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In September 2020, Jorge Rossy, then 56, recorded Puerta, his first leader album for ECM. As on all his leader albums since the mid-2010s, Rossy plays vibraphone and marimba. Robert Landferman, most widely known for a long association with German pianist Pablo Held’s trio, plays bass. On drums is Jeff Ballard, who, in 2005, replaced Rossy in the Brad Mehldau Trio, two years after Rossy — Mehldau’s partner since 1991 — left the band to burnish his skills in piano and composition. Although the protagonists hadn’t previously convened as a unit, they navigate nine pieces by Rossy and one by Chris Cheek with a kinetic, punctiliously dialogical attitude. Rossy tells elliptical, harmonically expansive stories with a subtle touch and impeccable timing, complemented by Ballard’s unrelentingly morphing grooves.
Before we trace Rossy’s transition to and evolution on the vibraphone during the past decade, it should be noted that he emerged from his tenure with Mehldau as one of the world’s most visible and influential drummers. “If you took Jorge out of the ’90s, today’s music would sound completely different,” says Mark Turner, Rossy’s close friend since both attended Berklee College of Music 30 years ago. Turner played tenor saxophone with Rossy’s vibraphone quintet on the 2016 album Stay There (Pirouet) and the 2018 date Beyond Sunday (Jazz and People), both propelled by Al Foster on drums.
“Jorge completely put his thing on all those chorale-oriented, double-time, straight-8th-groove tunes that Brad played,” Turner continues. “They might not even have played them without Jorge. Most young drummers and young piano players are used to hearing those grooves. It’s normalized now. But it wasn’t normal at the time.”
The world heard Rossy’s sui generis sound on Mehldau’s iconic Art of the Trio recordings and a slew of gigs in an array of concert halls, festivals and nightclubs. He made 3/4 and 5/4 and 7/4 time signatures flow like water, simultaneously sustaining grooves and sound painting within them. As Mehldau once wrote in a liner note, he constructed “rhythmic phrases, shapes that are constantly beginning and ending, instead of one continuous pattern, whether on his ride cymbal or on different parts of the kit. This approach is vital to me. It never delineates what I’m playing and allows my phrases a different kind of freedom. They can start anywhere and end anywhere and often suggest a different meter or tempo. Often, Jorge is the other side or negative imprint of whatever phrase I’m playing.”
Mehldau elaborated in a 2005 conversation: “Jorge was a big part of what made me start sounding like I did on my first trio record. The way he played drums on my originals opened up my rhythmic phrasing and got me out of playing licks I already knew. He always responds to what you’re doing and is always extremely creative. But within any given tune we were playing for a year or more, he’d find a certain parameter — a groove or texture — and improvise within that. There’s a wonderful strangeness about him.”
The Barcelona native’s concept amalgamated key formative experiences. For one thing, as Mehldau noted, he developed “a refined sense of harmony” as a working trumpeter from his middle teens to middle 20s — on a 1985 concert in Andorra he impressed a tough-to-please high-profile contemporary as evoking Tom Harrell crossed with Kenny Dorham. Contemporaneously, Rossy was learning the art of swinging on local gigs backing top-of-the-pyramid practitioners like Harrell, Kenny Wheeler, Woody Shaw and Jack Walrath, while also assimilating the complexities of bulería and 3/4- and 6/8-based flamenco beats in Chano Dominguez’s band.
In 1988, when he was 24, Rossy matriculated at Berklee College of Music as a trumpet major. There he met Danilo Perez, who brought him on gigs as a drummer, showed him Pan-American and Afro-Caribbean claves, and recommended him to Paquito D’Rivera, who took him on the road for several years and introduced Rossy to the expansive rhythms of Brazil. Rossy put down the trumpet and set to work refining his vocabulary through close analysis of metric modulators like Jeff Watts and Dan Rieser, and — after moving to New York in 1991 — assiduously focusing on how tippin’ masters Billy Higgins and Jimmy Wormworth incorporated dynamics and nuance into their flow.
