By Andrew Travers
When Jamison Ross won the Thelonious Monk Institute drumming competition in 2012, it gave him a "golden ticket" to the jazz world. But the young drummer didn't know exactly where he wanted to go.
"What it gets you is notoriety and a platform," Ross, who headlines the JAS Cafe Downstairs at The Little Nell today and Friday, said from his home in New Orleans. "But the catch is, what do you do with that platform? When I got the chance to make a record due to the competition, it took me three years to figure it out."
That process of figuring it out led Ross to sing — a move that surprised him as much as anyone else. Renowned as a drummer, he was not a singer. He'd been singing since his childhood performing in church in Jacksonville, Florida, but had never worked it into his performance repertoire and never thought he'd pick up a microphone onstage.
Touring with pianist Jon Batiste on the "Social Music" tour (before Batiste signed on as Stephen Colbert's bandleader on "The Late Show") kicked open the possibility. Batiste pushed Ross to get adventurous onstage and to try singing.
"I did a lot of crazy stuff, a lot of experimenting, and he knew I had a gift to sing — he wanted me to sing," Ross, 29, recalled. "So on that tour I jumped into singing and playing the drums at the same time."
Meanwhile, he was working on his debut record. He wanted the songs to be personal and to do something new with jazz.
"I wanted to tell my story," he said. "What happened was that I sang on two tracks and the next thing you know, it ends up being 10 out of 12 tracks where I'm singing."
He discovered that his voice — steeped in the traditions of blues and soul — made for a strange and original alchemy when combined with his jazz drumming. Ironically his voice has now become his signature instrument, thanks to the wide acclaim for his debut 2015 album, "Jamison," which earned Ross a Grammy nomination for Best Jazz Vocal Album.
Ross still doesn't think of himself as a vocalist, though.
"I heard it as more of an expression and exploration of rhythm," he said. "Playing drums and singing, I've always thought about my drums as a melodic feature."
After three years of working on the album, Ross knew he had something personal and original on his hands with "Jamison." But he didn't see the Grammy nod or his sudden star status among jazzheads coming.
"Come on, man, I had no clue," he said with a laugh. "It came naturally. It was about putting my expression of jazz, my view of this music that's so dear to America and the world."
The album includes original compositions alongside his wildly inventive takes on jazz standards and selections like Muddy Waters' "Deep Down in Florida." Ross is now working on his sophomore solo album, due out next year.
"It feels like I'm talking about more personal things," he said. "That's something that's been lost in my generation in the jazz community. We don't talk about personal things."
Even when covering jazz standards, Ross argues, millennial jazz musicians tend not to make them personal. By contrast, on his debut album, Ross puts his personal stamp on everything he touches. The album closes with two original versions of "Bye Bye Blues" — the first is a stripped-down version with Ross singing and Batiste on piano, the second a funky gospel take with a full band and a Hammond B-3 organ.
"I feel like you need to understand something about the standards that means something personal to you," he explained. "You've got to search for the magic clues to the puzzle – every song has magic clues that stick out to you. Once you find those, you can really rearrange it and make it your own."
The last time Ross was in Aspen, he was playing drums for vocalist Carmen Lundy during a string of JAS Cafe shows in 2011. Returning as a headliner, he expects to showcase songs from "Jamison," some newer originals and his inventive takes on jazz standards. But he never plays the same show twice.
"If you're following the spirit of the music, you lend yourself to moments that are unique to you and unique for the crowd," he said.