Joel Ross : Kingmaker

I find it hard to find “new” jazz artists. Not because there aren’t any worthy of my time and ears, but because I just don’t know where to look. When you have such a vast and expansive search pile as the history of Blue Note, Impulse, and Prestige Records over the last 70 years, getting to today’s current crew could be next to impossible. Fortunately music has a way of finding me. Kamasi Washington, Mark Turner, Makaya McCraven, and James Francis have all found their way into my ears and brain over the last couple of years. The spirit of 60s and 70s jazz does indeed live on.

Vibraphonist Joel Ross recently made his way into my head with his debut Blue Note Records release Kingmaker. The Chicago-born, Brooklyn-based 23-year old musician has guested on several incredible albums and showed his amazing talent, but on his debut album as a leader he shows just how powerful of a composer he is. Bringing to mind everyone from Ornette Coleman to Keith Jarrett to Freddie Hubbard to Bobby Hutcherson, Ross makes a debut of personal depth and emotional engagement. Kingmaker is simply exquisite.

The album opens with the opus “Touched By An Angel”. A 10-minute journey that goes from dream-like to emotionally rapturous. Ross’ quintet, dubbed Good Vibes, includes Immanuel Wilkins on alto saxophone, Jeremy Corren on piano, Benjamin Tiberio on bass, and Jeremy Dutton on drums. Ross and his crew are tight and build an immaculate sonic world for us to explore, and this is truly a stunning world to be in. By contrast, “Prince Lynn’s Twin” is playful and dissonant at times, bringing to mind the idiosyncratic genius of Thelonious Monk and Eric Dolphy. Another display of Ross’ writing prowess is the groovy and bass-heavy “Ill Relations”. I could see the city streets of Chicago’s south side where Ross grew up influencing this amazing track.

Kingmaker is an album filled with amazing moments and future jazz standards. One of those is the slow motion beauty of “Yana”. Filled with meticulous syncopation, gorgeous piano, and Ross’ grand vibraphone, “Yana” almost feels like the next phase of jazz. It’s grounded in the classics, but seems to find this space outside the atmosphere of jazz to find new life. There’s also a mesmerizing vocal on “Freda’s Disposition” featuring the haunting voice of Gretchen Parlato.

From the almost baroque beauty of “Grey” to the dreamy title track “Kingmaker” to the pick up groove of “It’s Already Too Late”, Joel Ross proves himself as one of the most competent, engaging, and forward-thinking jazz artists working today. At only 23, he’s built up a lifetime of accolades. I’m excited to see where he goes next. Kingmaker is brilliant.

8.8 out of 10

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