Sacramento-based guitarist Ross Hammond has been steadily gaining attention, courtesy of a tireless performing schedule reinforced and documented by a series of diverse albums issued on his own Prescott Recordings imprint. Hammond's releases have featured a variety of instrumental lineups, ranging from lyrical solo recitals to frenetic collective improvisations. His most recent endeavor is Cathedrals (Prescott Recordings, 2013), the sophomore follow-up to Adored (Prescott Recordings), the 2012 debut of his all- star quartet, which found the young guitarist leading an all-star band of esteemed veterans including multi-instrumentalist Vinny Golia, bassist Steuart Liebig and drummer Alex Cline.
Featuring the same personnel, the ensemble explores a variety of styles throughout the new album, seamlessly transitioning between the furious post-bop of "This Goes with Your Leather" and the sinuous funk that underpins "Hopped Up on Adrenaline" to the bluesy anthem at the core of "Run, Run Ibex!" and the serene closing ballad "Goodnight Lola." Throughout the date, Hammond's tuneful melodies and memorable themes evince a wide-ranging aesthetic equally informed by jazz and rock, evoking a harmonious West Coast sensibility removed from the urbane conceptualism favored by many of his East Coast brethren.
Buoyed by the stellar contributions of his illustrious sidemen, Hammond's quartet once again strikes an organic balance between the accessible and the avant-garde, offering curious listeners an opportunity to discover the work of an artist who deserves far greater recognition.
All About Jazz: Perhaps a little background is in order for readers unfamiliar with your work. Can you describe how you began playing the guitar and what led you to jazz improvisation?
Ross Hammond: I started playing guitar in junior high school, although I didn't really become interested in it until I was about 15 or 16. I joined my first band then, and we were terrible. We weren't able to get through a single song, but it was a thrill just attempting it. One of the best musical moments I've had was jamming in a friend's basement after school and hearing all of the music we were attempting come together for the first time. It was an "Aha!" kind of moment, and after that I was hooked.
I played in our high-school jazz band, which honestly was so horrendous it's a wonder that any of us had any interest in jazz or music after that. I played in that group because I wanted to learn some new chords and play with some of my friends, but I was definitely still into rock and blues back then. I didn't really get into jazz and improvised music until later. I had always wanted to be a guitarist but never realized what that meant musically. I certainly didn't think "I want to be an improvising guitarist" back then because I didn't even know what that was. I think I was more into trying to be Billy Corgan or Stone Gossard back then.
When I was in college, I took lessons from a really great player named Jim Beeler. I started with the intent to learn Band of Gypsies and Freddie King, and he began introducing me to stuff like Kenny Burrell, Mark Whitfield, Grant Green and Wes Montgomery. I remember Jim let me take home a stack of his albums so I could record them to cassette. I was probably 19 years old. One of those records was Jimmy Smith and Wes Montgomery's Dynamic Duo record (Verve, 1966), and that just floored me. I wore that cassette out. I had no idea what they were doing, or what the songs were or what the harmonies were, or anything like that. I just loved the sound. It was one of those things that just hit me at the right age. I was pretty impressionable then as a musician. I remember playing in a funk band and trying to do Wes Montgomery octaves and just slowly adding stuff to my palette. That was a fun time.
When I was in school, I was really interested in studying the history of the Civil Rights Movement. I was into a lot of films and books about the equality struggle, and I remember being in a record store in Sacramento and seeing Black Unity (Impulse, 1971) by Pharoah Sanders. I bought it on a whim because I liked the title and thought it was cool that the whole disc was one big track. I didn't know Pharaoh's work yet, although I had some straight-ahead John Coltrane records. So I'd say if there was one record that defined what sound I wanted to pursue, it was that one. I was 20 years old, and I remember putting that CD on at home and being completely blown away. It was unlike anything I'd ever heard, and honestly it's still unlike anything else. There was this raw power and volume and energy, but there was also this sick sense of groove and pulse, and it's what started me off. I never looked back after that.
I never really studied jazz in school. I took a few classes in college on general theory and took a lot of lessons from different teachers. But mostly my studies came from playing with a lot of musicians and listening to a lot of records. In time, I studied up on things like sight-reading and chordal harmony and arranging, et cetera. But none of that came from formal academia. It was more from listening to players and trying to figure out what they're doing.
