Chops: Jamison Ross on Singing Behind the Kit

How exactly does Thelonious Monk Competition winner pull double duty as drummer and vocalist?

Jamison Ross (photo: Elton Anderson)
Jamison Ross (photo: Elton Anderson)

Winner of the 2012 Thelonious Monk Competition for Drums, Floridian Jamison Ross has recorded two albums of soulfully swinging jazz that feature both his in-the-pocket drumming and sweet, R&B-crooning vocals. A recent appearance at New York’s Jazz Standard found him directing the rhythm from his kit while singing over his fiery quartet like a contemporary Jackie Wilson.

“I’m not a trained singer, it just came upon me,” the 32-year-old Ross said after the gig, acknowledging that as a youth he sang in church and with his family, “but drums were always my first interest. I also played piano in my grandfather’s church, then in college I played bass gigs. I toured with Jon Batiste playing all of that.”

At Jazz Standard, Ross delivered vocals that were as velvety as ice cream, yet his drumming remained firm and swinging. “Because I’m singing and playing drums, I can control the feeling of the tune,” he noted. “When it comes to tempo, dynamics, phrasing, and orchestration, I can completely change the way the band plays. It really commands the band. I don’t have to say anything to let [them] know where we’re going because my drumming and singing determines the shape of the music.”

For Ross, it’s not enough just to master rudiments and solid time; he’s also become skilled at pairing those drumming elements to his singing.

“Breathing was the biggest challenge,” he said. “Because drums require a physical approach, there’s a physical thing that must happen to keep yourself calm. When your drumming demands greater dexterity and speed, you don’t want to overpower your voice. A certain balance must happen where you control your breathing while you’re singing. It’s almost like practicing not having breath, but still executing with your hands.

“Sometimes I’ll sing a long note while playing a drum fill, and then I have to really focus,” he continued. “It has to be in tune, in pitch, but I also need to play a fill to cue the band. Sometimes I sing with a more rhythmic perspective and play less drums, but I have to keep the time, which requires another focus. I’m growing in all these things.”

What should be avoided altogether while simultaneously singing and drumming? “When the drumming becomes technically difficult, I can’t sing,” Ross replied. “There was a moment at Jazz Standard where I was really digging in on the drums, so I stopped singing. When the fills require 16ths or 32nds, you won’t hear me singing. You want to make sure the drumming is accurate. Even if it’s easy to play, it might not be easy to play and sing together. Maybe in 10 years you’ll see me holding the note and playing some outlandish drums under that.”

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Like such great singing drummers as Levon Helm, Karen Carpenter, Roger Taylor, and Buddy Miles, Ross sometimes lets the rhythm rule.

“I get to the magic moments when the drums follow the exact rhythm of what I’m singing,” he said. “So if I’m singing, ‘United we stand, divided we fall’ and I play a beat in unison with the phrases I’m singing, it can be magical. Then I can completely abandon the time and get a little bit free with it. That’s when I get into my Dannie Richmond/Andrew Cyrille vibe, or like Elvin Jones with Sam Cooke’s voice over the top.”

Ross’ 2015 debut album, Jamison, and his latest, All for One (both Concord), showcase his growing control of the dual leader role. He’s determined to ramp up his sound for his third album. But challenges remain.

“I’m a stickler about pitch, so I’ve been using in-ear monitors to hear my voice a little clearer while drumming,” he said. “But sometimes even that’s tough. So I’m going back and forth between using in-ear monitors and stage monitors. It’s very loud behind the drums. Being in tune with my voice while playing drums is something that I have to pay very close attention to.”

To achieve the ultimate drum/vocal mind-meld, Ross suggested breathing exercises—and something rather Zen-like.

“Separate the vocals from the drumming,” he explained. “Sometimes you’ll sing something that may be completely against what you’re drumming. Slow it down and embrace how the muscles are working together: the voice, the limbs, your heart rate, embrace all of it. As long as the time feels like it’s moving and it’s settled, it doesn’t matter if it’s rushing or dragging. Practicing to a click track is great, but a click track sometimes can completely scare you away from making music. When you’re learning how to sing and play the drums, you need to understand everything as a moving train and embrace the feeling of all the muscles working together, and let them flow out together.”

Ken Micallef

Ken Micallef was once a jazz drummer; then he found religion and began writing about jazz rather than performing it. (He continues to air-drum jazz rhythms in front of his hi-fi rig and various NYC bodegas.) His reportage has appeared in Time Out, Modern Drummer, DownBeat, Stereophile, and Electronic Musician. Ken is the administrator of Facebook’s popular Jazz Vinyl Lovers group, and he reviews vintage jazz recordings on YouTube as Ken Micallef Jazz Vinyl Lover.