For one night this weekend, The Jazz Gallery will become home to the evanescent Phantom Station, a modular and exploratory trio assembled by guitarist Brandon Ross. Phantom Station, in this iteration, will consist of drummer JT Lewis and pianist David Virelles. Lewis is a fellow member of Harriet Tubman, Ross’s often-described ‘avant power trio’ which recently released a new album, Araminta.
Over the years, Ross has collaborated with a voracious array of experimental musicians, including Henry Threadgill, The Lounge Lizards, Me’Shell N’degeocello, and Wadada Leo Smith. Beyond his releases with Harriet Tubman and his duo work with Stomu Takeishi, Ross’s Costume was released on the Japanese label Intoxicate Records to rave reviews, and Ross’s compositions can be found in the scores to various films and commissioned works. We caught up with Ross to discuss his musical upbringing in the city, his approach to improvisation, and the life of the author Chester Himes.
The Jazz Gallery: You’ve been on the scene for a long time. Where would you point a new listener to help orient them to your sound?
Brandon Ross: I would probably bookend the approaches I do, starting with For Living Lovers, my acoustic duo with Stomu Takeishi. We did an album of that music in 2014 on Sunnyside Records. Next, I’d send new listeners to Make A Move with Henry Threadgill back in ’96. Then, to one of my Japanese CDs, Costume or Puppet. Then, of course, anything by Harriet Tubman.
TJG: You’re involved with a large number of projects and collaborators, but it’s not a disparate collection of gestures or statements—it’s a reflection of a singular approach. Do you find yourself referring back to former projects for guidance? How do you keep your integrity while moving forward?
BR: I’ve been talking about this a lot lately. I’ve always gone back to something Ornette Coleman told me the first time I met him in the early 80s: “Always be musically yourself.” In the process of acquiring skills and knowledge, it’s easy to become enamored by things we appreciate. They may have something to do with who we are, or they ultimately may not. With most of my mentors—Leroy Jenkins, Henry Threadgill, Butch Morris, Muhal Richard Abrams, Lester Bowie, Wadada Leo Smith—the focus was always on coming to something they were asking you to do as innovators and composers. Coming to something in your own way, finding your own path. Not playing in a style. That early mentoring and musical experience keeps me high, so to speak.
TJG: Young musicians keep pouring into the city. Do you still see that system of mentorship alive around you?
BR: I don’t see it in the same way. I don’t say that critically, it was just another time. When I came to New York, you could get gigs with people who were professionals, they had ideas, concepts, they were working, you could get a direct connection and play somewhere. These days, it’s more about the academy. People are referencing artifacts in recordings. Some people still teach, but it’s largely a new and different process of arriving at what the music’s all about.