When asked if he identifies himself as a composer or an improviser, Brandon Ross chooses neither. “I consider myself a creator,” he says, a comment that nods to wisdom collected from his friend and frequent collaborator Wadada Leo Smith.
Ross is also the epitome of the postmodern guitar hero, a fretboard virtuoso who adheres to no particular sound or genre, moving freely from the feedback-laden assault of the adventurous jazz-rock trio Harriet Tubman and the electronics-heavy jumble of Phantom Station to the delicate beauty of the acoustic chamber duo For Living Lovers (in which he also plays banjo). Since the mid-1970s, the longtime Brooklynite has amassed an extraordinarily diverse catalog as a bandleader, cooperative group member and sideman to a plethora of avant-garde stars, among them Smith, Henry Threadgill, Oliver Lake, Archie Shepp, Leroy Jenkins and Butch Morris.
Like those players, Ross likes to think outside the box. That was apparent during a recent Phantom Station gig at Manhattan’s Jazz Gallery. The group is purely off the cuff in both sound and lineup, so much so that Ross chuckles as he attempts to explain its aesthetic. “I’m the moving target,” he says. “I wanted to have revolving personnel and experiences that would be different each time—like, ‘Oh, OK, Brandon Ross is doing Phantom Station. What’s it gonna be this time?’”
On this night, Ross joined forces with Stomu Takeishi (his creative partner in For Living Lovers) on acoustic bass and amplified bass ukulele, Graham Haynes on trumpet and cornet, and Hardedge on electronics, creating dreamscapes that seemed to flutter in from another dimension. Switching from acoustic to electric to soprano guitar, Ross melded abstract passages and the occasional string-bending freakout into a space-jazzy drone shot through with soaring cornet, squelching electronics and thumping bass grooves.
“The electronics thing allows for wonderful possibilities,” he says of Phantom Station’s unusual instrumentation. “One of the things I like about Hardedge and his approach to sound design and not being a DJ is that it avails me of all these different colors from one source that wouldn’t necessarily be possible otherwise. The thing about Phantom Station is to leave your agenda at the ticket booth and come there and discover what’s going on. That’s why it’s invitational in that sense: It’s about who I know, who can handle that and actually create something.”
It’s surprising to learn that Ross didn’t start off playing guitar. “My first instrument, in the formal sense, was my singing voice,” he recalls. “I was in the Episcopal Church choir and sang soprano. That was something I truly loved. I must say I had a beautiful voice, but it flipped when my voice started changing, and I just got impatient.
“I was more into girls, Jimi Hendrix and Taj Mahal,” he adds with a laugh.
Ross grew up in a musical family in New Brunswick, N.J. The sounds of Dizzy Gillespie, Count Basie, Duke Ellington and Jimmy Smith filled his house, thanks in part to his dad being a jazz trombonist. Ross also studied that horn, though it wasn’t his instrument of choice. “[My dad] was teaching me how to play at the age of 4 or 5,” he says. “I was sort of lassoed into the school band—because nobody wanted to play trombone, including me—by the band director who knew my father and thought I was some possible prodigy because I knew all this stuff about the trombone.”
Eventually the trombone was abandoned, and when he was a fifth grader, Ross began sneaking into his older brother’s room to play his guitar. Blaring from his brother’s record player was Dizzy, Bird, Miles and Taj Mahal, but it was the music of Jimi Hendrix that proved to be a life-changer. “I still remember the first time I heard Are You Experienced,” Ross says. “I went into [my brother’s] room and I saw the cover of [the album] on top [of the turntable lid] and I was like, ‘Wow! What’s this?’ I opened the lid and it was on the turntable, and I put it on. I will never forget hearing that tritone at the beginning of ‘Purple Haze.’ It was just instant ‘Whoa!’”
Fast forward to Ross in his early 20s. Relocated to Massachusetts and taking his guitar cues from Jean-Paul Bourelly, Michael Gregory Jackson, James Blood Ulmer and Sonny Sharrock, he was spending his days “practicing guitar, drinking coffee and other kinds of infusions, and listening to the loft-jazz stuff that was going on.” Meanwhile, the doors of opportunity began to swing open. While living in Northampton, he had met saxophonist Marion Brown, who took Ross to Europe for his first professional tour. But he soon had an epiphany that inspired him to move again. “The thing that made me want to come down to New York was to play with Leroy Jenkins,” he says. “I heard his record with Rashied Ali”—1975’s Swift Are the Winds of Life—“and I was just in love with it.”
Jenkins ran an ad in the Village Voice for an improvisation workshop. Ross responded to it but didn’t have the money to pay the violinist, so the two worked out a deal: The fledgling guitarist would perform odd jobs in exchange for lessons. Upon hearing Ross play, Jenkins was impressed. As Ross recalls, “Leroy said, ‘Yeah, man, you play really well. There’s some things you gotta brush up on here and there, but come on in.’”
With Jenkins in his corner, Ross quickly became a wunderkind on the New York avant-garde jazz scene, scoring coveted slots in saxophonist Oliver Lake’s group and with the violinist. “His sound and his approach were the things that stood out primarily, and his high level of musicianship. So it was an immediate choice when he auditioned with me,” Lake recalls.
“Leroy’s workshop eventually led to him creating this ensemble called Sting,” Ross says. That was just two violins, two guitarists, bass and drums, and he asked me to be in that. This was in ’82 or so. I wound up being in two of the hottest bands in New York at the time.”
The subsequent years have yielded much fruit in the form of long runs with both Cassandra Wilson and Henry Threadgill (in two different bands led by the saxophonist, Very Very Circus and Make a Move), among many other collaborators. Ross has also led the fittingly named Blazing Beauty, making two beautifully arranged records, Costume (2004) and Puppet (2006), on which lush, folk-inflected melodies intersect with commanding technique—he even shows off his still-impressive voice on a few tunes. More recently, he showcased the sublime conversational rapport he shares with Takeishi on For Living Lovers’ Revealing Essence (2014).
But it’s Harriet Tubman, the cooperative powerhouse trio Ross formed two decades ago with bassist Melvin Gibbs and drummer JT Lewis, that’s arguably his pinnacle. Over the course of four albums since 1998, Harriet Tubman has channeled Sharrock, John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman, creating a spiritual and politically charged fusion of heavy rock and free jazz that’s emblazoned with the Downtown-NYC spirit. “In Harriet Tubman, we don’t necessarily have discussions and say, ‘OK, we’re gonna do this,’” Ross explains. “The beauty of Harriet Tubman is we just walked into a room 20 years ago and started playing.”
“The thing about Brandon’s playing is, you can almost call him a guitar anti-hero,” Gibbs says. “He’s not interested in the usual signifiers of guitar prowess.”
Twenty-eighteen is yet another busy year for Ross. There are plans for Harriet Tubman to enter the studio to record a followup to 2017’s Araminta (which featured Wadada Leo Smith as a guest), and a Phantom Station record is also in the works. “At the moment, I’m interested in Wadada’s thing lately, which is about ‘create,’” Ross notes. “Harriet Tubman played with him up in New Haven at his CREATE Festival [in April]. He had a score for a piece in a section we were looking at, and on this page it said, ‘Create.’ It didn’t say, ‘Improvise.’ And that’s more accurate, actually, because to my way of seeing that word, it’s like, ‘OK. What are you going to create?’ You are responsible for what happens next. What are you going to do with that responsibility and that liberty that you’ve been given?” That’s a challenge Brandon Ross is certain to take up.