Vibraphonist and Composer Joel Ross Blends Composition & Improvisation With New Octet on ‘Parable of the Poet’ (ALBUM REVIEW)

Vibraphonist and composer Joel Ross exhibits even more steadfast confidence on his third Blue Note release, Parable of the Poet, by unveiling practically a completely new eight-piece band, called the Parables. While Ross delivered his first two highly acclaimed albums with a quintet, this new group puts even more emphasis on his compositional style where just enough is written down for the players to deliver ensemble passages, melody and counterpoint interplay, spontaneous dialogues, and improvisational, albeit mostly singular solo flights as the pieces do not rely on a series of solos. This is the most collaborative Ross offering yet, truly democratic in a presentation to the point where his vibraphone is often a contributor to the sound rather than a dominant voice.

These seven pieces are themes drawn from scripture, parables that leave themselves open to interpretation.  The album is essentially a seven-movement suite, where each movement references an emotional or experience for Ross. Musically, each flows seamlessly to the next. Ross wants everything to be inspired by the melody that once stated, gives the band practically free rein to improvise around these themes as they listen to one another rather than reacting to any further direction from the leader. Some of the movements date back to as early as 2017 and most are borne out of creative sessions that Ross had with his friend and colleague, saxophonist Sergio Tabanico, who interestingly does not appear on the album but appears as the co-writer for two of the movements. The band that does, the Parables are steady members across all three releases, Blue Note label made Immanuel Wilkins (alto saxophone), Maria Grand (tenor saxophone), Marquis Hill (trumpet), Kali Vandever (trombone), Sean Mason (piano), Rick Rosato (bass), Craig Weinrib (drums), and returning special guest Gabrielle Garo (flute).

The opening movement “Prayer” begins with a tender Ross intro that leaves notes sustained and suspended as a three-note melody begins to form the theme that each band member begins to play not so much as a solo but with a voice that rises above the ensemble at large with a tone of rumination and shared restrained discourse. Listen closely for more improvisations at the three and half minute mark forward and these conversations ebb and flow, growing more animated until the piece gently coasts to its conclusion. Rosato delivers a lyrical plucked intro to “Guilt,” which Ross describes as the most emotional piece. This is the one piece where Garo joins the octet, her flute being the sole instrument carrying the melody as if a bird flying above the fray while the others improvise underneath. 

Hill and Tabanico joined Ross in writing “Choices,” a piece that evolved from a single chord to notes and then the theme, expressed by Hill’s solo intro. This is a prime example of Ross giving the band just enough clues following Hill’s statement and letting them build the movement through intent listening and group interaction with a result that is solemn, mysterious, and even ominous in tone, elevated by Hill’s inspired continual trumpet lines and choice notes from Ross. Wilkins, who likely has the most intuitive feel for Ross, given their many collaborations, is the prominent voice in the lengthiest, ten-minute plus “Wail,” adeptly using space and a relaxed sense of time to engage in what Ross considers a dance revolving around the music, one that trombonist Vandever takes to an even higher spirited level upon entry which continues to the trombone intro to “The Impetus (To Be And Do Better). About midway through pianist Mason joins the trombonist as does Ross. Together they build a determined, march-like pattern that the band envelops with lush tones before fading out quietly.

“Doxology (Hope)” weighs in at just four minutes with Grand, Mason, and Ross the leading voices in a brisk rhythm powered by Rosato and Weinrib that keeps building, until all the horns chime in for what Ross describes as “the praise team.” The final movement, “Benediction,” suitably bears that church-like feel with Mason’s intro building on major 3rds that the band builds around, as Ross delivers a bright solo, and each horn offers a concise expression. Yet, this one does not build toward any destination and instead fades, Ross saying “I didn’t want people to hear it end, because it can keep going on forever.”  

Parables, like this music, are intrinsically open to interpretation. This unique music embodies the intersection of composition and spontaneous freedom. Let it take you wherever it may.

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