, 2019) with members of Good Vibes, he’s been working out new music with them live on the bandstand. Returning from a week-long run in Asia, the vibraphonist-composer barely can process his jet lag before he hits at Seeds in Brooklyn. 

This weekend, he brings his good and mildly exhausted vibes to The Jazz Gallery for two evenings of original music from his recent release as well as compositions he’s looking toward recording next year. Ross spoke with the Gallery about different cueing personas, gleaning methods from colleagues, the concept of acclimation and why he’ll never stop dancing. 

The Jazz Gallery: So the last time we spoke, we actually talked about speaking—our individual speech patterns and how yours informs your playing. Now that you’ve been exploring that concept for some time, what are some other ideas that approach has sparked for you? 

Joel Ross: It relates much more now to the group interaction. I’m still extremely focused on the dynamic of the group as one entity but also as five different people becoming one entity. If we’re speaking, we’re all communicating with each other. So what I’ve been trying to get to with the group is making sure we understand what we’re doing is a conversation. A soloist might have the mic, per se, but a tune is talking about the same topic. The rhythm section might be the mediators keeping the conversation going. The soloist or improvisationalist at the time might have the mic about this particular topic and then we might pass it along. It’s all still an ongoing conversation. I don’t even like to think of it as soloing anymore because even if one of us is soloing, there are still probably two or three more players playing as well. No one’s really solo; it’s just a different form of accompanying. 

TJG: Do you think this more literal internalizing of what it means to be having a conversation has allowed you, intellectually, more invitation and and ensured a bit less imposition, particularly as a leader, when you play? 

JR: I’ve never really thought of it as me being up front. When people lead bands, they can be like, “This is my band and this is what I’m gonna do,” and I’ve never looked at it that way. 

TJG: So that hasn’t ever been an issue for you. 

JR: I wouldn’t say so. 

TJG: In terms of the band dynamic—well, in a past interview, I think it was with Nate Chinen, you cited Miles’ second Quintet as having had an influence on you as a band leader, specifically on your wordless cueing style. 

JR: Ah. Mmhm. 

TJG: So this question relates to that concept a little. In addition to leading your own project, recently you’ve been playing with folks like Makaya McCraven, Marquis Hill, Brandee Younger. Have you become hyper aware of the different cuing styles among these different leaders, and has working in these varied contexts had another influence on the way you cue, and interact with your own bandmates? 

JR: Oh yeah. Without a doubt. I’m really in touch with the way Makaya leads, and just what we do. A lot of the music that he does is is improvised and then realized in composition. There’s no sheet music. I learn everything by ear. I gotta remember. If I’m not as comfortable in a situation, I’ll play less just to gather the surroundings of the situation, but Makaya wants the opposite. He always wants me to play more—just jump in there and get acclimated.

The way he cues—ah, it’s cliched to say in the moment because that’s the title of his record—but it all tends to make sense. In a very musical aspect, we’re building a vibe for the song, starting off from somewhere, playing the melody a bunch of times. This past tour we did, the first couple of dates were quartet with Jeff Parker and Luke Stewart on bass, and we were just improvising the whole set. I loved those gigs the most. I feel like I’m better at it now than when I first started doing that with them. The cues—he wouldn’t have to cue as much, now that everybody has played with him a bunch and we understand, “Alright let’s set something up. Okay this new vibe, does it need a solo? Is it getting stagnant?” Things would naturally happen. 

In a band like Marquis’, we know the forms, he’ll pick the tunes. We don’t know what tunes might play. He might start with a tune, but after that he’ll just go into a tune. I love that. I’ve definitely picked that up from him. He’s tries to make that list, it’s usually a very in-the-moment thing. I’ve definitely picked that up from him. I usually try to pick the song we’re gonna start with and the song we’ll end with. Usually, at this point, if I start with a song and then don’t say anything, then they know what we’re going into. Or, I’ll start to play the next song in the song that we’re already playing. 

TJG: Aha.

JR: They should be paying attention enough—they should be focused enough to hear that and know what’s going on. But, at this point, if we play “Touched by an Angel” and we end it and I don’t say anything, then Jeremy Corren should know to go into the intro for such and such, and then if I don’t say anything after that, Dutton knows to set up the next tune. From touring, we’ve developed our own thing. 

One of my faults in communication is that I’ll just throw out information without making sure that everybody understands it. Or, I have a tendency to assume we’re all on the same page. The decisions I make on the bandstand usually make the most musical sense. I think they’re easier to follow than in actual life if I don’t say something. But a lot of the time, I won’t give very explicit instructions, and I’ll leave them to kind of figure it out [laughs]. 

