Q&A with avant-jazz musician Brandon Ross, crafted a personal approach to guitar, music and improvisation

"Music’s impact on anything, is to connect us to the essential nature of ourselves; our freedom; our unique sovereignty as Human Beings. True love, is the ultimate ‘revolutionary’ act/choice. Unconditional love."

Brandon Ross: Global Music Roots

Brandon Ross is an American avant-jazz guitarist, composer, band leader, vocalist, and songwriter. Born and raised in New Brunswick, NJ, Ross started playing trombone and other horns at the age of four. He also sang as a boy soprano in Christ Episcopal Church Choir of New Brunswick. When he was 11, Brandon Ross purchased his first guitar and switched to strings ever since. Brandon has crafted a personal approach to guitar and improvisation, that has taken him all over the world. He leads Brandon Ross & Blazing Beauty, his improvising trio/quartet; ‘For LiViNG Lovers’, his all-acoustic duo with bassist Stomu Takeishi and co-leads the avant power trio, Harriet Tubman, (with bassist Melvin Gibbs, and drummer JT Lewis). Ross has performed and recorded with Cassandra Wilson, Henry Threadgill, James Carter, Jewel, Tony Williams, Arto Lindsay, Leroy Jenkins, Lawrence D. ‘Butch’ Morris, Bill Frisell, Me’Shell N’degeocello, Moreno Veloso, Arrested Development, Archie Shepp, Muhal Richard Abrams, Don Byron, Myra Melford, Ron Miles, Kip Hanrahan, Oliver Lake, Wadada Leo Smith, Lizz Wright and many others.

(Brandon Ross / Photo © by Andrew James)

Ross has scored music for [the surviving reel of] the 1923 Chinese silent film “Lotus Blossom” as well as the 2012 documentary film, “Melvin & Jean An American Story” by filmmaker Maia Wechsler (about the lives of the 1971 plane hijackers, then, Black Panther party members, Melvin & Jean McNair). Ross has been commissioned by the New York Guitar Festival to arrange and perform interpretations of the music of Bob Dylan, Reverend Gary Davis, Mississippi John Hurt, and in 2019, the music of Memphis Minnie. He has recorded and performed interpretations of the film music of Toru Takemitsu, [with classical guitarist Daisuke Suzuki and bass guitarist Stomu Takeishi] “Quotation Of Dream: For The Love and Soul of Toru Takemitsu”, (Intoxicate Records, 2006) released in Japan to wide critical acclaim. He is a Chamber Music America Fellow as a 2014 New Jazz Works Composer Grant recipient.

Interview by Michael Limnios

How has the Jazz and Afro-American Roots music influenced your views of the world and the journeys you’ve taken?

As a cultural imprint and developmental context (in my case), I cannot overstate the degree of influence of Jazz and A-A Roots music on my world views/journeys. How that influence manifests is complex (and complicated). As a point of departure in the human journey of realization, my perception of value and meaning is and has been molded by what I will call the ‘mysticism’ of the intelligence expressed through those musics (as well as other art forms). In my case, the intuitive understandings and the conscious choosing to pursue an active direct relationship with the field of creativity where that mysticism plays, expanded my experience of the world and brought me into a broader awareness of the contribution – the impact of the contribution of the creative manifestations of Jazz/Roots. I came to see this expression as a calling, and of an equivalency with other spiritual and mystical traditions on the planet.

How do you describe your sound, music philosophy and songbook? Where does your creative drive come from?

I have no clear descriptions of my sound… yet. Part of the journey has been remaining oneself, while also acquiring information and developing skills, born of an ambition to fulfill a vision. The ambition itself may ‘disturb’ the perception of being enough, as one is, by imposing an overlay of needing to be different (than I am), in order to advance or ‘improve’. There is a voice in my sound. The basic sound value is one of singing. It is also, as a boy soprano singer in the Episcopal Church choir, that some of my earliest formal training took place. That character moves within my choices as an instrumentalist and composer in different ways.

My music philosophy is what draws my attention to so called Roots Music, as a Folk music form, which connects to the expressions of humanity, world wide. Global Folk musics are insights into essential cultural manifestations and values, and the subsequent imperative to fulfill them. I consider them to be aspects of a greater whole, and evidence of a unity that expresses through them.

