Music with spiritual depth and yearning
Joel Ross

Music with spiritual depth and yearning

As a listener, one senses Ross’s commitment to providing the listener with an opportunity to take a sonic journey that is nurturing, yet energetic

BRATTLEBORO — Don Was, president of Blue Note records, calls vibraphonist Joel Ross “not only one of the preeminent instrumentalists of this era, but he is one of the greatest musical visionaries of his generation.”

You can see that artistry for yourself on Saturday, Feb. 19, when the Vermont Jazz Center presents Ross, performing with his quintet, Good Vibes. The group includes Godwin Louis on alto saxophone, Jeremy Corren on piano, Kanoa Mendenhall on upright bass, and Jeremy Dutton on drums.

This is Ross's touring and recording ensemble (with Louis replacing Immanuel Wilkins on alto) and is featured on his two highly respected Blue Note releases: KingMaker and Who Are You?.

The concert will be held in front of a reduced-capacity, live audience and will also be livestreamed on the Jazz Center's website ( and Facebook page.

For listeners familiar with the impact of the vibes in bebop and swing, Ross's dynamic sound recalls jazz legends Red Norvo, Lionel Hampton, Bobby Hutcherson, Milt Jackson, and Gary Burton. His approach is steeped in the tradition.

In fact, he uses an old-school, two-mallet technique similar to Milt Jackson rather than the four-mallet technique used by most contemporary vibes players. He does this because he prefers the clarity of sound he is able to achieve.

Ross has evolved to become one of the most visible jazz musicians of his generation, joining forces with such titans as Ambrose Akinmusire, James Francies, Jason Palmer, Makaya McCraven, Marquis Hill, Johnathan Blake, Walter Smith III, and Matt Stevens.

Ross's respect for the past combined with his transcendent ability to enter the “zone” of becoming one with the music have given him a unique voice that is simultaneously modern and timeless.

JazzTimes magazine claims “Not since Stefon Harris' arrival 20 years ago has the jazz world heard a young vibraphonist intent on exploring so many dimensions.”

In an interview with JAZZIZ Magazine, Ross stated that the vibraphonist he was first drawn to was Milt Jackson (best known for his work with the Modern Jazz Quartet). But he was also “listening consistently to Monk, Miles and Trane for years, taking in everything these artists were doing - not only the type of music they were playing, also how they were leading their bands.”

In a conversation with CapitolBop, Ross discussed the tremendous impact those jazz artists had on his development and how Miles Davis in particular influenced his yearning to work with and compose for a steady band.

“I enjoy it most when we are all communicating and playing with each other and trying to achieve that highest form of listening and responding,” he told the website. “I definitely do focus on the band thing, from studying Miles' quintets - especially the second great quintet, which is my favorite group.”

“Particularly, I spent two or three years listening to Live at the Plugged Nickel almost every day, just studying the group interplay, how Miles would direct the band from what he played or didn't play,” Ross continued. “I'm just really big on that type of group interaction and trying to communicate without words.”

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When listening to recordings of Good Vibes, one senses a constant flow, a natural stream of energy where the ideas connect, ebb, and build organically. Ross is a virtuosic leader, setting the tone, writing the compositions, developing the arrangements, and leading by example.

He is also a drummer by training, constantly pushing his musicians to explore less-common rhythmical phrases and forms. The quintet format provides him with a powerful vehicle to express his ideas using a broad palette.

As a unit, the band approaches Ross's compositions, which are strongly melodic, with respect, tenderness, and intensity. Their attention to dynamics is especially remarkable. The quintet plays a wide range of sonic and emotional qualities, breathing together and embodying the care that Ross has imbued into the arrangements.

The varied rhythmical complexity and intensity take the listener on journeys that are sometimes tranquil and meditative and other times intentionally unsettling. Ross's compositionally balanced arrangements juxtapose intensity and serenity with great care.

As a listener, one senses Ross's commitment to providing the listener with an opportunity to take a sonic journey that is nurturing, yet energetic. He encourages the soloists to drive the bus during their forays, and he eagerly goes along for the ride as a conversant supporter.

Ross's melodies, which are often consonant, are paired with touches of harmonic dissonances that provide rich color and excitement. When we listen closely, we hear that this music conveys spiritual depth and yearning.

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Reviewing Ross's most recent recording, Who Are You?, for The New York Times, Giovanni Russonello identified the source of that spirit: “The years Mr. Ross spent in childhood learning drums at church laid an important foundation. 'It tends to be what I'm reaching for,' [Ross] said, 'to put the audience into that space of reaching up, worship and praise.'”

Ross will be performing selections from his two highly acclaimed Blue Note albums, KingMaker, a musical tribute to his family, and Who Are You? an album that is split into two narrative halves.

Downbeat gave KingMaker a four-star review, noting that “Ross' playing erupts through the layers of lush arrangements [...] like consistent currents of electricity, high-powered and full of luminous energy. These bright bursts of solos and melodic lines surprise, excite and stretch the pieces further.”

The music that Joel Ross and Good Vibes will be bringing to the Vermont Jazz Center is steeped in the history of jazz, but it is also inclusive, welcoming, and immersed in the music of today's younger generation.

It is a unique creation, a beautiful synergy that combines familiar language with new information. Ross's music seamlessly gathers all these facets into a unifying construct through its heartbeat-like attention to rhythm. The music might sound effortless, but it is not simple.

Like the magic of Miles Davis's second great quintet, this musical voyage will be enhanced by the tightness of the group's ensemble work and the musicians' vibrant, telepathic interactions.

Come to the Jazz Center on Feb. 19 and enjoy Good Vibes' unique, new sounds; hear for yourself why Nate Chinen of The New York Times called Ross a “bright young vibraphonist on his own rocketlike trajectory.”

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