In the Spring of 2016, vibraphonist Joel Ross kicked off the third edition of The Jazz Gallery’s Mentorship Series along with pianist-mentor Aaron Parks and a rotating cast of all-star rhythm sections. This weekend, Ross will return to the Gallery for two nights of performances as a leader in his own right. Along with talented peers like saxophonist Immanuel Wilkins and drummer Jeremy Dutton, Ross will demonstrate his continuing development as an improviser and bandleader.
At the final performance of Ross’s mentorship experience at the club South in Philadelphia, Ross and Parks sat down with Jazz Speaks to discuss contemporary repertoire, working with such contrasting rhythm sections, and how to imbue their percussive instruments with the elusive sense of breath.
The Jazz Gallery: What was it like to work with such a range of rhythm section partners over these gigs? Like one night you’re playing with Ben Williams and Kendrick Scott, and then you’re playing with Thomas Morgan and Eric McPherson.
Joel Ross: It’s been an important learning experience in terms of getting to work with the different groups and the changes in the rhythm sections. From the beginning, we knew it was going to be different a couple of times, and then it ended up being different every time. I came in with the mindset to pay attention to that, but it still was something I had to adapt to.
Aaron Parks: The difference between gigs two and three was like “whoa!” They were just two days apart and pretty much the same repertoire, and felt incredibly differently.
TJG: How, specifically, did these changes affect your playing?
JR: I mean, I’m always listening, but from the very first downbeat with Thomas and Eric, it felt different. I had to almost take a minute to absorb what was happening and then respond. I think I was in a mindset based on what had happened before, and so I really had to take a minute and recalibrate.
AP: I’ve found that playing with Thomas Morgan in particular is always a new experience. I never know what to expect with him.
AP: He’s such a unique musician and has his own idea of what the role of the bass is—it’s holding it down, but a very different sense of what holding it down means.
JR: For the previous two shows, I had an idea of what the players played like, but I had never heard Thomas before. At the soundcheck, everything seemed to go ok, but when the gig started… [laughs]. I didn’t quite know what to expect at a given moment, but it was really fun.
TJG: A lot of the tunes that you’ve been playing are by Aaron’s peers—things he learned when he was coming up as a pianist. Joel—were you familiar at all with the repertoire going into this experience?
JR: Almost everything was new to me. I knew a few of the tunes from listening, but I had never played any of them. I really like learning new music, so I was really into Aaron’s choices.
AP: Even before we got into the gigs, we were rummaging through some stacks of old music and thought about what tunes would be challenging and have some juice, something to sink your teeth into, but also open enough to explore them with these different rhythm sections.
JR: Yeah, we spent a couple of hours doing that, and Aaron just kept finding more music!
AP: Because of the shifting rhythm section, we don’t much time for anything more involved than that. The repertoire wasn’t designed to push us or challenge us in a particular conceptual way. It was like, “Let’s just play some good songs!”
TJG: It sounds like the tunes were coming from this place of modern common practice.
AP: Exactly. That’s one of the reasons why we even have a chance to bring this in and play these heads with different configurations. No matter the players, they can understand what the tune is going to be.
JR: It’s less about the challenge from the tune and more about putting ourselves into the tune.
TJG: Joel—Once you had the tunes picked out, how did you go about preparing to play them with Aaron?
JR: I tried to approach it more as a blank slate. I listened to recordings of most the tunes maybe once, but I knew we were going to be playing them a lot, so I wanted to go to the rehearsal or the gig and let what happens happen. I now know them very well, so I’m more aware of what they can do.
TJG: What about a tune like Kendrick Scott’s “Mantra,” which was originally recorded with full orchestra for Terrence Blanchard’s Tale of God’s Will?
AP: And from his record The Source. I think it’s been recorded three times now.
JR: I only heard the one from The Source.
AP: I think he did it again on We Are The Drum?
JR: Did he? I probably listened to it and didn’t realize.
AP: Maybe he just played a snippet.
TJG: In a tune with the kind of scope that “Mantra” has, are you thinking orchestrationally in terms of how to fit the vibes into the band texture?
JR: I’m not really thinking that way. I’m thinking about getting inside the tune, rather than putting stuff on top of it.
AP: I think there’s a lot of potential to do that stuff, and when we work together in the future, I’d be interested in exploring some of those textures. Vibes and piano can get such beautiful sounds together. Even just writing a voicing spread out between vibes and piano—somebody grabbing some notes, somebody grabbing the others—can lead to some pretty interesting colors.
JR: I think for this situation, I was just playing the music, and figuring out how to fit into the band.
AP: Just playing music together.
