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Joel Ross released his debut album, KingMaker, in May on Blue Note Records. But for the 23-year-old vibraphonist, it’s old news. “I write a lot of music, so I already have the next few albums in mind,” Ross says during a recent phone interview from his home in New York City.
Granted, more than two years have passed since he recorded KingMaker. Having grown up in Chicago and honed his chops in church as well as with school jazz bands, Ross moved to Brooklyn and established himself as a first-call player. In the winter of 2016, he was offered a late-night residency at the Greenwich Village jazz club Smalls, for which he reconvened the Good Vibes group that he had formed back in high school.
“Then it was trial and error,” Ross explains. “The record is a culmination of those few months at Smalls, just fleshing out this hard music and getting to know each other.” The group recorded KingMaker in a single take at the end of the run. Ross sat on the project, and was about to pull the trigger on an arduous self-release campaign when Blue Note caught wind of it.
At this point, KingMaker will enlighten the larger listening public to an artist who is already notorious within many pockets of the New York City music scene. In the years since his Smalls residency, the vibraphonist has gigged prolifically with his generational peers; had a large-scale work commissioned by The Jazz Gallery (“Being a Young Black Man”); and collaborated with luminaries including his idol, mentor and now label-mate, trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire. As a recording artist, Ross has hit the ground sprinting with progressive groups led by Marquis Hill, Walter Smith III and Makaya McCraven, among others. Ross’ playing style — defined by feverish strings of ideas that spill out with the eloquence of casual speech — has already left its mark.
KingMaker, however, offers the first window into the bandleader’s comprehensive artistic vision. In contrast to the whirlwind pace of his professional and creative development, Ross’ compositions tend toward the meditative. On “Touched by an Angel,” his vibraphone opens the record with a harmonized pentatonic descent that repeats serenely until the band sweeps under with a lush groove. “The Grand Struggle Against Fear” and “With Whom Do You Learn Trust” conjure a similarly introspective atmosphere with more elaborate arrangements. Soulful phrases twine around each other in melodic and rhythmic counterpoint to create warm sonorities that melt between harmonic realms. On “Freda’s Disposition,” guest vocalist Gretchen Parlato sings a grippingly fragile lullaby to Ross’ niece, expanding on KingMaker’s prevailing themes of family, love and spirituality.
Still, Ross lets loose when the music calls for it. His percussive barrages give the impression that he expends more energy stemming his creative tide than indulging it. For the most part, though, he plays with a mature reservation, content to grace the texture with shimmering accents if not to sit out entirely. “I don’t want to lead the band, necessarily,” Ross explains. “I want everybody to have an equal say in what happens, [with a] focus on communication.”
And indeed, none of his bandmates are shy about asserting their musical identities. Saxophonist Immanuel Wilkins, pianist Jeremy Corren, bassist Benjamin Tiberio and drummer Jeremy Dutton are stylish, potent and idiosyncratic in equal parts. Like most contemporary jazz, the record is groove-based, but the focus on broiling interplay often causes the beat to dissolve into abstraction before coalescing again at pivotal moments. The title track and lead single “Ill Relations,” in particular, come off like hip-hop-inflected cousins to the transcendent chaos of late Coltrane. KingMaker introduces an ensemble of resolute voices at the height of their artistic trajectory. - Asher Wolf
Featured photo by Lauren Desberg.