AAJ: As indicated by your discography, your interests are fairly diverse, yet your work always maintains a sense of stylistic unity, whether exploring lush folk ballads or angular post-bop swingers. How do you seamlessly incorporate the idiomatic differences native to each particular genre into such cohesive projects?
RH: Oftentimes I'll start new projects with folks who share a common interest. For example, The Revival Trio (with Vanessa Cruz and Shawn Hale) started last year because we wanted to play jazz that was open but based on African rhythms and song forms. Lovely Builders (with Scott Amendola) comes out of a mutual love for jazz, rock, folk songs, et cetera. However, my intent is to always sound like me. I don't want to try sound like Ali Farka Toure when I'm attempting to play African Music because that would be a giant experiment resulting in failure. To me, an improviser has to develop their repertoire and then be able to use it to settle into as many musical situations as possible. Whether I'm playing with a folk singer, a jazz quartet or with a guy who has strapped a guitar to the bottom of his shoes and is walking around the room with it, I need to bring my voice to any situation.
AAJ: Have you ever played with anyone who strapped a guitar to the bottom of his shoes or, for that matter, anything equally experimental?
RH: Yes, I've played a lot of experimental music with different artists (Phillip Greenlief, Wes Steed, Rent Romus, Ruben Reveles, Steve Adams, Kevin Corcoran and others). Most of that has either been in the electronic or free-improvisation realm, oftentimes both. That's all part of the improvisation experience, and I think playing in as many different situations as possible makes you a better improviser.
As for the guitar shoes, I made that up. But that's an idea!
AAJ: In regard to your current project, Cathedrals is the sophomore follow-up to Adored, the recording debut of your quartet with multi-instrumentalist Vinny Golia, bassist Steuart Liebig and drummer Alex Cline. Considering you're the youngest of the four members, how did this all-star quartet come about?
RH: I first met Vinny in 2008. He came up to Sacramento to play a concert series I was curating at a long-forgotten venue called The Cool Cat Gallery. He played a solo set and then sat in with a group that I was in with saxophonist Tony Passarell. After that, Vinny came up later that summer to play a festival that I programmed called the In The Flow Festival. That was the first year of In The Flow, and Vinny played in a trio with Damon Smith and Weasel Walter. After that, we played a gig together at the Palms Playhouse in Winters, California with drummer Tom Monson. Then we started playing on gigs together both in the Sacramento area and in Los Angeles.
On one of those gigs, we played with drummer Alex Cline at the Eagle Rock Center for the Arts. I sent Alex a message introducing myself and asked if he'd like to play with us. That video is on YouTube, actually. We just played as a trio and improvised for an hour. It was a pretty fun night, and any time you play with those guys, you just try to hold onto the wave. A month or so later, Steuart Liebig came up and played at a weekly series that I curate in Sacramento at Luna's Cafe.
I started booking LA gigs with those guys as a quartet. We did a couple of shows at Eagle Rock and the Blue Whale, but we weren't playing any songs or structures. Everything was free. It was great because the group could improvise with one another really well from the start, so then it was easy to write music for that band. The improvisation is the foundation, if you will. After a few gigs like that, we recorded Adored at Wayne Peet's studio in Los Angeles in late 2011.
AAJ: In light of the members' combined experiences, how do personal and stylistic dynamics shape the inner workings of the group?
RH: Well, let me start by saying those guys are three locomotives. I feel like it's a dream playing in a band with them. All of them transcend their instruments, and it's probably the best learning experience I'll ever have. Now, as you can imagine, the songs can get away from us rather quickly, especially live. So how to write and present music that caters to the band but still tells the story I want toldthat's the tricky part. I remember we played a version of "She's My Little Girl" (from Adored) at The Blue Whale last year, and it transformed into a free-blowing, high-energy piece. That song originally started as a lullaby for my daughter's naps, but sometimes when we're in the moment the spirit takes over. Maybe that was a power ballad.
But as for communicating with the group; I have a lot of the same interests that Vinny and Alex do. If I ask them about a live Ornette Coleman recording or an Archie Shepp concert or something, they'll not only know it but there's a good chance one of them was there when it happened. Knowing that background is there makes it rather easy to describe what I want to make happen when we're recording. If I tell Vinny he has to come into the piece playing like an elephant, he can do that, and he knows what I mean. And Steuart can groove on anything, so that's nice.