TJG: I wanna jump way back to what you said about the context of playing with Makaya because you introduced the idea of acclimation. 

JR: Mmhm. 

TJG: You mentioned if you don’t really know what’s happening right at that moment, you’ll lay out a little or play less to get yourself acclimated. And here’s Makaya telling you to do the opposite, but for the very same reason—to get acclimated, you just have to start playing. 

JR: Mmhm. Exactly. 

TJG: So this idea of acclimation is interesting because when you’re out with Good Vibes, you don’t really need to get acclimated, not in the same way—it’s your project, it’s your music, they’re all your bandmates. 

JR: Right. 

TJG: So has the experience of this person whom you respect and love coming in and telling you, “No, no—to get acclimated, I want you to do the opposite of what you’ve always done,” had an impact on your approach when you’re out with Good Vibes, even though you’re not really thinking about acclimation in the same way? 

JR: I think I am. I know I wrote the music and everything, but I never tell them how to play it. Playing live, we don’t know who’s going to solo, how we can get into the songs. We’re playing a lot of new music, we’re all getting acclimated. I don’t like timidity. I don’t want anybody to be timid in trying to get acclimated, so I understand what Makaya means. When I’m laying back, I’m not being timid; I’m just listening. But, a lot of times people will be timid in that they don’t know what’s going on and won’t try to ruffle any feathers.

But especially for the rhythm section, you can’t be timid because you are the support system. We’re figuring it out, but we need to be hyper aware of what everyone else is doing, and try to figure it out together. So my biggest thing has just been “Focus, and pay attention to everybody’s everything. And play less. Don’t play too little; just play less, so you can be aware of everything and everybody else.” 

TJG: You mind if we get personal for a second? 

JR: I don’t. 

TJG: Do you feel as though this steady evolution of your understanding of and approach to communication has had an impact on your social relationships away from the music? 

JR: Indeed. I’d say it’s a direct correlation. I’m just trying to mature in those areas in my social and personal relationships. And it becomes clearer to me, if I can relate it to the music. 

TJG: We should talk about KingMaker, which you released this year to—

JR: I’m already past it. I’m looking toward the next album. 

TJG: Since its release, what’s been the greatest challenge for you, artistically or logistically? 

JR: So, we released it this year, but KingMaker was recorded December, 2016. And the music was written years before that. So I would say the greatest challenge was bringing the music back. It was definitely easier learning the music when Kanoa joined the band, once she learned everything super quick, it was like creating the sound. But I’ve written a bunch of new music and we’ve been playing new music we’re getting ready to record; the biggest challenge is to mix together in the KingMaker stuff with the new stuff. The characteristics of the musics are, I’d say starkly different. They were written at different times with different meanings. So these past tours, with the main band, we’ve been trying to find ways to get acclimated with the new music as well as make a cohesive set — a cohesive storyline — with the other stuff. 

TJG: So it’s been some work for you to try to find those connections. 

JR: Mmhm. We’ve found how to perform that music. Now we’re trying to integrate it and move it forward with us moving forward. 

TJG: Have your bandmates been helpful throughout that process? 

JR: Oh yeah. Definitely. Now we’re gonna see how it goes at the Gallery. 

TJG: Since we’re kind of talking about it anyway, I’d like to ask you about the ritual vibe between releases. Many artists have admitted to having either a passive or a very deliberate process of creation in between records. If you have one, can you walk me through your process of composing between releases. Maybe you’re developing that process right now. 

JR: I write a lot. I guess this past year is the first time I haven’t been writing as consistently because I’ve kind of been playing a lot more. When I write, it’s the same concept as the KingMaker music. Any situation or person in any given moment that leaves a lasting impression, will just get a tune. Some tunes will be a couple minutes. Others take a little longer to figure out.

What I really like to do is play the music by myself at home. I type it up and play along with the MIDI. I figure out how to put it in the iRealbook app, which makes it a little more malleable for playing with it to figure out the vibe of the song and how I want it to be, and then I’ll bring it to the band, change it up from there. Sometimes the vibe that I have created, they just won’t play the same way, and I’m gonna accept it and then work with it from there. So that’s been the process for this new music. 

A lot of the songs, me and Immanuel are deciding we don’t need to solo on, we could just play a melody. So there are a lot more through-composed songs, a lot more vamps, doing a lot of trading but a lot of dedicated solos. It’ll be just a piano solo—I might do something, I might not—or Immanuel’s got this section. During the live shows, I like to give the rhythm section open solos to set up songs, just to give everybody some time to explore, set up the music, set up the energy of that song, then go from there. 

