Ross Hammond: Holding onto the Wave

Troy Collins By

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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.

Ross Hammond Quartet: CathedralsWhen 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.

Ross Hammond Quartet: AdoredAAJ: 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!
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