Artists hard-pressed to consider the vibraphone to be their first-call instrument nevertheless find Joel Ross to be a first-call instrumentalist. A typical work week might take Ross downtown on a Monday night, uptown on a Thursday night and leading his own group on Saturday and Sunday—and those are just the New York gigs.
At 23, the vibraphonist and composer has traveled the world, collaborating with some of the music’s most enduring and distinctive voices, from Herbie Hancock and Christian McBride to Gerald Clayton and Ambrose Akinmusire. In a rare moment of rest just after his hit with Marquis Hill’s Blacktet at the White Plains Jazz Fest—and right before his record date with Melissa Aldana’s quintet—Ross slowed his tempo to a walking pace long enough to discuss rhythmic interpretations, reactions versus reflections and what he learned—and unlearned—studying with Stefon Harris.
The Jazz Gallery: You have a deliberate way of articulating each sound while maintaining a fluidity in your lines and across all your ideas. Can you talk about how your touch, specifically, allows you to interpret the music the way you hear it—or the way you want to play it?
Joel Ross: When I was at the Brubeck Institute, I was studying with Stefon Harris, and he basically revamped—we had to deconstruct, then reconstruct—my entire technique. After working with him was when I started feeling better on the instrument. I used to get pain in my forearm or in the palm of my hands from not stretching before a gig or from using the wrong technique while playing. So once he helped me get that together, I felt like I could do more with the instrument.
With that newfound freedom, I was able to figure out what I wanted my sound to be. I very specifically want clarity. I want people to be able to hear every note. I’m very particular with how I approach rhythm, so most of my playing is very rhythmic-oriented, first and foremost, and I want the clarity of those rhythms with whatever harmony might be happening at the same time.
TJG: You began on the drum kit.
JR: I started playing drums with my brother. We were about 2 or 3 years old. I didn’t start playing mallet instruments or the vibraphone until I was about 10—in the fifth grade.
TJG: And how would you say your commitment to clarity of rhythmic intention and rhythmic articulation has influenced your clarity with what you want to articulate harmonically?
JR: I’ve only recently reached this feeling of how I relate to rhythm. But I’ve had this type of harmonic—well, I’ve always been a big theory fan. I’m not sure how much I actually know, but I’m very interested in theory. So I would learn, at least in high school, what harmony and scales relate to what chords, but I was never one to transcribe. I never transcribed in high school. Me and my brother, we were church musicians, so we’d just be using our ears. I would listen to records—Miles, Trane and Monk—and just kind of hear what they’re doing, hear the language, but I never transcribed it. So when I would go back to try to play something I heard—I was usually just trying to go from memory—I knew it wouldn’t be exactly what they played, but it would be inspired by [their sound] enough to my liking, and it would also include my own sound. So that was the harmonic concept I had for a long time. And then once I studied with Stefon, we also went over some harmonic stuff that helped get my ears together. So at that point, which was when I started figuring out more of my rhythmic thing, I was able to connect the harmony—from my ears getting stronger—to the rhythm I was hearing and wanting to play.
TJG: I imagine when you studied with Stefon, you revealed to him that you had never transcribed.
TJG: I’m curious if he believed that was to the benefit or to the detriment of your ear; did he have a strong opinion either way on that?
JR: It’s funny. He has his own way of teaching theory, which is more or less connecting music and sound with emotion. So it was ear-training by playing a chord and saying, “What does this chord make you feel,” or “What does this chord make you think about?” and relating that. So you’d be able to identify a chord physically, just from hearing it. He wanted basic improvisers to be able to play using their ears, rather than going back and transcribing stuff. So long story short, he was okay with the lack of transcribing, just because it kind of worked out with the theory he was trying to teach.
TJG: And you didn’t know this particular method of teaching before you started studying with him.
JR: No, he was in the process of standardizing it, and he’s teaching it now at [Manhattan School of Music].
TJG: You came up on the drums and in the church. How did those components of that experience—and the experience overall—influence your comping style and the general way you interact with other players?
