Spotlight: Brandon Ross

I first saw Brandon Ross with Cassandra Wilson back in the Nineties. His application of a jazz sensibility to Wilson’s Sarah Vaughn meets Joni Mitchell stylings was revelatory. I later learned about the amazing Harriet Tubman, his band with drummer J.T. Lewis and bassist Melvin Gibbs, but am sorry to say it was at a time when I was not ready for them. Delving into Ross’ work for this interview, I discovered that he embodies everything Guitar Moderne is about: personal style, adventurous playing, disregard for genre, and experiments with electronics. Our conversation ranged wide and very long. I tried to include the best bits here.

I was disappointed I didn’t get to see you at the Big Ears Festival this year, because Covid canceled it.

Me too. Ashley [Capps, founder of the festival] was excited about having us. His was the first letter that made us realize we couldn’t tour, and then the other letters started coming in. Next time, hopefully.

What are you doing to keep busy and creative during lockdown?

I’ve been writing music, messing around with my banjo, and watching stuff I ordinarily wouldn’t have time for. On the Gaia Network, Matias De Stefano has a series called Initiation. He talks about things related to sacred geometry, Merkaba, pyramidal structures, and the flower of life—all stuff I find fascinating because it connects to somatics, sound vibration, energetics, and the elevation of human consciousness in general.

I’ve also been doing a lot thinking about what I haven’t done in music yet that I’ve always wanted to do, and whether what I have done still fits? Does it still allow me to get across what I’d like to?

As a photographer as well as guitarist myself, I wanted to thank you for introducing me to your friend, the photographer/guitarist Ralph Gibson. I visited him the last time I was in New York, and it’s been wonderful getting to know him. I was going to ask you how you relate music to the visual arts?

I don’t know when I became conscious that visual information was a catalyst for musical inspiration. My connection with Ralph happened back in the ’80s, when he was at Leo Castelli Gallery. My then girlfriend worked there and they became friendly. He told her he played guitar and wanted to get better. Ralph got in touch and we did a couple of lessons. Almost 15 years later, I sent him the first Harriet Tubman CD, but didn’t hear anything. About a year later, he called and asked if I still taught and we started working. I would teach him at his studio and see what he was working on. He’d have prints up on the walls, his visual language, and he would talk about art and perception. All these things created this beautiful gestalt that became the frame for our friendship, and expanded how I worked.

Music involves making the journey temporally, whether it’s two minutes, or 30 seconds. If it’s a painting, you can see the counterpart of that instantaneously. I do a project with a wonderful painter named Ford Crull, called Of Sight and Sound. Ford paints on a large scale, blindfolded, while my ensemble Pendulum uses what’s unfolding as a graphic score, as well as infusing information into what he’s doing. We get this synergistic influence. The performance usually takes at most an hour because he’s usually exhausted by then. At the end, we see this representation, almost like a glyph, of the entire thing. Whereas, it would take an hour to hear the music.

How did you start guitar?.

My older brother borrowed a classical guitar from a friend of my mother’s. I used to sneak into his room and play it when he wasn’t around. I eventually bought this red electric guitar with a metal pickguard and started hanging out with older guys that were into John Mayall and the Blues Breakers, Taj Mahal, and that stuff. We had a band called Human Spirit. We did music by Traffic, Cream, and the Chambers Brothers. We were  good for our age.

How did you progress from that? Did you take lessons or go to music school?

I’m mostly self-taught. The pedagogy related to learning an instrument was cumbersome and much slower than my ears and ability. I was at a Quaker boarding school and was playing with guys there who were listening to Herbie Hancock’s Mwandishi and Quincy Jones. One of my friends asked if I knew who Ornette Coleman was. I didn’t, so he played Skies of America for me. Back at home, jazz was all around the house—Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, West Montgomery, Milt Jackson,  the Modern Jazz Quartet—all through my dad. He was also into Ravel and Stravinsky.

After graduation it was a toss-up between going to college for theater or music. I decided on music because it felt purer at that time. I went to Berklee in Boston for a year and started in the pre-regular program because I hadn’t been reading music. The learning curve was practically vertical for me. Prior to that, I had never practiced. The first time I was like, “Okay, that must’ve been at least an hour.” It’d been 15 or 20 minutes. I was like, “Oh my God, how am I going to do this?” I made it through a  difficult year. I learned a lot in a certain way, but in another way, the structure and the community were an inhospitable setting for me at that time.

I split and went to Western Massachusetts where my older brother was. Archie Shepp and Max Roach were there. Stanley Cowell was teaching at Amherst College. By then, I had learned a lot in the pre-regular program at Berklee and by teaching myself. It gave me a solid foundation. That was when Archie asked me to record with him and I did my first professional recording.

Did you teach yourself harmony and reading?

