To anyone who saw Joel Ross play vibraphone as an up-and-coming sideman, soloing with such uncommon vitality and bringing heaps of tonal color to bands led by Marquis Hill, James Francies, Melissa Aldana, Makaya McCraven, and more, it was abundantly clear the young Chicago native was destined for something big—and soon. Indeed, he got signed to Blue Note, not long after appearing on Flight, Francies’ 2018 debut for the label. With KingMaker, Ross seizes his moment, leading a superb group of peers on a journey that is as emotionally rich and melodic as it is technically demanding.
“Touched by an Angel” starts the album on a very slow build, establishing the sound of Ross’ vibes in tandem with Immanuel Wilkins' alto saxophone, a distinctive unison texture that informs many of Ross’ tunes. Pianist Jeremy Corren emerges as a forceful soloist on “Prince Lynn’s Twin” and “The Grand Struggle Against Fear,” pieces that introduce another device prevalent in Ross’ music: trading, in which soloists pass the baton in quicker-than-normal succession, forming a loop and upping the music’s energy. This occurs also on “Yana” (which omits Wilkins) and “Ill Relations.” While trading is among the most traditional of jazz practices, Ross’ repeated use of it in the main body of a tune is striking and unexpected.
Drummer Jeremy Dutton stamps the music with ceaseless rhythmic tension and flux, while bassist Benjamin Tiberio acts as the spinal column, unobtrusively making the asymmetric patterns and phrases line up and stay on track. The most electrifying display from the rhythm section comes on “Is It Love That Inspires You?”—a trio tour de force with just vibes and no alto or piano, the track that comes nearest to capturing the ferocious energy of Ross unleashed on the bandstand.