Rossy traces his thought process. “The great thing about being inside a tradition is that it has been distilled with time,” he says. “To hear a real blues or something really swinging is so satisfying. When you hear some pure flamenco, that shit is so satisfying that to compete with it is hard. So sometimes, when you mix elements, if it doesn’t really glue, it’s like an intellectual experiment, which is cool, but not that satisfying. Once in a while, you find something where you don’t care if this is pure whatever; this sounds good; this is fun to listen to — it couldn’t exist without both vocabularies.
“Especially at the beginning, when the [Mehldau] trio was forming its aesthetic, the flamenco rhythms were in my unconscious mind. I remember the feeling of being in the studio and playing a waltz on our first record — when I heard it back, I realized I was playing bulería under it. That rhythm helped me to ‘vertebrate’ the space, to rhythmically create in a way that’s open but also strong, because I know where I’m going in the phrase — but it’s also independent of Brad and [bassist] Larry [Grenadier], so I wasn’t just responding to their ideas. It’s a big form, so it provides a strong structure, gives them tons of room to go wherever they want.”
“Jorge impressed me as a painterly drummer, not so much a tubby rhythm, groovy kind of guy,” says Ballard, who first encountered Rossy in 1993. “One of my biggest impressions was his ability to create a scene. He’s fully dedicated and committed, which inspires people — he knows how to follow through and make things happen. I think he singlehandedly made the bridge between Spain and New York exist.”
Ballard is referring to Rossy’s role in funneling late Boomer and early Gen-X musicians like Mehldau, Bill McHenry, Chris Cheek, Kurt Rosenwinkel, Seamus Blake, Ethan Iverson and Reid Anderson to the Barcelona-based, still-thriving Fresh Sound label, which released their earliest albums. “We were the generation that came in during or a bit after the Young Lion thing, so there’s a total deep love and connection with the jazz tradition and it’s-cool-to-swing,” Rossy says. “That’s our thing. But we’re very much open to everything, not so militant to close ourselves to anything else. In my case, I’ve loved Bill Frisell and [Joe] Lovano and [Paul] Motian from the first time I heard them — if you consider that avant-garde. For me, it’s not about styles. I love Teddy Wilson. I love Ornette. And Wayne Shorter is probably everybody’s god.
“We had a big appetite to make music together with each other. We had a lot of trust that this music is enjoyable, that people can relate to this.”
Post-Mehldau, Rossy — who moved back to Barcelona in 2000 — spent quality time with his two young sons and developed his musicianship. He shelved the drums and studied piano, which he’d started playing as a drum-obsessed 12-year-old in response to goading from his older siblings, both gifted with perfect pitch. His sister, Mercedes, was a world-class pianist and strong composer who died in 1995; his brother, Mario, played bass on the three Rossy-Mehldau encounters that transpired on Fresh Sound before the trio’s breakthrough.
“Piano was there from the beginning, and I played it two hours a day from 12 to 14, but I never thought of myself as a piano player,” Rossy says. “I used it not as an end in itself, but as a tool to play songs, hear bass lines, learn harmony and chords. I’d play with three fingers. I just tried to get the lines out; I didn’t care how. I was studying classical percussion locally at the Taller de Música, so I took vibes for a while. I also did workshops with Ben Riley and Billy Hart when I was 16. Ben Riley told me things that still stay with me — play simple; let things develop from the first idea, like a flower; don’t rush. But at 16, I fell in love with the trumpet completely. Although I was working as a drummer in Spain, I feel I didn’t really become a drummer until I came to the States, when I realized that music is not just a style. It’s a way of living and it’s something really personal.”
During the ’00s, Rossy also took immersive composition classes with Guillermo Klein, with whom he played Rhodes in two-keyboard environments on local septet gigs. In 2004, he drew on those lessons to teach composition — among other things — at Basel Music Academy, where he commuted three times a year through 2007, then expanded to a Wednesday-through-Sunday stint each month of the school year. Given freedom to teach “exactly what I was interested in,” Rossy addressed his classes with a workshop attitude, as vehicles for “sharing music,” not “to show the students some curriculum.” In the course of this collaborative process, he developed his functional pianism and — following lessons gleaned from Klein — wrote most of the originals that appear on a series of albums for European labels.