TJG: Most of these tunes are about 10-15 years old. Joel—How do the harmonic and rhythmic languages of these tunes apply to what you’re played with your peers now?
JR: There are definitely a lot of similarities. I’ve been fortunate to play a lot of different types of jazz, but I feel that these tunes are really relatable to what people are doing now. There’s a lot of maturity in the tunes that Aaron has brought in, and I’m trying to learn from that and apply to what I’m doing with my friends. These are the artists that we’ve been listening to as we’ve come up. That’s what’s in our ears. Like, I listen to Miles and Trane a lot, but I also listen to a lot of Ambrose [Akinmusire] and Gerald [Clayton].
TJG: For a long time, it seemed that using the motor on the vibraphone was seen as a really cheesy, old-time effect—like I can’t remember Gary Burton using it on a recording in decades. But at the soundcheck, Joel, you seemed to have it on almost the whole time. How have you come to a concept regarding the motor in your playing?
JR: Usually, the motor on the vibraphone just doesn’t work, so I’m used to not having it. When I do have a motor, I turn it on and play with it for as long as I can stand it. Sometimes, I feel that the motor can get in the way of things. I don’t know how or why yet, but it’s based on intuition.
The quicker kind of vibrato does sound old school, definitely from the association with Lionel Hampton. I fell in love with the motor listening to Milt Jackson. He slowed it down to match the vibrato of his voice when he sang. I always prefer the slower vibrato; it’s the more beautiful sound to me.
TJG: That’s an interesting point relating vibraphone to the voice because it’s an instrument, like the piano, where you can’t really affect the shape of the note after the attack.
JR: Sometimes I really try to sing through the instrument, but then there are other times where I’d rather not and really sound like a percussive instrument.
AP: It’s a tricky thing on piano, too, and I don’t really know how to do it. A lot of it has to do with the touch. There are some tricks, like lifting and resetting the sustain pedal, but what I do is just sing along when I play. I’ve actually started taking vocal lessons, and I may get to a point where I get brave enough to do it Kurt Rosenwinkel-style and have a microphone that is capturing that sound and blending it with the piano. For me, interacting with my own voice is really helpful from a rhythmic standpoint. I’ve found that when I’m improvising sometimes, I get caught on a certain grid. But when I sing, that grid isn’t there as much. So by playing what I’m singing, rather than singing what I’m playing, I find that it’s easier to get off that grid and get closer to a natural sense of where each note wants to go.
It’s amazing how much melody is rhythm as well. Subtle differences in timing between two versions of the same sequence of notes can really change the feeling of the phrase, for me at least. I’m all about the blurriness. Then on the other hand, as Joel said, there are times where you want it super-precise and want to bring to life that more mechanical feeling. Depends what you’re going for at any given moment.
TJG: What are different ways you guys learn to play with a certain kind of inflection or phrasing?
JR: Learning tunes by ear, definitely. You really get inside the tune more when you don’t have to read it. It’s easier to be aware of what’s going on around you when you know a tune in that way. In our case, there’s a lot of difference from gig to gig, as once you play the song, you know what can happen, and I feel I can back off the page a little more each time.
AP: I love learning music by ear—you just don’t forget it. A lot of the most enjoyable projects and recordings for me have been where somebody took the time to teach me every tune by ear. That takes a lot of time, and it’s great when you have a consistent band and work on something collectively. We don’t often get that luxury, though. It’s a shame that it’s a luxury to have a regular band. It’s not as common as it used to be.
TJG: Saxophonist John Ellis has been the one other constant at every gig. What have you learned, Joel, from being on a front line with him?
JR: Learning how to phrase these melodies with another person. Most of the time when I’m playing a melody, I’m playing on my own. I don’t know how it’s come about like that, but I’m really used to phrasing a melody in my own way. That’s why I’ve been basically playing every melody in unison with him, just to get used to what he does and trying to blend into his sound. Like when I hear trumpet and saxophone blend really well, it can sound like one instrument. It doesn’t always happen with a vibraphone, but it’s what I’ve been trying to do with him. Sometimes it’s felt like trying to anticipate what he’s going to do.
AP: I think of the word entrainment. You just get into that flow state where you’re just together with someone. Nobody is exactly leading or following, but you’re in there together.
Joel Ross & Good Vibes play The Jazz Gallery on Friday, February 3rd, and Saturday, February 4th, 2017. The group features Mr. Ross on vibraphone, Immanuel Wilkins on saxophone, Jeremy Corren on piano, Benjamin Tiberio on bass, and Jeremy Dutton on drums. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. each night. $22 general admission ($12 for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.