Yeah, all of that, but the real boost was when I got to New York in the fall of ’81 and connected with violinist Leroy Jenkins in this workshop. Leroy told Oliver Lake about me. Lake was looking for somebody to replace the guitarist in his band Jump Up. I eventually joined both of their bands and started touring. While was working with Leroy, I met Butch Morris and started working with him, and then, through Butch, met Henry Threadgill.

Henry was putting together a band after his Sextet, called Very Very Circus. If you get into a band with Henry Threadgill, you will be changed on the other side

How so?

There were two guitar players in the band. One of the first things he said was, “If you play chords, I don’t want more than two or three notes from either of you at one time because it’ll imbalance the orchestration.” He particularly wanted chords that were open-voiced. Plus, his own voicing sensibility was quite oblique, it’s very fertile and often ambiguous. I had an interest in classical guitar, so I had spent time practicing a lot of right-hand techniques and rose to the occasion. Those eleven years of working with Henry in different ensembles, set me on a whole different path.

Does he write out the voicings for each guitarist, or are you supposed to work them out?

It depends on the situation. Some would be written, but he had a stronger interest in the counterpoint of melodic lines than harmonic things. I think he wanted these things to happen within a particular limitation, but still be unpredictable.

What I’ve come to understand, is anytime you have something written out on a stave, even if you memorize it, you’ll tend to go back to that pitch configuration. But if you write something that says Ab, G, and above that E, for example, you might indicate they are not chords, but rather pitches you can voice as you chose, but in a particular order. This way it can happen in any register, there’s a certain flexibility. I also learned to hear things in pantonality. It was a big change.

What guitar were you playing?

I started out on my Steinberger. Then, I moved to the Klein.

What is it you like about those headless guitars?

Ned Steinberger’s design is brilliant. People talk about losing stability in the neck with the absence of the headstock. I don’t find that to be an issue. These days especially, you can carry it on the plane and it fits in the overhead with no problem. That’s a tremendous advantage. I don’t ever have to let go of the guitar when I travel. With the double-ball end, you don’t have a wrap, so the strings aren’t slipping or breaking; they stay in tune, and it’s easy to change them quickly.

How did you get the gig with Cassandra Wilson?

I got a call from Craig Street while I was in the middle writing this piece for the Bang On A Can All-Stars as part of a Memorial for John Cage. I was also about to go on tour with Henry Threadgill. He said, “Can you do an arrangement of Van Morrison’s “Tupelo Honey” and maybe Robert Johnson’s “Come On In My Kitchen,” for Cassandra Wilson to check out?” I said, “I’ve got no time.” He said, “Look, come uptown. Play what you have for her and see how she likes it.” I went, played my arrangements for her, and she loved them. Craig sent me her tuning idea for Johnson’s “Hellhound on My Trail,” and some other things.

I thought I was doing another jazz record for Blue Note, where they would maybe sell 20, 30,000 copies. You get paid and move on to the next thing. As we know that wasn’t the case—it blew up. The beauty of that was I did just what I do; there was no calculation.

I called Charlie Burnham, Lonnie Plaxico, and my cousin, the drummer Lance Carter, who has since passed on. Cassandra brought in Jeff Haynes as percussionist, and that was the band that toured. We moved to two guitars after the second record, but the first edition was wonderfully open and flexible. Everywhere we went people said, “The band is great. We never heard anything like this.” It became a game changer for Blue Note and paved the way for Nora Jones and people like that.

The sound of those records was influential for me as well. I was in a band in San Francisco at the time, with a fantastic female singer-songwriter. I’m not a jazz guitar player, but have jazz influences. The inspiration of seeing your band taking rooted folk and pop music and infusing it with a jazz mentality, without turning them into bebop songs, was immeasurable.

It was a testament to Craig’s brilliance and vision. I’ve reached this place where I don’t know what kind of music I play, in terms of other people’s perspective. If I’m a jazz guitarist—I don’t know if I am or not—then it’s in the sense that jazz was never jazz anyway. It was what people were doing and it got a tag put on it. If it’s a process and a way of doing things, in that sense I’m a jazz guitarist. But my process and sensibility are inclusive, more akin to folk and international music, which are incredibly rich. You find commonalities through all of it, usually involving chordophones, membranes, voices, and percussion as essential elements.

It’s one of the things about being in Harriet Tubman—we’ve got that triad of melody, harmony, and rhythm. Melvin, JT and I are just attempting to convey the meaning of our lives through tools we have and the disposition we find ourselves in, in any moment in time.

How did Harriet Tubman get together?

JT and I were playing in Threadgill’s Make A Move band. In rehearsal one day JT said to me, “Do you ever play you play in a loud guitar, bass, and drums trio?” I said, “I haven’t done it, since I was in my teens.” He goes, “We should do that sometime. You know any bass players?” I said, “Do you know Melvin Gibbs? He’s rehearsing down the hall.” He goes, “I know Melvin.” I said, “I love Melvin’s playing. We should ask him.”

