On his debut album Kingmaker, vibraphonist Joel Ross dedicated the title track to his mother and several other tracks to different members of his family. The then-24-year-old rising star stated his familial and musical roots through a smart synthesis of moody slow-jam harmony and winding contemporary-jazz melody. Now an established force, Ross uses his sophomore album less as a statement of personal identity and more as a series of experiments in where he wants his music to go. He’s asking who he is as a bandleader, composer, and instrumentalist.
Although Ross leads in the record alone for the first bars of the lullaby-like “Dream,” his Good Vibes band doesn’t truly cease to be in motion for the rest of the program. The music pulses naturally as the rhythm section continually riffs, always pushing the music forward and upward, even during solos, such as Ross’ on “Home.” As he splashes a battery of metallic colors across the air, drummer Jeremy Dutton constantly varies his fills to match the peaks and valleys of the mallets’ intensity. Bassist Kanoa Mendenhall keeps the tempo buoyant while pianist Jeremy Corren creates an elastic but tense foundation that Ross moves along. By the time Immanuel Wilkins rejoins with the melody on sax, you could be forgiven for thinking all five musicians were improvising the entire thing.
Part of this relaxed yet intricate weave comes from the mix, which emphasizes all players equally. Though Ross, Wilkins, and others certainly take solos, they are often understated. Hear how Ross’ solo on “Waiting on a Solemn Reminiscence” subtly unfolds from the group and at times sounds more like it’s competing with the sharp strikes of Dutton’s sticks on the kit.
On Who Are You? Joel Ross asks all those who practice “social music,” as Miles Davis called it, what it means to practice such music now, and how it can become a more democratic force.