AAJ: As the principal writer, did you compose any of the tunes specifically for these particular players, or are they more skeletal in conception?
RH: Most of Adored featured songs written for my daughter. I find that since becoming a parent, a lot of the creative process starts with things we sing around the house or dances we do, stories we tell, et cetera. That's what keeps the music personal to me. That being said, bringing simple folk songs like "Adored" in to record is funny because I was expecting to blow those folky tunes into the stratosphere. The music on that album wasn't really written for the players, but the execution of the music couldn't have been done without them.
On Cathedrals, it was a little different. I wrote pieces specifically for the band. I have a thing about projects in that I don't mix my music between different groups. I won't really play any of those songs with a Sacramento group, or vice versa. It feels inauthentic to me.
The music on Cathedrals relies on a lot of informal counterpoint. Vinny and I play these specifically woven melodies and combine them with Steuart's line. After playing and recording with the band on the first album, the second batch of songs was easier to write with these players in mind.
AAJ: "Telescoping," from the new record, is a good example of how malleable the group's approach is to such written material, with its vacillating intensity and blistering shifts in tempo. It all sounds very organic, but are all of those changes in tone and speed cued live via eye contact, or is everyone reading sheet music and counting out bar measures to navigate the changes?
RH: "Telescoping" is a written melody that's supposed to be very loose in terms of meter. We're using the melody as the base of the tune, and the drums are improvising underneath it. The B section of the melody is very much in time, so that's when everyone comes in to a pulse. Then it's just "whatever happens" after that. So in terms of the arrangement, we're not counting bar linesjust a couple of times through the original melody, and then there's a cue to hit the B part.
AAJ: Continuing in the same thread, the oblique angles, visceral interplay and evocative title of "She Gets Her Wine from a Box," seems to allude to a colorful back story. The same could be said of the driving "This Goes with Your Leather," which is similarly cinematic. Is there any inspiration behind those tunes that you can share?
RH: Both of those songs are for my wife. She gets a little bit of flak from Vinny for liking a certain kind of boxed wine. So, that resulted in "She Gets Her Wine from a Box." The other piece is about my wife's leather jacket. I told her she needed a rocking soundtrack when she wore it, so I wrote that piece. Most of my songs have some kind of back story to them. For example, "A Song for Wizards" is actually a song written as a dedication to Vinny, Steuart and Alex.
AAJ: Although your compositional frameworks and improvising are often fairly adventurous, you seem to prefer a more structured approach overall. How do you balance the disparity between freedom and form in both your writing and performing?
RH: I think I really try to keep things loose in terms of composition and improvisation. I'll have a few specific things I want to try in tunes, but it's always open. There needs to be room to create stuff as a group in this music. Most of my music comes from a folk tradition, really. Songs and melodies usually start as something I sing or a rhythm I tap, et cetera. Then the song is built around that. Improvising is usually a similar thing. I'm not thinking about scales and chords very often when I'm improvising. It's more about phrases I sing to myself when I'm playing, et cetera. Obviously sometimes there's crossover, but I don't approach it from "this chord needs this scale" or anything like that. If I'm playing over a chord progression, I'll try to make up a melody out of the chord tones, but hardly is it ever concrete.
AAJ: The tuneful melodies that anchor your pieces reveal a far more lyrical side of Golia's playing, more so than tends to materialize on even his own albums. Was this a conscious effort on your part or merely coincidence born of the material at hand?
RH: I don't know; I really feel weird sometimes giving Vinny songs. After seeing his sextet play or after looking at his charts, I want to cover my eyes when I hand him one of my pieces. "Hey, Vinny, that was a great opus you just played. By the way, here's another folk piece." I know that's all artist insecurity. If Vinny wasn't into it, he wouldn't play it, I guess. But still, he kills the folky, lyrical stuff.
AAJ: Your technique has an accessible sensibility common to a few other current West Coast guitarists (an approach seemingly less favored by your East Coast counterparts): your California-raised contemporaries, like Nels Cline and Jim Thomas (from the Mermen), for example. Do you find any truth to this observation?
