Joel Ross: KingMaker (Blue Note)

A review of the vibraphonist's debut album

KingMaker by Joel Ross
The cover of KingMaker by Joel Ross

The balance of handsome melody and harmony with fractured rhythm on KingMaker augurs exciting things from 23-year-old vibraphonist Joel Ross. Actually, it is exciting in itself. The album is Ross’ debut, after previous high-profile appearances with drummer Makaya McCraven and pianist James Francies. Like those two young pioneers, he’s got a terrific concept in the offing.

Regard, for example, the title track. It exploits the vibes’ inherently gauzy, dreamy character, with Ross’ Good Vibes band (alto saxophonist Immanuel Wilkins, pianist Jeremy Corren, bassist Benjamin Tiberio, drummer Jeremy Dutton) intensifying that core trait, strengthening it into a gorgeous full-on waltz, then collapsing it into shambolic free-funk that slowly reincorporates the waltz form. It’s a remarkable, and remarkably organic, six-minute journey.

The rest of the album never quite replicates that richness, but it comes close. Tunes like “Touched by an Angel,” “Ill Relations,” and “With Whom Do You Learn Trust” focus on solid melodies but also display a stunning rhythmic sleight of hand from Ross and Dutton. “The Grand Struggle Against Fear” hides some beats here and there as well, but more pointedly has Ross, Tiberio, and Corren rendering beautiful changes and internal harmonies. (Wilkins asserts himself as the emotional release near the track’s close.) There’s room for delicate explorations too, in the cool experimentalism of “Grey” and the sumptuous warmth of “Freda’s Disposition,” with a guest turn from vocalist Gretchen Parlato. (Who better to evoke delicacy?)

Not since Stefon Harris’ arrival 20 years ago has the jazz world heard a young vibraphonist intent on exploring so many dimensions. KingMaker shows us a player deeply versed in the jazz vibes tradition who’s also internalized the atmospherics of ECM and EDM as surely as he has the grooves of hip-hop and M-Base. On his first recording, Ross oozes potential.

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Michael J. West

Michael J. West is a jazz journalist in Washington, D.C. In addition to his work on the national and international jazz scenes, he has been covering D.C.’s local jazz community since 2009. He is also a freelance writer, editor, and proofreader, and as such spends most days either hunkered down at a screen or inside his very big headphones. He lives in Washington with his wife and two children.