Vibraphonist Joel Ross set the tone at Telluride Jazz Fest
By D. Dion
There’s always that one act at a festival that you’re really excited about, and for me, it was Joel Ross and his band Good Vibes. Growing up with a brother who was an adept percussionist, I fell in love with the tinkling resonance of the vibraphone, its unique way of carrying a melody. So I zeroed in on Joel Ross, who Blue Note called “the most thrilling new vibraphonist in America,” and he exceeded all expectations.
They played the entire set without a break, not even between songs, save for a quick introduction of his bandmates; it all flowed together like some kind of jazz symphony, one long fluid song that changed mood and tempo and melody. It was beautiful and mesmerizing. I don’t think drummer Jeremy Dutton opened his eyes once during the entire set, he was so immersed in the vibe. “There’s no set list,” explained Ross. Instead, they memorize all the melodies and compositions and just move between them, playfully manipulating and improvising. “We try to maintain some type of groove.”
Ross is based in New York now, but grew up in Chicago, and he and his twin brother Josh started on drums at age two, playing in church. At age ten, in school band, he began playing more with mallet instruments and his brother went into snare drum, bass drum, and even timpani. “He had perfect pitch,” says Ross, “so he could tune the drum.”
It wasn’t until he auditioned for the all-city jazz band and at the “strong insistence” of his father and the percussion instructor that he started to play vibes. “I’ve been doing it ever since then.”
They opened their Sunday set with a John Coltrane composition, “After the Rain,” which was blissfully apt. It had rained for most of the first two days of the festival, but on Sunday, the monsoons subsided long enough for the sun to soak the crowd and unveil the mountains surrounding the stage. The second song, “Equinox,” was also by Coltraine, but the rest were originals. The last one they played, said Ross, was written by his partner Gabrielle Garo, an accomplished flute and saxophone player.
As the bandleader, it’s up to Ross to guide the ensemble through each change, present the new melody and let the musicians find room to solo or improvise while keeping the flow through each piece. Onstage, he was all business, just as swept up in the music as the audience, almost like a trance, waiting and feeling for the next movement. But backstage, he was smiling and laughing, trying to explain how the process works—how something so organic can seem so choreographed. “It’s melody-based. We cue each other by leaving space, or just a look. Or when I finish I’ll quote the melody, or the melody of the next song to go into something else. If it doesn’t work,” he shrugs his shoulders and grins, “maybe try again.”
Joel Ross released “Parable of the Poet” (Blue Note), with an eight-piece ensemble in April 2022. Ross says this ensemble, Good Vibes, getting ready to record again in September.