“I’m sitting down at the drums with nothing but melodies on my mind,” sings Jamison Ross on the groove tune “Call Me” from his new Concord Jazz release, All For One.
“I’m telling you exactly how I write music,” explains Ross, who teamed with guitarist Rick Lollar on this and many of the fine originals on the disc.
Ross entered the scene as a jazz-wise drummer and the winner of the 2012 Thelonious Monk Jazz Competition and increased his presence to the max with his exceptional vocal work on his 2015 self-titled debut release, which earned him a Grammy nomination. As heard on both his first and latest releases, Ross is neither a drummer who sings nor a singer who plays drums. His talent is making them seamless and, well, all for one.
“I’m not trying to prove that I can play drums on this album,” Ross explains. “To be honest, it was the last thing on my mind. What I’m trying to do as an artist is not about the virtuosity of playing the drums. It is about singing and the drums—the rhythm and the melody. If you listen to the drums and the voice together you’ll understand the concept better.”
It is clearly demonstrated as the album kicks off with an Allen Toussaint song, “A Mellow Good Time,” made famous by the great vocalist Lee Dorsey. It stands as both a timely tribute to Toussaint and timeless in its spirited New Orleans essence. Its inclusion should greatly please local audiences.
“The Lee Dorsey record was actually one of the first records I started listening to when I was getting ready for the new album,” Ross says. “I started checking out a ton of records and I wasn’t even looking for covers, I was actually writing. Sometimes when I run up on a cover, it’s undeniable that I have to do it. The way I know is that when I bring it to my band and we play it live, the tune has a breath of fresh air on it. We now play ‘A Mellow Good Time’ last in a set—it’s pretty hard to get off of that song,” he says, comparing its impact to that of “Deep Down in Florida” from his first album, which previously held the position as the show-stopper.
Since his Grammy nomination, Ross has been much in demand, so much so that he had to give up a year-long spot he held in pianist/vocalist Jon Cleary’s band. “It’s definitely been a whirlwind couple of years—touring, traveling, writing and recording the new album. It’s been full of surprises and some beautiful moments.
“Cleary and I both got Grammy nominations at the same time while we were on the road together touring. [Cleary’s 2015 album, GoGo Juice, won an award]. One day, his schedule started blowing up with dates and then my schedule started getting dates as a solo artist. He’s actually been someone who has inspired me for songwriting on this record. I sat at his house for hours picking his brain about how he writes songs. He’s a genius songwriter. When I was with Cleary, it was like a school for New Orleans R&B. He’s not from New Orleans but what was so deep about it is that I’m not either. I think that’s why we connected on it because we have a shared love for the history of the music. He’s a student and a scholar of it. I’m not from New Orleans but I have a strong affection for and belief in the American music tradition that really was steeped and based here.”
Ross again digs deep into New Orleans’ R&B archives, coming up with keyboardist/singer/composer Wilson “Willie Tee” Turbinton’s “All for One.” The tune, which had only been recorded once by Tee himself, opens dramatically with the organ of Cory Irvin, a new addition to the group. The organ also brings new instrumentation to the band that includes Lollar and pianist Chris Pattishall, who were heard on the debut, plus bassist Barry Stephenson. The organ, with its church-like qualities and association with houses of worship, highlights those leanings in Ross’ vocals. The son of a pastor, Ross, whose first instrument was organ, came up in the church.
“I wanted a fourth voice,” says Ross on adding an organ to the group. “I call the organ my orchestra—I call it my strings. It creates the mood on the album. It almost makes the story more real, it brings it to life.”
Songwriting team Ross and Lollar match up to perfection again on their uplifting “Keep On.”
“I’m pretty clear about what I want harmonically—when it comes to the chordal structure—but when it comes to the lyrics, Rick has been kind of a safe haven,” Ross explains. “He understands my heart and understands me as a person. We have a long relationship going all the way back to our college days so he gets the kind of concepts that I want. I want to tell stories and I want to tell experiences through the music utilizing elements of American music—blues, jazz, funk, soul, swing.”
On this tune and many of the other originals, there is a definite positive attitude both in the spirit of the music and the lyrics.
“As an artist, I think your music has to reflect the times,” Ross says. “You are a sculpture of what’s going on around you. For me, I think about it from a standpoint that the songs definitely have a social tinge to them. I don’t like to talk about it from one perspective because I think that it’s important for all of us to see every single point of view. Growing up the way I grew up, you preach love one way or the other.”
Ross certainly demonstrates his romantic side on several originals including “Unspoken” and “Safe in the Arms of Love.” His remarkable voice can be both tender and passionate as is also heard on his cover of “Don’t Go to Strangers.” He picked up on Etta Jones’ 1960 version of this oft-recorded song—Billie Holiday, Etta James—that many New Orleanians associate with the great Johnny Adams, “the Tan Canary.”
Again, it was Ross’ focus on the organ that directed him to select a tune made famous by Fats Waller, the joyful “Let’s Sing Again.” Perhaps best known as a pianist and vocalist the legendary Waller was an innovator in bringing the organ into a jazz setting.
“It’s a song of unity and a song of hope,” says Ross, adding that on discovering Waller’s organ work and that their fathers were both ministers, he enjoyed “a moment of reflection” on what they shared.
A soulful vocalist, Ross continually makes use of his education and experience in jazz by bringing the all-important element of improvisation to his work. He and organist Irvin perform “Let’s Sing Again,” a jewel of a tune, as a duo to take the album out on an extremely happy note. “A song will see you through,” Ross offers with sincerity.
Jamison Ross, 30, a Florida native now steeped in the music of New Orleans, his hometown since 2011, doesn’t play a drum solo on this entire album even though he got the record deal with Concord Jazz by winning a drum competition.
“I think a large part of my success on the drums has been because I don’t view it as an instrument to blow all the guns and the bullets,” he speculates. “When it’s time for me to do that I can.”
“I’m always singing. You’re rarely going to hear me not singing. I will always swing, I will always groove, I will always funk, I will always shake it up. It’s going to be that way. All of those things will forever be a part of who I am.”
Jamison Ross and his entire band will perform at Snug Harbor on Saturday, March 10 and the singer and vocalist will appear at the Wednesday, March 7 edition of the Jazz at the Sandbar Series at the Cove on the University of New Orleans’ campus.