JR: I wouldn’t say it influenced so much the comping. What I got when I was younger, from just playing in the church, was groove and rhythm. At least when I was playing drums at first, that was definitely the focus. Once I started playing vibes, I shifted into listening to how comping was in, I guess, the jazz world. That’s when I started also learning piano, just from playing vibes—because I wasn’t bringing a vibraphone to church every Sunday. My brother and I, we had our instructions in school, but we were pretty self-taught from playing in the church. I guess I would say jazz comping influenced my church playing instead of the other way around, at least in that regard.
TJG: How important is it for you to be able to sing what you’re playing?
JR: It’s not that important. It’s definitely a habit now. And I definitely got it from Stefon. When you talk to him about it, he’s more or less using it to sing rhythm. And that kind of started me on my path toward figuring out how I wanted to interpret rhythm. He was using it to compare the way you play to the way you speak—to make it sound natural. So that’s how I developed my rhythm; I wanted it to sound as natural as speaking. And it was really difficult for me at first—the way he could have a conversation, musically. “What time is it? Do DAH-ba-do?” or “What did you eat for lunch? Da bid-i-DAH boo dat?” He made it sound like an actual conversation. I really wanted to figure that out, so I would just try to do what he did and sing my rhythms. And I usually end up just singing the pitch that I’m probably playing.
TJG: You have a calling to work through activism and advocacy in your music. I imagine when you’re playing and composing, you’re working through both your gut reactions to these challenging experiences and situations, and also your longer reflections on many of these critical incidents and issues. So you have your gut reactions and you have your reflections, and I’m sure you encounter complexities and even personal contradictions that you would want to include in your music. What are some devices and strategies you’ve chosen to present those complexities in your music?
JR: Okay that is a good question.
TJG: And maybe it all goes back to Stefon’s method of the colors being what you’re feeling.
JR: And relating to the emotions, yeah. The way I’ve been writing these past few years has been more from gut reactions only—well not only—that directly inspire an idea or something to start a tune. And the tune will develop however quickly; I think they’re always connected, the gut reaction and the reflection. After the initial gut reaction, to finish writing the piece, it’s reflecting over the gut reaction or what caused it.
TJG: Do you think working through these compositions has helped you better understand how you feel about certain things, without even meaning to?
JR: Yeah I would say that. At least for the songs, I know that whenever I play one of the songs that I write, it’s very specifically related to a situation or an emotion. I want the song to always evoke whatever the instant or the emotion was, every time I hear it. I don’t want to say that anything’s more related to a negative situation. I’m not saying that. I know myself, or anyone who might have that, is never able to heal from it. It’s rather, “This is what happened. This is what it’s about. This is what that sounds like right now.”
TJG: Are you getting into any of that artistic content for this upcoming gig at the Gallery?
JR: No, I don’t think so. This one, I just wanted to—well I haven’t led a group for a while. Or, the last groups that I did lead were very structured sets, or larger bands. This one, I just wanted to call some friends and get up there and play. I have a lot of music that I’ve written that I haven’t had the chance to play, and some stuff I just want to hear in a different configuration. I usually always have a gig with a piano player. But I’ve been doing more gigs supporting people as the comping instrument, so I wanted to try that for my group this time.
TJG: Do you want to talk about the personnel?
JR: On tenor, it’s Maria Grand who I’ve been playing with a lot. I play with her group; she plays in a couple of my projects. We’ve been playing a lot and also developing a really good friendship. And I can say the same for the drummer Jeremy Dutton who I’ve known since I moved to New York and a little bit before. We play together in so many different groups. At this point, we’re both getting busier, so whenever I have the chance to call him I just do. And then on bass, a bassist—her name is Kanoa Mendenhall, she’s from the Bay Area—who I also met in high school at some point. She recently moved to New York and I knew I wanted to play with her. We played a session a couple months ago. She’s in school, I think at Columbia, and she did a semester abroad in Japan, I believe. I think I texted her the day she got back, as soon as she landed, “Yo, are you free on the 21st and 22nd?” It was her birthday and she was like, “This is the best birthday, to come back and get work.”
TJG: And it’s going to be exclusively your originals?
JR: Probably originals—or derangements.
TJG: Is there anything you’d like to add to the interview?
JR: Come out to the show.
Joel Ross plays The Jazz Gallery on Friday and Saturday, September 21-22, 2018. The group features Mr. Ross on vibraphone, Maria Grand on tenor 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.