I’m a planner. I plan way ahead. 

TJG: God bless ya. 

JR: [Laughs] So I’ve known the music for a long time. I’m writing and playing the music way before I bring it to the band. So by the time I bring it to the band, I know the music well enough to be able to change it up. And then even that, bringing it to the band, is way earlier than we’re gonna record because I want, by the time we record, for it to be internalized. I usually don’t wanna do more than one take for a song. If the form and the melody is alright, then I don’t really care that somebody don’t like their solo [laughs]. 

TJG: In terms of the Good Vibes personnel, how important are their musical personalities to your being able to enjoy certain freedoms in exploring new music? 

JR: Extremely important. We’re not just calling instruments. We’re calling personalities and people. The core band—Jeremy, Jeremy and Immanuel, and now Kanoa—I don’t think anything needs to be spoken on me and Immanuel. It comes across in the way that we play together. We’re always playing together. We are of one mind. Dutton, too. I look up to him. He’s extremely intelligent. I mean, it’s challenging [laughs]. I write a lot of the music coming from a rhythmic standpoint, but I don’t tell him what to do. He can do more than I can [laughs].

Kanoa is just prodigious. She has a huge sound and a most unique concept. I don’t have to give her any direction. I mean I will for recording purposes. Jeremy Corren, that’s the longest lasting relationship in the group. I’ve been in love with his playing since the first day we played back in 2013. All of us are kind of of the same mindset. They either see the vision and understand, or they’re willing to wait while I figure it out. And when Kanoa or Dutton can’t make a gig, I’ve been primarily playing with Or Baraket and Kush [Abadey]. I love the way they play. They play together a lot. They had a vibe. We just finished this tour in Asia, and they helped me figure out a lot of the music. So coming back this weekend, with Dutton and Kanoa, I do have more of a direction for some of the music. It is a rotating group, but there is a core group and that’s definitely the sound. 

I think the most important part of it, from the dream of starting a band, is starting a band with my friends. We’re all friends. We’re all close. It’s really important to me when we’re on the road and we all do something together. I mean some people don’t wanna hang as much [laughs], but I think it’s important to have that camaraderie, because it comes across in the music. If we don’t like somebody, we can’t help but express it. 

TJG: As a listener, I find your playing to have a visual quality to it. I can see shapes rising and falling, materializing then dissolving, when I’m listening to you play in real time. Is there a visual component for you when you’re playing?

JR: I guess I’m not thinking shapes but, compositionally, I’m thinking stories. That’s something I really picked up from Ambrose [Akinmusire]. I can’t remember which album it was—I think it was The Imagined Savior is Far Easier to Paint—he said he wrote some stories and then wrote the music. And I can hear storylines in the music from the live record. Everybody’s writing about something or somebody, and there are usually stories behind the music. I try to make that audible. I would like to have visuals [laughs] I watch a lot of anime. 

TJG: So you create this story through your compositions and then when you’re playing live, you’re trying not to think about all that. When you’re actually developing an idea in the middle of improvising, what helps you stay in that moment of presence that allows you to send and receive?

JR: Just the fact that that is where I am at that moment. I am right there on stage with the band and we’re playing. It might be my excitement. I get really excited when I play, so it’s just easy for me to be there and enjoy it—because it’s what I enjoy to do the most. 

TJG: Is that why you dance a lot when you’re at the vibraphone? 

JR: I also dance a lot just to stay loose [laughs], so I don’t lock up in my arms and stuff. But also, yeah I’m having fun. Jazz is a dance music. It was. Just cause we playing in 13, doesn’t mean we can’t dance. 

I try to have fun with it. I don’t like seeing a soloist take a solo and then they just stand on the bandstand looking glum. Also live music isn’t perfect. Me and Immanuel make mistakes up there all the time. When I was young, anytime I would make a mistake, I would visibly show it in my face and my dad told me to stop doing that. So I had to change my idea of mistakes. If there’s a melody and you play a wrong note, that’s a mistake, but I don’t think it’s a reason to beat yourself up. I like our ability to laugh at our mistakes on stage because it’s not that deep. We’re human. We’re humans trying to make something that can strengthen humanity. 

Joel Ross Good Vibes plays The Jazz Gallery on Friday November 22 and Saturday November 23, 2019. The band features Mr. Ross on vibraphone, Jeremy Corren on piano, Immanuel Wilkins on alto saxophone, Kanoa Mendenhall on bass and Jeremy Dutton on drums. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. $25 general admission ($10 for members), $35 reserved table seating ($20 for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.