Joel Ross – The Parable Of The Poet

Vibraphonist and composer Joel Ross returns with his third release through Blue Note Records, “The Parable of the Poet.” With his eight-piece Parables band, the critics’ favorite explores new, more expansive territory, bringing together young artists with clearly defined expressions: Blue Note labelmate Immanuel Wilkins on alto sax, Maria Grand on tenor sax, Marquis Hill on trumpet, Kalia Vandever on trombone, Sean Mason on piano, Rick Rosato on bass, Craig Weinrib on drums and returning special guest Gabrielle Garo on flute.

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The album embodies Ross’ collaborative spirit. His lyrical aesthetic activates ebb and flow from one movement to the next. Moments of intentional discourse drive sections of collective melody and spontaneous counterpoint. “This band is more than just the instruments,” says the Chicago-born, New York City-based artist. “Every person here means something to me. They are all my friends. Everyone involved is committed to the vision.”

Ross’ vision for the music is both clear and mysterious. He seeks to express themes found in parable narratives and retellings, while leaving the details of each story open to interpretation. Each title of the seven-movement suite refers to an emotional decision or experience of Ross. In the studio, however, he focused on new interpretations, allowing his past experiences to play out without dictating the band’s present processing of the music. “I told them, ‘This is the music, and I want you to approach it this way – everything we play should be inspired by the melody.’ Not much else was decided,” says Ross, who likes to blur the lines between melody and improvisation, in part to encourage communication and meaningful musical discourse.

Blurring the lines between script and spontaneity is more than a romantic notion. For Ross, it is truthful and intrinsic. Each composition he explores on The Parable of the Poet represents a nearly intact improvisation, some of which dates back to 2017, and all of which emerged during creative sessions with his friend and colleague, saxophonist Sergio Tabanico. “We recorded it, then I went back and elaborated on the composition,” he says. “I did my best not to change any harmonic information or add too much more than what was already there. I just tried to organize the information in a way that would allow for meaningful improvisational interaction in the group while providing enough direction.”

This decision leads to impressive moments of deep listening and self-orchestration by Ross and his fellow musicians. The first movement, ‘PRAYER,’ sets a tone of reflection and collective inquiry. Aside from Ross’ delicate solo introduction, the piece exercises restraint. “There’s no one person who takes the microphone,” Ross says. “Everyone has a moment to play the theme,” which encourages shared navigation and discourse.

“Guilt” features moments of banded syncopation from Grand, following a brief, sonorous introduction with lyrical elasticity from Rosato. Ross took the movement in its entirety from an improvised session. “For me, it’s the most emotional piece,” says Ross, who envisioned Garo’s flute as a bird flying above the grounding music. “She’s the one playing the melody almost all the time,” he says.

Hill’s piece, “Choices,” is the result of a nearly 20-minute improvisation between Ross and Tabanico. First came the chord, then the notes, finally the theme. In the studio, Ross refrained from writing down chords. He started with a pedal and gave his band members the first phrase, knowing they would somehow make it to the second. “While everyone was learning the melody, I had to give a little more instruction,” he says. “In a perfect world, and if we’d had more time, I would have just kept the tape rolling and filmed us doing it the same way we did all the other improvisations, but I’m glad we were able to achieve the same feeling regardless of the time constraints.”

In the booth, Wilkins entered the space Ross had set aside for ‘Wall,’ the movement that inevitably leads into “The Impetus (To Be And Do Better).” “Immanuel fully embraced what I wanted in the studio,” Ross says. “We didn’t have to talk about it much – he understands the music and what it needs.” Wilkins takes time and space to develop a statement that incorporates what Ross sees as dancing around the music before Vandever enters with striking intentionality. “As we’re performing, there’s this quiet thing that happens that shows something. So I imagine that as dancers, we’re trying to express those feelings.”

Grand, Mason and Ross each take a place in “Doxology (Hope),” the album’s shortest piece. Its brisk tempo requires Rosato and Weinrib to fully embody walking, grooving, and breaking and returning freely; this elastic feeling, combined with a minor-key atmosphere, serves as a vessel for the horns to become a small choir. ‘I saw them as a praise team,’ says Ross, who orchestrated the movement that segues into “Benediction,” the album’s final piece. “A benediction is the way we say goodbye in church and end with a good word,” says Ross, who wanted Mason’s contribution to activate the final movement. “What I love about working with Sean is that I don’t have to dictate anything musically,” he says. “Benediction builds on major triads with a hint of an infinite gesture. Appropriately, the music fades away: ‘I didn’t want people to hear it end, because it can go on forever.'”

Ross rarely provides narrative explanations for his pieces. On “The Parable of the Poet,” he leaves his own motivations unspoken to allow both listeners and band members their own experiential readings of the music. “I’m just interested in what the listener receives, what they take away from it,” he says, “just like any parable.”

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The Parable Of The Poet




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1: Prayer (Joel Ross)
2: Guilt (Joel Ross, Gabrielle Garo, Rick Rosato, Sergio Tabanic)
3: Choices (Joel Ross, Marquis Hill, Sergio Tabanico)
4: Wail (Joel Ross, Craig Weinrib, Immanuel Wilkins)
5: The Impetus (To Be And Do Better) (Joel Ross, Kalia Vendever)
6: Doxology (Hope) (Joel Ross, Maria Grand)
7: Benediction (Joel Ross, Sean Mason)