On a break from rehearsal we went down and saw Melvin. We got together and played for three hours. It was like instant composition, instant form and structure. We did it again another day. When we went back the following week, Butch Morris stopped in and said, “What are you guys going to do with this?” I said, “We should do something huh?” Somebody said we needed a name. JT blurted out Harriet Tubman, “Because I feel free when I play with you
guys.” I thought her name was a metaphor for leading people to freedom.

You are together 21 years now. How has playing together changed?

One thing is that the culture has moved closer to where we are. In terms of us changing, we have begun to understand more about how we do what we do. Also, on the last couple of records we’ve worked with a producer for the first time. It helps to have an editor looking at our stuff and bringing another perspective. It contributes to the focus and intention. When we first started, we were discovering what we could do musically. Now we’re at a place where it’s about, what’s the next level? Each of us has moved into a deeper acceptance of who we are musically and how we work together. Nobody ever tells anyone what to play. I don’t think democratic is the right word, but it’s trying to align in one accord. The big change is awareness of a formalization of our process and what we can do with those things.

How does composing happen?

Usually everyone’s working on different things on their own, or somebody might have a sound. Working with the producer on the last record we wanted to use the studio the way Teo Macero and Miles worked on some of those later records. We would play producer Scotty Hard some stuff and invite him to grab things and say, “Do this here,” or “What about that?” Or, “Let’s move this part here.” I have a lot of fun when we do it that way. Of course, sometimes you don’t get what you want.

I wanted to ask you about For Living Lovers, your duo with Stomu Takeishi, What is the chemistry that you have with him that you find unique?

We must’ve spent some other lifetimes hanging out together in other worlds and other dimensions, because I learned there is no For Living Lovers without Stomu. I tried to do it one time with another great bass player, and it was fine, but it was a bass and guitar duo, it wasn’t For Living Lovers. That frame gives me a space where I can do much of my composition work.

How did you meet?

I went to hear a cellist named Michelle Kinney perform. She had a trio with the violinist Jason Kao Hwang and Stomu, who was playing electric bass. His blend was unbelievable, and his musical choices were impressive.

Later, I called him and said, “Henry Threadgill is putting together this band and I wonder if you’d be interested in auditioning for the bass chair.”

When we were with Henry there was a piece that called for a duo. I was playing soprano guitar and Stomu was playing electric bass. It was a gestural, spontaneous composition. We discovered that he and I had this beautiful chemistry.

Sometime later I said, “Let’s do a duo gig.” I put together some music and we played in 2000 at Tonic. We did a record, funded by the painter by Eric Fischl, who I know through Ralph Gibson, and we’re still playing. The music is demanding: it’s intimate, kind of quiet, but intense in another way. I love that.

Those pieces are beautiful, as is the sound you get. It’s crisp, but warm at the same time. What is that guitar you use?

That’s Steve Klein’s acoustic. Seriously Michael, I’m very blessed to have Kleins in my life. For what I do musically, they’ve been the tool. Steve designs the acoustic, and Steve Kauffman is the builder. I would like to get another one.

How do you record it?

Stereo ribbon mics. They have one at the Firehouse 12 studio that is the most beautiful thing for those guitars, and the soprano guitar as well. There’s no lag in responsiveness in that mic, and yet it’s not pushing anything either. It just gets everything.

How do you amplify the acoustic when you play live?

It doesn’t have any electronics on board. This is not a guitar that shows up often because they’re expensive and everybody’s got a fetish for the old Gibsons, old Martins, and variations thereof. I’m always saying, “Do you have a ribbon mic?” I get resistance and say, “Trust me, it’s going to be okay.” And then they go, “Wow, you were right. That’s good.”

Getting into your electronica projects, what’s the difference between Phantom Station and Pendulum?

Pendulum deals more with my compositions. Phantom Station is an open situation; there is no rehearsal, and typically there’s not too much discussion. If I provide any musical direction, it may be a point of departure, but it’s about creation in the moment, self-orchestration, and imagination.

Do you give DJ Hardedge a score of some kind?

In Pendulum, I developed a sonic scale I wanted him to think about in terms of textures of sounds like wood, metal, water, or paper. It would depend on the context and the composition. I might indicate white or pink noise. Some of his process includes creating a session of sounds on a disc that will show up randomly. Other decks have sounds he has more control over, to respond to the moment. He can swap things in and out, depending on what fits in his library. There’d be songs in Pendulum where we use a particular sound and texture, because I’m more involved in the orchestration. In Phantom Station, it’s open.

How do you envision guitar in that context?

