Presented by the Wisconsin Union Directorate, Chicago-born vibraphonist Joel Ross and his quintet Good Vibes performed on Oct. 16 in Memorial Union's intimate Play Circle. The ensemble features tenor saxophonist Sergio Tabanico, bassist Kanoa Mendenhall, pianist Jeremy Corren, drummer Jeremy Dutton and, of course, vibraphonist Joel Ross himself.
Ross and quintet released their Blue Note debut album KingMaker in 2019, a critically acclaimed record following the heels of his already-notable presence on other ambitious and intrepid records, including Makaya McCraven's 2018 Universal Beings. Three years later Ross still stakes his own artistic space in jazz, producing a string of memorable and distinct albums. Who Are You?, his 2020 sophomore release, carries a quality of movement and intensity from beginning to end while simultaneously retaining a contemporary and personal flair upon which he expands on his 2022 record, The Parable of the Poet.
The Play Circle in which Ross and his quintet performed features a warm yet sharp, luminous assortment of lights that cast a glowing aura on stage. There's an advantage to hearing Ross in this setting and atmosphere: it almost renders the music itself into a shimmering of color, a kind of ethereal visual element in the performance.
Ross didn’t interject his set or separate his pieces. Rather, the quintet performs nearly uninterrupted for the whole hour and a half, as if ferrying us somewhere, letting sound venture into itself — into its emotional lulls and heavings. The music, then, becomes self-revelatory not just in its adherence to continuity but also to flux, to constantly shifting in search of a shared emotional space.
"I like for the band itself to be autonomous," Ross told the Daily Cardinal. "It's not just me deciding what happens, but [rather] it's truly improvised in the sense that anybody can decide what the energy or how the interpretation is gonna go."
Ross' own role as bandleader and composer, in turn, seems much less dogmatic than collaborative, which transfers to the performance a sense of eased or relaxed dynamic. Ross himself even slips away from the stage entirely at points, leaving his vibraphone to take a swig of water during Corren's piano solo, for instance. In the solemn second movement, Tabanico's breathy tenor wisps blend like breezes in the textural space. Mendenhall's bass pulsates beneath the band like a motor, accompanied by Dutton's drums driving odd meters and punching and snapping like jolts.
Group cohesion or uniformity doesn't deprive the improvisation of individual power, though. On solos, the rest of the band seems to fade and cease completely, centering the artist’s divulgence or musical intimations in the amplified silence. Moments like these seem to contract the distance between artist and listener. It’s like we’re being pulled into the inner musical space, like we’re listening in on some numinous secret or something.
So, it wouldn’t be a stretch to say, then, that Ross’ music bears a very personal spiritual dimension. His music is a kind of ministry.
“My twin brother and I grew up playing music in the church. That was always the form of ministry we were associated with,” Ross said.
There’s an obvious gospel influence in much of Ross’ music, evidenced by both his melodic vocabulary and even more so by his group-driven approach to improvisation. The very term “jazz” itself, then, seems to operate as secondary to a deeper, connective element of music.
At least from an artistic perspective, jazz seems to be a mode of conveyance for a more human or spiritual purpose.
“I’ve always wanted to maintain sharing music even in what we know as the ‘jazz idiom,’ one [which] I don’t feel is so disconnected [from] R&B and Gospel, which are hand in hand in and of itself,” Ross explained.
Ross used the term “jazz idiom” not in a purely musical context but in service of a universal language freed of any genre-specific constraints. And that language – music – even seems to map personal revelation, beyond just artistic maturity.
“I’ve gotten to know myself as a composer and band leader,” he said. “[But] also the spirit of the music and the spirit of my faith and how that intersects into the music has become more apparent as I’ve figured out myself and my growth as a person in general.”
Before attending his performance or even just interviewing him, I suspected Ross’ name for his band – “Good Vibes” – was just that: an offhand moniker that simply stuck around and became a thing. But I was curious. I needed either confirmation or explanation.
“Why ‘Good Vibes?’ What does it mean?” I asked.
“It’s just a pun. I don’t know. I’m so laid back or nonchalant to the point of sarcasm,” he laughed. “I’m not gonna say it’s sarcastic, but it’s more so that I play the vibraphone. It’s easy, but it’s also honest. And it’s good to have a name. It’s more memorable.”
And yet, “Good Vibes” seems much less a totally flippant note than an earnest affirmation of music’s deeply human and spiritual force. But either way, the name’s fitting. It’s just good vibes, really.
Kai W. Li is an Arts Editor at The Daily Cardinal covering music, visual arts, and film. Follow him on Twitter at @kaijuneli.