In 2012, Jamison Ross won the prestigious Thelonius Monk International Jazz Competition, which was held for drummers that year. Winning this competition lands the champ a record deal with Concord Music Group, where the hottest new name in jazz gets to show off his (or her) chops that so impressed the Monk judges, with the resources and stature of a major jazz label behind this winner.
Ross, though, isn’t your typical jazz musician, even among the elite, lofty group that have won this coveted prize. Because, you see, Jamison is not just an excellent drummer, he’s an accomplished vocalist, too, and his debut album that was made possible by his drumming skills became largely a showcase for his singing skills. It’s a little bit of bait-and-switch, perhaps, but Ross isn’t intending to deceive anybody; in fact, he’s eager to show he’s got more going for him than just keeping time.
Jamison (June 23, 2015, Concord Music Group) seeks to show Ross as a multi-faceted artist, one you can drum, sing, interpret and compose and not stuck on one shade of jazz. He takes Muddy Water’s “Deep Down In Florida” and does so much with it: turn a blues into Big Easy reverie (this and all the other tracks were recorded in New Orleans, so perhaps the environs wore off on the musicians), meting out a second line beat with authority and singing the lyrics with soulful aplomb. He’s got Rick Lollar’s slide that gives the song some grease. Some funky, home-cooked piano from NOLA native and new Late Show bandleader Jon Batiste add still more spice. The peak when everyone lays out except for Ross’ nifty rim taps as he sings the last verse over it without a net and practically prances across the high wire.
Blues of a completely different stripe underpin the final song (divided into two parts) as dirge-y as the opener from Waters is buoyant. But Ross’ hopeful attitude dominates the Ray Charles-styled gospel of “Bye Bye Blues” where he’s backed only by piano and later a full band that includes Lollar’s slide and Cory Irvin’s B-3 organ. “My One And Only Love” is a creative reworking of classic song bolstered by Ross’ hand-played drums, and the contemporary soul he injects to the old strain makes it’s almost as if Stevie Wonder wrote the song.
There are a couple of occasions where Ross gives his voice a rest: he leads a crisp, but elegant rendition of Cedar Walton’s “Martha’s Prize” and “Set Us Free,” from Eddie Harris, eases between two rhythms — two moods — that Ross modulates like a savvy pro.
Ross contributes only two songs but it’s enough to convince us that he can write the melodies, too. Despite some instrumental passages strong enough to hold up on their own, his nuanced vocal takes the center stage on “Emotions,” capped off by Dayve Stewart’s equally soulful tenor sax. There aren’t any lyrics for “Epiphany,” but there isn’t a need for ’em as lively wordless vocals taking a spot alongside Stewart and Alphonso Horne III (trumpet). That, and the bustling drumming alongside Chris Pattishall’s piano energize the song.
If you visit Jamison Ross’ Facebook page, you will find that he classifies his music as jazz, but he also lists the genres “Feel Good,” and “Joy Music.” That says a lot about how he approaches music making. It’s similar to how another fine vocalist, Gregory Porter, shapes his own music. But Jamison Ross is a singer who can do more than sing well and a drummer who can do more than drum well, and his first album Jamison does a good job of getting that across.