Wicca (Fresh Sound, 2007), Iulianis Suite (Nuba/ContraBaix, 2009) and Iri’s Blues (Moskito, 2012) showcase Rossy’s economical, lyrical approach on piano. “Music is about transcending the instrument,” he says. “It’s a language, and the important thing is to tell stories — and your voice and sensibility. I like how Nat King Cole plays the piano, though he was a total virtuoso. George Harrison’s bass playing. Jobim as a piano player, too. I don’t imagine that they are practicing this thing of playing many notes. No, it’s just about playing songs that mean something to you, with a beautiful sound and feel.
“I know my limitations. When I started playing piano, I was aware that people were going to compare me to Brad Mehldau, and I knew that I would never have the facility that Brad had when he was 11 years old. It’s not in my nature to have that facility. I had to put my emphasis on making sure that every note counts, on the beauty of the sound and the touch — that there is beauty in every little thing that I do. I don’t need to do a lot on the instrument. I never think of my sound alone. It’s about orchestrating and giving an intention. What does that music make you feel like? If you live that feeling, it will come through the instrument, and that’s what you offer to the band. Does everyone in the band have what they need? They might need support, they might need room. The important thing is [to use] just enough words so the story is told.”
Rossy has adhered to that dictum during the ongoing vibraphone phase of his career, which he began to document on 2016’s Stay There and Gershwin (Swit). The latter was the first of a trilogy of covers albums that also explored repertoire by Harold Arlen and Bud Powell, as Rossy co-led a quartet with New York piano guru Michael Kanan and bop-era veterans Putter Smith on bass and Jimmy Wormworth on drums.
“Three years after I started playing vibes, I’d be on stage with Al Foster playing drums, and Mark Turner and [guitarist] Pete Bernstein,” Rossy says. “That was a lot of pressure. But at the same time, I know what I’m doing. I wrote some tunes that sound great. I know that this band sounds great without me. So all I need to do is not destroy the band sound. I am a drummer — I can swing; I can phrase; I have a good sense of touch. Those are my resources. I don’t have a lot of speed, and I was playing two mallets — although I play four mallets now. I wasn’t into vibes players who try to be like a piano and play so many notes. I transcribed many trumpet solos; I hear melodies like a trumpet player. When I started, it was more trying to play like Miles or Kenny Dorham on vibes.”
Which is why Rossy was surprised when, in October 2019, ECM proprietor Manfred Eicher approached him backstage at Hamburg’s Philharmonic Hall, where Rossy was playing drums on an ECM-sponsored project led by Austrian guitarist Wolfgang Muthspiel on which Guillermo Klein arranged and conducted various works for a large ensemble. On the train to the gig, his seatmate, Swiss pianist Colin Vallon — they have a working trio with trumpeter Matthieu Michel — asked whether Rossy had ever recorded for the label. He had, in 2013, on Into the Woodwork, documenting a working group with Carla Bley, Chris Cheek and Steve Cardenas. But Rossy responded that he hadn’t, that bassist Steve Swallow introduced him to Eicher on a gig in Berlin in 2011 — the year Rossy started seriously engaging with vibraphone and marimba — and that Eicher “kind of shook my hand without even looking at my face.”
“So I thought he didn’t like me that much, and I never pursued anything,” Rossy continues. “I also thought that my music was way too straightahead for ECM. But five hours after that conversation, during soundcheck, Colin said that Manfred wanted to meet me. He was super sweet. He told me, ‘I would like if you did something for ECM as a bandleader, something of your own, something that you would like to do.’ I said, ‘I’ve been mainly playing vibraphone.’ ‘I know. The first thing I did with ECM was with Gary Burton.’ It was very unexpected.”
Rossy suggested a vibraphone trio, a context he’d first essayed on an unreleased 2019 session with Foster and bassist Doug Weiss that mirrored the swinging ambiance of his vibes quintet. It seemed to him that the “big, lush sound with reverb” that he associated with ECM “would work for some of my tunes and would be a nice way for me to take the step of really just playing trio.” He workshopped music in that vein on a January 2020 tour when he played eight gigs with Billy Hart and Weiss, and five with either Joey Baron or Ballard and bassist Landferman. That summer — after playing drums in guitarist Jakob Bro’s trio with trumpeter Arve Henriksen for an ECM session in Lugano (released in February 2021 as Uma Elmo), their organic, breathe-as-one quality belying that the protagonists had no rehearsal and were meeting as a unit for the first time — Rossy proposed the personnel that performs on Puerta.