RH: Maybe so. A lot of that may come from not really being a part of musical academia before. I try to keep whatever roots I have present in all of my songs. I mean, my ears came from a long history of folk, blues, jazz, rock, et cetera, and that's what I have to go on. Like I said before, I was never really into music on a scholastic level, so some of the negative academic habits I've seen other young players develop never really happened. Believe me, I have my own, though. I'm not sure if that's a geographic thing or just an approach.
AAJ: Your tonal palette is fairly expansive. Can you describe your gear setup?
RH: Right now, I'm playing a National Debonaire Archtop guitar (circa late '50s) and a Jerry Jones Neptune, which is a Danelectro style guitar. I play those pretty much straight into a ZT Lunchbox or a ZT Club amp. If I need any kind of juicelike with Calvin Weston or Alex ClineI'll play with a ZVex Distortion pedal. Other than that, it's pretty straightforward. I play acoustic a lot, too, so that is probably a factor in the straight electric tone. There was a time when I did the full-on pedal-board approach, with a few loopers, et cetera. An example of this is a record I made called Ambience, Antiquite and Other Love Songs (Prescott Recordings, 2011). But after a while, I felt like that approach is pretty common now, and I wanted to get back to just playing guitar.
AAJ: What are your thoughts on studio recording versus live performance, and how does that affect your playing in each situation?
RH: I think the studio is always hard for me to get the sound I want. Maybe I over think it, but I feel like the limitations of the room sometimes result in overplaying or trying to play harder than normal. I know if I'm in a situation where I have to use headphones, it feels like a barrier is put between me and the instrument. But in the end, it always sounds OK, so the result is fine. But I do prefer to play live. It's easier to get loose when it's live.
AAJ: What are your thoughts on the state of the recording industry at large, especially in regards to archival hard copies versus ephemeral downloads?
RH: It's a double-edged sword, really. On one hand, you can make a record in the morning and upload it that afternoon and count your downloads that night. That and the reach that anyone can have with their music is pretty cool. If someone releases an album and puts it online, it can go global immediately. That's really crazy to think about. For that reason, I don't know why anyone needs record labels anymore. It's really the time of the DIY artist.
However, for the reasons stated above it's also a time where the market is flooded with music. Independent artists are everywhere, and it's very hard to stand out from the pack. This line of work is hard enough to begin with, but being lumped in with thousands of other artists who have also made records, uploaded them and are counting their downloads is very tricky. I don't have an answer to what that means other than things like gigging and touring are still as important as ever.
In terms of media, I don't really think downloads are all they are cracked up to be. Maybe it's a generational thing, but I still like CDs and LPs. I like having a tangible product, and honestly I think downloads are kind of lame. I mean, they are a necessity now, but in terms of music to sell I think CDs are still an important tool for any artist that plays live. This is especially true in jazz and other kinds of "high-brow" music where the audience is mostly adults who are willing to spend money on music. That audience is still buying CDs. But really, to be an artist now I think you'll need to ride the fence and produce digital recordings and hard- copy recordings for a while.
AAJ: In light of the recording industry's current complexities, do you find musical inspiration in any technological advances, stylistic movements or particular artists?
RH: In terms of technology, programs like Finale are great. I just went through a long period of handwriting my charts again. I like handwriting as much as possible because it feels like there's more of a connection to the music, at least to me. But Finale is great for making charts, et cetera. The other advancement I've seen that has made a big difference is the advent of the small digital recorders. It's great to be able to go to any gig and be able to come away with an archive on a flash drive or something.
As for composing, I don't really use any types of programs or fancy tools. Usually my process is to either sing something and then arrange it on guitar or to improvise and write ideas down that I think would work for songs and then go from there. I know some folks that are into using Ableton Live and stuff like that, but I'm kind of a Luddite in my approach. Maybe someday I'll cross the border.
AAJ: Looking ahead, what do you have planned for your quartet in the near future, and/or what other projects are you currently working on?
RH: I'm currently writing a suite based on three of artist Kara Walker's silhouettes. The music is for six pieces and will be presented in early October at the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento. I've enlisted saxophonists Vinny Golia and Catherine Sikora, drummer Dax Compise and bassist Shawn Hale to play. That looks like the next thing on the radar. After that, I'll be on the East Coast again in the fall for a short tour. Really I'm just trying to keep working and keep making sounds.
Ross Hammond Quartet, Cathedrals (Prescott Recordings, 2013)