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,” said Ross, who plays two sets at the Jazz Aspen Snowmass June Experience today. “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 doing it 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 in 2015 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, 31, recalled. “So on that tour I jumped into singing and playing the drums at the same time.”
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 he’s earned since his debut 2015 album, “Jamison,” which earned Ross a Grammy nomination for Best Jazz Vocal Album.
Ross’ two shows tonight in the intimate setting of Victoria’s Espresso are ground zero of the reconfigured Junefest, which is aiming for a more social, more dance-friendly and more music-packed lineup than its previous sit-down style at the Benedict Music Tent. Jazz Aspen president and founder Jim Horowitz said he’s hoping the Victoria’s shows take on a lively late-night jazz club vibe in the mode of the bars along Frenchmen Street in New Orleans (where Ross is based). Also in the Frenchmen vein, expect a lot of drop-ins and surprise collaborations this weekend at Victoria’s and elsewhere.
For Ross, the Aspen shows come at the outset of his “Keep On” tour, in support of his latest record, “All For One,” running through the summer across the U.S. and Europe.
Ross still doesn’t think of himself as a vocalist.
“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.”
On “All For One,” Ross wanted to write positive and personal songs.
“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 always puts his personal stamp on everything he touches.
“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.”