Islanders will have a chance to see a fast-rising star in the jazz world, when 23-year-old vibraphone virtuoso Joel Ross brings his ensemble, Good Vibes, to a performance at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Oct. 18, at Vashon Center for the Arts.
The performance is part of a series of three Earshot Jazz Festival performances currently rolling out at the arts center, and the latest stop on a busy tour for Ross of major West Coast jazz venues throughout October.
It all comes on the heels of rhapsodic press for Ross’ debut album with Good Vibes, “KingMaker,” released earlier this year on Blue Note Records. Ross has also won acclaim for work as a session player on other recent albums put out by Makaya McCraven, Walter Smith III and Matthew Stevens, James Francies and Marquis Hill.
In a review for National Public Radio, music critic and New York Times jazz writer Nate Chinen called Ross “the breakout star of the moment,” adding that during his performances, Ross seemed to “slip free of standard cognitive functions and into a bodacious flow state.”
Chinen also praised the deep emotional expression of Ross’s compositions, many of which are influenced by people in his life, including his parents, his twin brother and a niece.
Ross, in a phone interview from his home in Brooklyn, said that he was taking the current demands of his touring schedule in stride, responding calmly when asked how he would manage to play an evening concert in California on Oct. 23 and make it back to New York City in time to play at a jazz festival the following night.
“I’m not worried about it,” he said. “Luckily, I can fall asleep in any moving vehicle.”
Ross reflected, instead, on his biggest pleasures at this moment of lift-off for his music career.
The best part of his life, he said, was being able to play with his own band, whose members he described as all being exceptional musicians in their own right. Players in Good Vibes include Immanuel Wilkins on alto saxophone, Jeremy Corren on piano, Kanoa Mendenhall on bass and Jeremy Dutton on drums.
The ensemble, he said, was developing and trying out new songs during their current tour, even as they also played selections from “KingMaker.” The group will record a second album in December, he said.
At the age of 23, Ross could be considered a jazz wunderkind, but in fact, he has already spent his whole life playing music.
Ross is from the south side of Chicago, where he was raised by supportive parents who were both police officers. The family also included three sisters. But perhaps most importantly, Ross had a built-in collaborator from birth — a twin brother, who is also a talented musician.
By the time they were three-year-olds, the brothers were given small drum sets by their parents and later enlisted to play in their church band, which their father directed for a time.
Ross described his bond with his twin as a completely non-competitive and nurturing force in his development as a musician.
“I would say it felt so normal and natural as we’ve gone through life together,” Ross said. “It made sense we got into music together — if one of us had a musical idea the other could help figure it out. It was an unspoken form of teamwork.”
According to a biography posted on iplayvibes.com, Ross only started playing the vibraphone after he and his twin joined the school band at age 10, and Ross realized his brother was the better drummer. Switching instruments at that pivotal moment, Ross was set on a course that eventually led him to study at the Jazz Institute of Chicago and the Chicago High School for the Arts, the first public school of its kind in the city.
Those opportunities cascaded into others, including a stint for Ross to join other talented high school students from around the country at the Thelonious Monk Institute of Arts, where he got to jam with Herbie Hancock.
Ross said that his cohorts from his high school days have continued to inform his life and career.
“We may not all play the same style, but the opportunities that we got and the connections that we made have developed these long-lasting relationships and friendships,” Ross said.
After high school, Ross was invited to try out for the Brubeck Institute Jazz Quintet at the University of the Pacific in Nor Cal and began two years of intensive study with his first dedicated vibraphone teacher, Stefon Harris. From there, he transferred to New York City’s New School and formed his band, Good Vibes, featuring his favorite players he had met at camps, contests and classes along the way.
More recently, he has found time to play again with his twin brother, who he invited to New York to sit in as a drummer with some of his favorite players.
But despite Ross’s relentless track through childhood to his current acclaim, he still finds time to be reflective, especially when he is composing music.
“I’m a very sensitive and emotional person, so I feel things from different situations,” Ross said. “If I am purposely trying to write music I sit at the piano or drums, and I improvise around [those feelings] … it can be a quick thing that I need to get down immediately, or it can take more time.”