During the 2020 pandemic, which brought live performances to a sudden halt, Chicago vibraphonist Joel Ross, who already had one album to his name, returned to Manhattan’s The New School to finish his degree. One of his classes was devoted to the history of the blues, which inspired Nublues, the 28-year-old’s fourth and latest album on Blue Note Records. The blues, of course, is one of jazz’s prime elements and its DNA can be traced in many other African American music styles including soul, gospel music, and even hip-hop. Via seven original compositions and three cover versions of jazz evergreens, Ross views the blues through a fresh lens, offering a distinctively 21st-century perspective of the idiom with the help of alto saxophonist and label mate Immanuel Wilkins, rising Brooklyn flautist Gabrielle Garo, bassist Kano Mendenhall, and drummer Jeremy Dutton.
The shimmering textures of the gently turbulent opening cut ‘Early,’ defined by bucolic flute shards and glistening vibes, seamlessly segues into a glorious interpretation of John Coltrane’s classic modal groove ‘Equinox,’ one of the album’s undoubted highlights. Though Coltrane was hailed as a jazz pathfinder, his sound was steeped in the blues, which is perhaps why Ross included a second tune by the saxophonist – the 1964 ballad ‘Central Park West’ – which is also beautifully interpreted by Ross and his band. Another revered jazz master with blues roots, Thelonious Monk, is represented by the tune ‘Evidence,’ which Ross refashions into a piece unrecognisably different from its composer’s original: it is reformatted into a densely textured matrix of sound that climaxes with a fiery high-octane duel between Ross and Wilkins.
The sublimely elegant ‘Bach (God The Father In Eternity)’ is arguably the strongest of Ross’ self-penned tunes; a stately hymnal with shades of the Modern Jazz Quartet in its DNA. Ear-cathing, too, is ‘Mellowdee,’ a long episodic piece that during its thirteen-minute duration journeys through contrasting musical terrain and moods, ultimately functioning as a compelling showcase for the band’s virtuosic synergy. The album’s title track, by turns plaintive and turbulent, is also outstanding, its two-minute solo vibraphone intro spotlighting Ross’ unique approach to the instrument.
With its subtle stylistic shadings and elements taken from jazz, blues, and gospel music, Nublues offers a history of African American music in a microcosm. It reveals how Joel Ross is drawing on the past to take jazz into the future.