Download New Album: Joel Ross – KingMaker
Joel Ross comes through with a brand new smashing hot and dope studio album, packed with 12 amazing and solid tracks entitled “KingMaker“. The list of notable jazz vibraphonists is a short one. The instrument is about as unwieldy as the double bass but not nearly as practical for the purposes of getting regular gigs, and it doesn’t have the sex appeal of, say, the tenor saxophone. So when a promising young vibraphonist like Joel Ross comes along, your ears perk up. Ross is 23 and an in-demand presence in the New York club scene. In 2018, he appeared as a sideman on some of the most exciting records in jazz, including the drummer Makaya McCraven’s Universal Beings and the pianist James Francies’ Flight. Ross’ Blue Note debut, KingMaker, is his first as a leader, and it is a marvel.
Blue Note has a robust history when it comes to documenting vibraphonists, having recorded the likes of Milt Jackson, Bobby Hutcherson, and Stefon Harris. Ross, whose bell-like tone occasionally evokes the sound of a wind chime, is indebted to all three musicians. But he puts his own stamp on things with KingMaker, which features his cleverly named working quintet, Good Vibes, including Immanuel Wilkins on alto saxophone, Jeremy Corren on piano, Benjamin Tiberio on bass, and Jeremy Dutton on drums. (The vocalist Gretchen Parlato makes a guest appearance on one tune, “Freda’s Disposition.”) At 12 tracks—11 of which are Ross originals, sly and satisfyingly mysterious—the album is capacious but never feels overstuffed or drawn out.
Though KingMaker is in Ross’ name, he is already mature enough as a leader to know that jazz albums work best when the band operates as a single organism. The group interplay here is the key to the record’s success. It’s clear that he is a maestro at the vibraphone, malleting out repeated patterns and complex phrases that work as melodic statements as well as percussive shapes. You can practically visualize the sound emanating from his instrument as he works his way through shifting harmonies, as on the opening track, “Touched by an Angel,” which begins with an airy solo vibraphone introduction full of shimmering chords. But for the most part, Ross isn’t trying to show off; his solos are often short and suggestive, breaking off at their peak and producing further tension. Every note counts.
Ross scrambles the dynamic typical of so many jazz records, in which a soloist emerges and then bows out until the end of the song. Instead, he creates ample space for call and response, particularly with Wilkins, whose sweet and occasionally earthy tone complements the ethereal quality of the vibraphone. On “Ill Relations,” Ross and Wilkins state the theme in unison and then break off, alternating on a series of short, declarative passages that build in intensity as the rhythm section heats up.
Such exchanges give the music a cyclical quality, an ebb and flow that keeps things floating just above the surface. Dutton’s loose, gnashing funk beats over complex time signatures play no small part in this high-wire act, while Tiberio’s resonant bass lines and Corren’s gospel-inflected vamps—he sounds like a cross between John Lewis and Sonny Clark, with a dash of Cecil Taylor thrown in for good measure—act as thickening agents.
In spite of this refreshing approach, at points throughout KingMaker, you may find yourself yearning for more Ross. “It Is Love That Inspires You,” featuring just vibraphone, bass, and drums, shows Ross unburdened of his role as accompanist, and his sound is so appealingly crisp and bright that you get the sense he could produce an hour’s worth of solo material that would hold your attention. KingMaker is one of the most promising albums to have emerged from the jazz world this year, but it’s clear that Ross is just getting started. This is the kind of song(s) you wouldn’t want to miss on your playlist.
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