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.
TJG: There was a great interview with The Observer about Araminta where you said; “[M]usic is not merely a collection of genres lined up on a playlist menu, but that it is whatever you want it to be, if you open your ears and your imagination. The most natural thing in the world.” I’m sure this will resonate with every musician, but for a reader or concertgoer who doesn’t communicate through music daily, what does it mean for music to be the most natural thing?
BR: That’s a great question. I would go back to imagination; I have good friends who are not necessarily ‘into music’ in the way I am. Some friends are into toe-tappin’ music, some friends are into ‘head-scratchin’ music [laughs]. For my toe-tappin’ friends, I’d draw a connection between music and some other thing that could parallel the use of the imagination. Preparing food is a great parallel. Are you enjoying the flavor of the individual elements? Are you bringing your attention to something that elevates the experience beyond satiating your hunger? In many ways, this mentality is very natural. Kids will find some object and become fascinated by it, then proceed to repurpose it. They’ll pick up a ball, turn it into a truck, a plow, then a satellite or a rocket. It’s that kind of natural creativity and natural imaginative ability that we need to return to. With instrumental, sonic expression, you think about types of sound, notions of key and harmony, groupings of notes, means of organization with the ultimate goal of creating something called a composition. It’s abstract, this way of evaluating elements as a set of parameters. But it’s a natural way of transposing the principle of musical expression into whatever medium it’s easy to understand and connect to the imagination.
TJG: The track “Real Cool Killers” on Araminta is a tribute to the novel by Chester Himes; that book, Real Cool Killers, is notable for being set in Harlem and placing black protagonists at the center of the narrative. As a response, that track on Araminta is so granular, soaring, immersive, and quite grimy. Do you pull a lot of inspiration from that period’s authors, including Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, and so on?
BR: I just happened to be thinking about Chester Himes for some reason. I was probably reading the book again, and hearing the track, it seemed like the perfect soundtrack for the opening scene of the novel. The edginess of it, the hard-hittingness of it, the two characters, Grave Digger and Coffin Ed. It’s also just a nod to Chester Himes, his origins, what he went through. It was a way of paying tribute to that.
TJG: He had an unbelievable life, I was just reading up on him.
BR: It’s amazing. He lived a couple of lifetimes. The time he was in France, with people like Richard Wright, James Baldwin, Melvin Van Peebles, Nina Simone, all these different African American artists ‘did some time’ there. It was an interesting period.
TJG: You recently had a residency at The Stone (February 14th-19th), where you brought six ensembles and six configurations, including “Yet Another Plane,” “Blazing Beauty,” and Harriet Tubman. How did you program the residency and develop the setlist and repertoire for the show?
BR: John [Zorn] got in touch with me almost two years ago, and the gig was scheduled at least a year and a half outside of the date. Fortunately, the policy for the shows changed after he offered the residency, changing from two sets a night to one. I can’t imagine what would have happened after twelve sets. I think I would have had to check in somewhere, go out to some spa someplace warm [laughs]. Sitting down, I asked, “What am I up to, what do I want to do?” I thought about the different things I had done and had been doing. It played itself out over the first three shows, with a lot of compositional, written music. The last three sets were more openly structured, and happened to be all electric.
TJG: Phantom Station was there one night, yes?
BR: Yes. Phantom Station is different each time. That’s the title from a song by Butch Morris, I probably played it with him once or twice. It’s a great title because it doesn’t need to exist, The Phantom Station, maybe it’s not there, maybe it’s another thing or it’s somewhere else on some quantum timeline. I’ve been wanting to do more playing with David Virelles. JT had played with him a few months ago, and didn’t know that David and I were in touch, and coincidentally recommended we play together. It was a nice way for a project to come together. It’s a small instrumentation, handled in a different way, without a bass element.
TJG: Phantom Station, which you’re bringing to The Jazz Gallery, is two-thirds of Harriet Tubman, without Melvin Gibbs on bass. How will this change the interactivity on stage? What will you be playing?
BR: I guess we’ll find out! I’m not sure, it’ll be interesting. We are going to be completely improvising. It’s a kind of thing that I would only do with people who understand how to self-orchestrate, are open enough, responsible enough to deal with whatever’s going on, generous and patient enough to allow the music to evolve, take it where it needs to go. That’s an aspect of any music, but particularly while improvising. I wouldn’t say it’s rare, but it’s something that as a listener you can feel when that’s going on. We’ll know when we get there.
TJG: Last question—when you know you’ll be putting yourself on stage with two other master improvisers, collaborators, and real-time orchestrators, how do you prepare and practice?
BR: You know, it’s interesting. Practicing is preparation for something. Typically, in the west, it’s preparation to function within a particular system of musical organization. If you cover the various possibilities of navigating within that system, whatever you encounter, you’ll probably find a way to respond to it. But then everything is shaped around that system. With regard to improvising, it’s a different thing. It’s like a conversation with someone that unfolds in real time, where you don’t know what the subject matter is gonna be. Someone might say, “So, what do you think about such and such?” You have to ask yourself, “Well, what do I think about such and such,” and then prepare a response on the instrument. You leave your agenda at the door, listen, and react. I’m looking forward to reacting on stage with David and JT.
Brandon Ross and Phantom Station play The Jazz Gallery on Saturday, March 18th, 2017. The group features Mr. Ross on guitars, David Virelles on keyboards, and JT Lewis on drums. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. $22 general admission ($12 for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.