“Jeff and I are from the same generation, and we’ve played with a lot of the same people,” he says. “He totally understands where the tunes are coming from, and comes up with a perfect drum part that gets to the tune’s essence — and from there, he develops and kicks my ass. Joey and Billy and Al and Joe Chambers take me out of my comfort zone and I have to rise to the occasion, which is great — but they are coming from a different perspective. I wanted to play with Robert [Landferman] — for one thing, I’ve already documented Doug on the two quintet albums, but also Robert is an incredible soloist, super colorful, with an amazing palette of sounds. He understands where my music comes from — he’s younger and he’s checked out the music of my generation, but at the same time, he’s played a lot of free music and other things that are new for me. He makes my world much bigger.”
Eicher asked to hear Landferman before green-lighting the project. Rather than reference the bassist’s recordings with Pablo Held, Rossy offered to make a demo tape. “I started thinking how busy we all are, and decided that if we were going to have a day in the studio, we should record it really well. If Manfred doesn’t like it, I’d put it out with someone else. So I called the sound engineer I know in Basel, who has amazing microphones, and we did it at the school. Manfred liked the sound, so he accepted it as it was, though he asked to change the sequence that I gave him. His made more sense than mine.”
On Puerta, Rossy showcases a four-mallet technique accrued during the first months of COVID, before the exigencies of pandemic commuting convinced him to relocate to Basel. “I was in my girlfriend’s small apartment in Sant Cugat, close to Barcelona, and in order not to bother the neighbors, I had to play extremely soft, which is easier with four mallets,” Rossy said. “I got used to it, but I wasn’t sure I’d be able to play like that with drums. After a couple of tunes, I felt a little insecure and said, ‘Maybe next tune. I’m going to try just with two mallets because I think my sound is much better.’ Jeff said, ‘No way — it sounds much fuller with four; please keep it going.’ Since that moment, I’ve been playing with four.”
Rossy has remained a first-call drummer in Europe (for example, he subbed for Brian Blade in the Wayne Shorter Quartet on a Euro festival tour in summer 2012), and as his pointillistic, textured, rubato drumming on Uma Elmo shows, he’s also evolved conceptually on the instrument that made his name. He began to shift after Bro called him to sub for ailing Scandinavian drum icon Jon Christensen for tours behind his 2018 ECM album, Returnings, with bassist Thomas Morgan and trumpeter Palle Mikkelborg, and later to play in a trio with bassist Grenadier.
“I was told that Jon always played his own independent pulse, outside the grid of what the rest of the band was doing,” Rossy says. “I found that intriguing, and wanted to explore this new way of approaching the drums. I’m using three different pairs of sticks — two extremely thin, two medium and two thick and heavy — and wire brushes, not plastic. I felt I needed as many colors as possible; there’s room for subtle gestures that in other contexts would go unnoticed, but here make a big effect. Not being in the same pulse with the rest of the band forces you to define your own space, your own poetry, to react with your own time, from your own position. The interplay is longer term. For me, it paints a bigger, wider picture.”
Since his move to Basel, Rossy has relished the opportunity for further discovery and evolution in all his vehicles of expression. “Once word spread that I was a local Swiss musician, lots of work started happening,” he says. “I’ve been recording like crazy. From Basel, the rest of Europe — Copenhagen, Amsterdam, Vienna — is so accessible. I can bring my cymbals on the train; it’s much more comfortable than flying, as I did when I was in Spain. It’s really easy to work. Now I feel really integrated in the European scene.
“I remember reading an interview with Billy Higgins even before I came to the States, in the late ’80s, where he was talking about being a vessel, letting the music play through you. Of course, that is a great feeling, and I remember moments, when I was still very young, that felt magical like that. I definitely believe in that more and more. There’s no pressure to prove my worth; when somebody calls me, I assume it’s because they know what I can and cannot do. I feel much more comfortable in my skin in that sense. My only agenda is to really make sure that I am in a space where I can breathe and enjoy a certain sense of beauty, and that I’m really digging the sound of what’s going on — then I don’t feel too attached to what I play. What I play is not even mine. It’s just what happened in this moment, what crossed my consciousness. I’m a vessel for these ideas.” - Ted Panken