Monterrey Jazz Festival to play at Notre Dame's DeBartolo Center on Saturday

By Howard Dukes

Drummer Jamison Ross believes that he took a gamble by singing on his first two albums.

Ross, who performs Saturday at the DeBartolo Performing Arts Center as a part of the Monterey Jazz Festival on Tour, won the 2012 Thelonious Monk International Jazz Drum Competition. Winning the Monk competition came with the chance to record his self-titled debut album, which was released in 2015.

He could have played to form and released an instrumental album or invited guest vocalists to join him. Instead, Ross decided to drum and sing on “Jamison.”

“Most people would say that it was risky to come out on my debut as a singer,” he says. “But I’ve been singing all of my life, so it’s not uncomfortable for me to sing and play the drums.”

Ross grew up in a musical family and sung and played drums and piano in his grandfather’s church in his native Jacksonville, Fla.

The gamble paid off. “Jamison” received a Grammy nomination for Best Jazz Vocal Album. Ironically, the winning album in that category was Cecile McLorin Salvant’s “For One to Love.” Salvant, who won the Thelonious Monk vocal competition on 2010, is the featured performer on the Monterey Jazz Festival on Tour.

Ross gets further confirmation of his vocal chops on the Monterey Jazz Festival tour. He sings two songs, including a duet with Salvant.

“It just feels good that people can recognize and embrace another level of talent that I have, and it gives me another level of affirmation and kind of pushes me to keep going,” he says.

Ross says that his vocals likely gave the albums “Jamison” and “All For One” a commercial boost.

“Commercially, everybody loves a singer, because the people connect well with the human voice,” he says. “The human voice is something that helps people get to know you better, and having the instrumental is kind of like being on both sides of the fence.”

Still, singing from behind the drums does present some challenges, Ross says. “But I have always approached playing the instrument in a melodic sense, so therefore if I wasn’t singing, I believe in putting melody to whatever I’m playing.”

In addition to Ross and Salvant, the tour includes pianist and musical director Christian Sands, trumpeter Bria Skonberg, saxophonist Melissa Aldana and bassist Yasushi Nakamura. Like Ross and Salvant, Aldana won the 2013 Monk saxophone competition.

Ross got career boosts from working with jazz veterans such as pianist Ellis Marsalis and vocalist Carmen Lundy. However, he says the importance of participating in and winning the Monk competition can’t be overstated.

“It gives you what I call the golden key to your career,” he says. “So, as a jazz musician, if you are able to get to the competition and win, everybody that you need to know to further your career is there.”

Ross says he met legends such as George Duke and Herbie Hancock, as well as numerous label executives.

“So it’s not happenstance that the Monterey Jazz Festival tour is filled with Monk competition winners.”