Despite the pandemic performance freeze, vibraphonist Joel Ross has been able to forge a path forward with friends and community. Recently, Ross received a commission from the Jazz Coalition supporting his continued writing and playing, even while in lockdown.
Ross is an integral member of The Jazz Gallery community, having been commissioned and featured on-stage and in the blog many times. He spoke with us via phone in anticipation of a big event: The first livestream trio concert from the Gallery stage, which takes place tonight featuring drummer Jeremy Dutton and bassist Or Baraket.
The Jazz Gallery: Hey Joel, where are you living right now?
Joel Ross: I’m in Brooklyn, I’ve stayed here this whole time, from the start. I live with two other musicians, but they both left. My girlfriend Gabrielle Garo and her family live about ten minutes from me, so I’ve been staying back and forth between their place and mine.
TJG: I’m sure you miss your roommates, but it’s nice that you have some space.
JR: Exactly [laughs]. It’s been nice playing with Gabrielle, and being close with her and her family. It would have been a lot worse if I were alone.
TJG: Tell me a little about how things have been for you. Take me back to February, when things started to look shaky.
JR: My band Good Vibes was finishing an east coast tour, and in the last week of February I was in Slovenia at the Creative Jazz Clinic Velenje camp with Jure Pukl. The first week of March we went on tour, and when we got back I was supposed to have some gigs around the 13th, 14th and 15th. That was when Europe started to get crazy with the virus. My last gig was on the 10th–I was a guest with the Brubeck Institute, one of my alma maters–and after that, some of our gigs got cancelled. One was supposed to be in LA, where my girlfriend was recording. I still went out there, thinking I could just chill with her, and we were planning to spend a week there, but around the 17th, LA completely shut down. We saw that New York was about to shut down. So we hurried up and flew back, and have been quarantining in Brooklyn ever since.
Like I was saying, it’s nice to have another musician to play music with. Before this, we were so busy. I was always on the road, she was finishing her masters, and now this is a dedicated time for us to play with each other, work out some ideas. We’ve been recording some things, duet videos for some commissions, it’s been nice in that regard.
TJG: Did you have things on the schedule for these and upcoming months that you were looking forward to?
JR: [Laughs]… Oh, yes. In March, I was supposed to go to Spain, and Good Vibes was supposed to go to Africa, to Cape Town for the jazz festival. I was sad to see that one not happen. There were some other gigs cancelled, another tour cancelled… I was supposed to go back to Chicago for a few days for a gig with Vijay Iyer. Some recording projects were cancelled too.
TJG: But you’ve been able to fill the time with meaningful stuff?
JR: I’ve kept writing. These types of situation don’t change my need to keep writing and creating. In general I’m able to keep a good attitude about things, and it hasn’t altered my ability to put out music. I’ve written a good amount of music and arranged some things. I got a commission grant from the Jazz Coalition, and a lot of the music I’ve been working on has gone toward that. It’s been good to get things done and have something to work towards.
I did another project through the Gabriela Lena Frank Academy where a classical composer wrote a piece for vibraphone–I’m using it as a challenge, since I don’t usually like to do four-mallet stuff. I talked with the composer and told him I could do three mallets, and he was cool with it, so it’s been a good opportunity to do three mallet with my right hand instead of my left, which I usually do.
TJG: Would you say your last major work was ‘The Beauty Of: Being A Young Black Man’?
JR: More recently, last May, I did another commission with Roulette, the venue in Brooklyn. I did a large ensemble suite called Revelation, it wasn’t a small gig, but it was a little under the radar. That was the last big composition I did. It’s nice to have another commission to work on now.
TJG: What are you looking at with this latest commission?
JR: The stipulation for the Jazz Coalition is anything related to the pandemic, any feelings I might be experiencing about it, any type of music that might be getting me through. For me, it’s been all about keeping hope. I’m calling it Praise In The Midst Of The Storm. A lot of the music has this old gospel-type vibe, a sound I grew up with, so I’m working with that.
TJG: How are you keeping your head up now? This is a rough time.
JR: Being here with my lady and her family is a huge part of it. Having a place to go, spending time with other people… Things like this don’t get at me too bad. I don’t let too many outside things affect my inner peace. I’m still able to keep in contact with friends. I still go outside and see people from a social distance. I still play, I still talk with my family. I try to keep a good attitude.
TJG: Have you been participating in any protests, or steering clear?
JR: I haven’t gone out. As much as I feel for it, I wouldn’t want to risk bringing anything back to the family here. Trying to do what I can online, with the Gallery, we shared the commission with hopes of bringing donations to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, doing what I can from where I’m at.
TJG: Tell me a little more about you and The Jazz Gallery over the years.
JR: Oh, it’s been a long one, I feel like. [Laughs] I haven’t even been in New York that long. When I moved to New York in 2015, I was close with pianist James Francies, who was living with Aaron Parks, so when I came to New York I would spend a lot of time at their crib. At the time, Aaron was doing the Mentoring Series, and James convinced him to work with me. That was cool because Aaron and I already kind of knew each other from that hang, getting to know each other musically and personally. We decided to play a lot of other peoples’ music, instead of originals.
Rio has always given me a lot of opportunities to try different things and present different groups. She’s been a huge advocate for my career. I love that place. I love her, I love everyone who works there. I love the vision. Rio is always looking for new young talent, giving people space to experiment and try new things, it’s so open. I see a lot of my peers, a lot of people I look up to, people who gave me a chance to play with them, it’s always a hang. It’s one of my favorite places, I’ve developed a close relationship with the venue. It’s dear to my heart.
TJG: And that has continued, through that pandemic? You still keep in touch with Rio?
JR: She’s pretty much become a mentor to me. We always talk about ideas for the Gallery, and she’ll give me pointers on now to look at things from a business standpoint. She comes to me with ideas about events like The Lockdown Series, the Happy Hours, these livestream concerts, she shares opportunities with me and includes me in a lot of her thinking so I can get an idea as to how things work.
TJG: Do you have a sense of how things will go tomorrow with Or Baraket and Jeremy Dutton?
JR: Jeremy Dutton is a founding member of the Good Vibes group. The usual bass player is Kanoa Mendenhall, but when she can’t do it, Or is the guy. Jeremy is usually in Houston but he came to town to play with Vijay for a livestream at the Vanguard. It just so happened that he was going to stay in town, so I asked if he could do it. These cats know the music very well, so we don’t have to prepare much. I’m just looking forward to playing with a group after three, four months. I’m looking at keeping it chill. Getting back into playing, it’s been a while and might be another while. It’s going to be great. Some originals, some standards, some arrangements. I’m impulsive. I don’t know what’ll happen until we get there.
The Joel Ross Trio plays a livestreamed set from The Jazz Gallery on June 25, 2020. The group features Mr. Ross on vibraphone, Or Baraket on bass, and Jeremy Dutton on drums. The set is at 8 P.M. EST. $10 admission (FREE for members). Purchase tickets here.