Planning this, his fourth album as leader on Blue Note, Joel Ross set out to connect with a wider audience, to make things a little easier for listeners. The vibraphonist and composer says that, with hindsight, his previous work for the label has been too focused on the musicians in his band and rife with devices such as time and tempo changes which may have limited appeal for lay listeners. Thinking about the album during pandemic-enforced social isolation, Ross says that the idea of communion with a wider base became increasingly attractive.
Crucially, Ross has succeeded in this without dumbing anything down. The music is still grown-up and innovative but is injected with a heightened admixture of melodicism, balladeering and, as the album title suggests, the blues. The result is cerebral yet soulful, with enough depth to keep even the most demanding of Ross' existing aficionados tuned in. Check out the title track on the YouTube below.
Nublues, a double disc, has ten tracks. Seven of the tunes are Ross originals, three are covers: John Coltrane's "Equinox" and "Central Park West" and Thelonious Monk's "Evidence." There are shorter tracks lasting less than three minutes, and longer ones lasting between eight and eleven. Thought has clearly been given to their sequencing. The three tracks featuring Garo, for instance, make up the second side of the first LP, while a carefree "Central Park West," lasting less than five minutes, is the only track on the fourth side. Ross wanted to end the album with the tune's lush melodicism and was it seems unwilling to include another fifteen or so minutes of filler material simply to pad things out.
Ross and Wilkins take most of the solos, though Corren offers a striking one, with an echo of McCoy Tyner, on "Ya Know?" Blues sensibility, not necessarily accompanied by conventional blues structure, is the defining sound of most tracks, but contrast is provided by others: the hymn-like "Bach (God The Father In Eternity)," where Ross plays a modern-day counterpoint to Wilkins' exposition of a theme which could have been written in the 17th century, and "Mellowdee," a lovely blend of ballad and blues marked by Wilkins' broken-note phrases and ascending glissandos. The final minutes of "Equinox" and "Evidence" feature real-time loops, spontaneously created by the band says Ross, in which a motif from the theme is repeated in dizzying whirligig fashion.
In November 2023, Ross was part of the Makaya McCraven band which gave London the most memorable concert performance of the jazz year (see review here). With Nublues, he offers a great start to 2024.
Early; Equinox; Mellowdee; Chant; What Am I Waiting For; Bach (God The Father In Eternity); No Blues; Ya Know?; Evidence; Central Park West.
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Chris May is a senior editor of All About Jazz. He was previously the editor of the pioneering magazine Black Music & Jazz Review, and more recently editor of the style / culture / history magazine Jocks & Nerds.