The electric guitar is not strictly a sound generator, more like a sonic tool. I’m not too concerned with pitch and harmony. If I move to acoustic, I may be more involved in that.

I’ve developed a score matrix that’s concentric circles on a central axis to eliminate the Western hierarchy way of approaching things. it reorients people to another way of thinking about the music in front of them. A circle is egalitarian. Sometimes they involve a time demarcator: like this behavior for a minute and 30 seconds, this behavior for two minutes, this pitch for 30 seconds, this level of intensity, or silence. Whatever it is, when the stopwatch runs out the piece is done, or that person’s role is done. That’s something I’ve used in Phantom Station to great effect. It’s about directionality because that’s important, especially if it’s open. People need to know when to stop.

Ideally in a free improvisation situation, you would rely on everybody’s musical taste, sense of composition, and arc to do that.

That’s a very good point. It’s interesting when we’re dealing with process; it’s a language. Directionality is another thing I’m working on. Sometimes directionality comes from shared experience, values, and cultural meanings. That can be interesting, but I always want to feel a sense of movement so that it doesn’t feel like another bunch of individuals doing whatever.

I am in this project that Hardedge leads called Dark Matter Halo with Doug Weiselman also on guitar. It’s all about sound and electronics. Half the time I can’t tell what’s Hardedge sound design or me. The question is, “What makes this meaningful and different from anything that could be done by somebody else?

Though the drone thing can be abused, it opens up the consciousness. What you dump into that field has the potential to be very influential. I started being interested in drone music in the ’70s when I listened to a lot of North Indian classical music, and through the ’80s when people were doing the new age vibe. Now we’re in a place where the signal processing lets you create it easily. It is about how can I use this in a way that feels intelligent in that it has purpose?

What’s on your pedal board these days?

I use the TC Electronic Arena reverb and the TC Alter Ego delay. I like the Tone Print feature. The first time I used it, I demonstrated it to Melvin and JT in rehearsal. I hit send and got that sound like from a ’50s science fiction movie, like a laser thing. Melvin goes, “I don’t know about the pedal, but I like that sound.”

I use a Dunlop Mini Wah in the Fasel position. It’s great for travel but I prefer the bigger one. The small one is less detailed. Also, I use a Pedaltrain Metro 16 and when the Mini Wah is raised up it feels a bit off.

For modulation, I have the MM4 by Line 6. I’m using only the jet flange sound on it, so I could probably replace it with something smaller.

I have a Boss Delay DD-7, which I need to figure out one day, but it does cool things. For looping, I moved over to TC Electronics Ditto X4. My Boomerang pedal—which they should never have stopped making—is too heavy to carry around. It’s noisy when it gets old, they don’t make the parts for it anymore, and it’s not stereo, but it’s intuitive, and I love that you can do everything with your  feet.

What are you using for distortion pedals?

I’m afraid to tell people because it’s not made anymore. There’s probably a couple out there I may need to find and I don’t want anybody looking for it.

And watch the eBay price rise.

It’s one of the Boss distortions. I have two, but I’m looking for something that’s more contemporary. I have a VauxFlores distortion that Ralph Gibson gave me for a birthday present one year.

What amps do you use when you can use an amp you prefer?

A Fender ’65 Fender Twin Reissue or an older silver face Twin. I use pair of Twins, or one and a Fender ’65 Deluxe Reissue. That helps me get a broader spectrum. Sometimes two Twins can be too much, or not enough, of a certain frequency. I moved to Fenders because they’re everywhere. I have three choices of combinations on my rider and rarely get the first two.

Do you own a Twin or a Deluxe?

I bought a Twin one year and then it just became impractical. I have a Fender Vibroverb ’63 Reissue I got back in the ’90s. I had Harry Colby work on it. I put pair of original Oxford Jensen speakers in.

I own a ZT Clubman, which I love. It’s got limitations, but it’s incredibly oomphy for what it does. I also have a Tech 21 Trademark 60; the two of those together sound great. I was talking to the guy at ZT because I’m interested in the one that Lee Ranaldo designed with the bullseye. The ZT and the Tech 21 are great cause I’m playing stereo all the time and for small amps, they come off pretty well. Every time I record with the Tech 21 I’m reminded that it is a useful tool.

We don’t know how long Covid is going to continue. Have you thought about ways to get your music out there?

I’m hoping that can happen. The duo would be manageable. That’s the thing about playing acoustic: it doesn’t require a lot of gear. I’ve been writing music for It, which I would love to hear. But I’m disinclined to put anything new out until there’s a renegotiation of the royalty rate for streaming. If the royalty rate was even five cents for a stream, musicians wouldn’t be in the position we find ourselves in. Many people understand that music is an essential experience—it contributes to our wellbeing and health overall. However, the people who profiting from it haven’t been fair. That can change and it needs to change.


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