Joel Ross, Lauded Young Vibraphonist, Excels On Blue Note Debut 'KingMaker' The vibraphonist has a "love-hate relationship" with his instrument that has been helpful in perfecting his craft — but it wouldn't mean much without the deep emotional well he pulls from.

Joel Ross And His (Exceptionally) Good Vibes

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All right. If you're a jazz fan, you may have heard the name Joel Ross before. The 23-year-old vibraphonist has been turning heads on the jazz scene ever since he moved to New York as a music student four years ago. Now he has released his debut album. It is called "KingMaker." And Nate Chinen from Jazz Night In America and member station WBGO reports the title might not be too far off.

NATE CHINEN, BYLINE: The first thing that's likely to grab you about Joel Ross is the force of his attack.


CHINEN: He's a vibraphonist who leans hard into the percussive qualities of his instrument, jackhammering notes and complex patterns against a swirling groove.


CHINEN: Ross grew up on the South Side of Chicago, where both his parents were police officers. He has a twin, and they both started out playing drums in their Baptist church. His brother was the better drummer, which is one reason Ross turned to mallet percussion - first xylophone, then marimba and vibraphone, which has bars made of metal instead of wood and a motor that can add vibrato to the notes. In a few short years, he's become the hot young vibraphonist. But he says it's actually his least favorite instrument.

JOEL ROSS: I have a love-hate relationship with the vibraphone. I've always been small, and it's always been larger than me (laughter). It's cold metal bars, and it's really hard to get expression out of it. That's the challenge. So that's how I come at it - it's a challenge.


CHINEN: Ross grew up listening to jazz, but not necessarily jazz vibraphone. He says he's always gravitated more to the sound of Miles Davis and John Coltrane, who literally used breath in their playing and developed tight bands.

ROSS: I want to play around the world with my friends. But also, I really want to develop something with a band. That's what Miles and 'Trane (ph) inspired. You know, they were playing a bunch and really got to a band sound. And I want to get to the highest form of communication that a band can get to.

CHINEN: Ross pushes this idea to the fore on his debut album. It's a proud statement of arrival, showcasing not only his smart compositions but also his working band, Good Vibes.


CHINEN: "KingMaker" is a signal flare for a jazz generation just hitting its stride. Ross and his bandmates, including saxophonist Immanuel Wilkins and drummer Jeremy Dutton, are all in their early 20s. They share an understanding of a jazz tradition that's wide open to outside influence, with no single path forward.

ROSS: With this generation, I feel like we're all doing such different things now. I don't even know if we'd say we have a common goal, but it seems like the common goal is to specifically express what you feel like expressing. That seems to be the thing.

CHINEN: For his part, Ross draws on the rhythmic clarity of Milt Jackson - the bebop titan of the instrument, best known as one-fourth of the Modern Jazz Quartet - and his own studies with Stefon Harris, who helped bring the vibraphone into the 21st century.


CHINEN: In their solos, Ross and his bandmates often push their expressive output into the red. But they're also respectful of melody, seeking to connect emotionally with listeners.

ROSS: It's not so much the what, it's the why. You know, I feel like the audience - whether you're swinging, tipping or playing some in 30/13 - you know, it's like, if the intent is honest and strong enough, you know, I feel like they'll understand why you're doing it even if they don't know what it is. They could feel something. Whether they liked it or not was a different story, but they could - you could feel something. And that's what I want. I want just to put out something that people can feel.


CHINEN: "KingMaker" is an auspicious debut for Joel Ross, but it's also just a marker. He's already composed a lot of other new music for ensembles big and small. And he's definitely going to keep pushing himself on the vibraphone, as he strives to make it sing.

For NPR News, I'm Nate Chinen.


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