My creative drive is that ‘imperative’ which knows itself as myself and is a seeker, seeking the conscious realization of the perfection of what is.

"The music business is a very different story in my view. If I could change the business model, I would consider reclamation of rights and ownership of all musical innovations and developments, by ‘Blues People’/Black Americans, and put control of that material and spiritual wealth, under the control of them and their descendants in perpetuity." (Brandon Ross / Photo © by Enid Farber)

Which meetings have been the most important experiences for you? What was the best advice anyone ever gave you?

Meeting a Wayshower who became my spiritual teacher, John-Roger, in 1979, has been the most important meeting of my life.

His advice has echoed in the advice of Ornette Coleman, and in the ‘advice’ of so many masters I’ve experienced through direct meeting of them or their writings or recordings.

He said, “… You don’t have to express in a way other than how you feel it in your heart…”. (When I met Ornette Coleman, he told me something that was simply another way of saying the same thing).

Meeting Ornette Coleman in 1983, remains among the most important meetings in terms of music and creativity. He told me, “Always be musically yourself.”

I am so far convinced, that accomplishing that, is a great and courageous accomplishment. The value of which becomes self-evident.

Are there any exclusively specific memorable moments with people that you’ve performed with either live or in the studio?

I remember a concert in Detroit in 1996, for the Montreux-Detroit Jazz Festival with Henry Threadgill and Make A Move. We had been on tour in Europe earlier that Summer, and had returned and had a bit of time off, but were excited about the music and the band, which was Henry; myself; Stomu Takeishi on bass guitar; Tony Cedras on harmonium and accordion; JT Lewis on drums. We were like a Navy Seal unit! Taking no prisoners, and fueled by a shared sense of mission that a new band often communicates.

We played our set, outdoors, and the intensity was palpable! Afterward, in the dressing room, we were collecting our gear and packing up to return to the hotel, and Henry turned to us and said, “I know one thing, you all played your asses off!” We knew we had, but Henry is not casual with comments like that. I have only heard him say things like that, when that was all that could be said, so it was high praise indeed. In fact, he and I spoke about that very concert very recently…

"My music philosophy is what draws my attention to so called Roots Music, as a Folk music form, which connects to the expressions of humanity, world wide. Global Folk musics are insights into essential cultural manifestations and values, and the subsequent imperative to fulfill them. I consider them to be aspects of a greater whole, and evidence of a unity that expresses through them." (Photo: Brandon Ross)

If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?

I don’t think I would change anything in the musical world. The musical world, is fine. Full of life! The music business is a very different story in my view. If I could change the business model, I would consider reclamation of rights and ownership of all musical innovations and developments, by ‘Blues People’/Black Americans, and put control of that material and spiritual wealth, under the control of them and their descendants in perpetuity. Licensure would be made available to all, on fair and reasonable terms, for purposes of education and exposition with oversight by a managing body of scholars, entrepreneurs, educators and practitioners. And reparations arranged for all prior abuse, misuse, misrepresentation and criminal injustices to be paid by the responsible entities, and/or their assigns.

What touched you from Harriet Tubman's life? How do you want your music and lyrics to affect people?

What touched me from Harriet Tubman’s life, was her determination and fulfillment of a dream of freedom under conditions that are almost inconceivable from the perspective of the conditions of the present day. As a woman, an enslaved, Black, African-descended woman, a woman considered a criminal; a rebel whose vision rose against ‘the empire’ of the time, she is a true hero, and a Wayshower.

I want my music and lyrics to bring a person’s attention to the aspect of themselves that is outside of the dualities of this world; unconfined by apparent conditions of limitation and separation. I would wish that people would be affected in such a way that they would enter into the adventure and excitement of living love, divine love, love that transcends ‘law’.

What are some of the most important lessons you have learned from your experience in the music paths?                                               (Photo: Brandon Ross)

Relinquish unnecessary effort.

Be musically yourself.

Be patient and generous.

Be a home unto yourself.

LISTEN.

TRUST YOURSELF.

Forgive ALL.

Play the idea, not the instrument…

Be the one you seek.

"My creative drive is that ‘imperative’ which knows itself as myself and is a seeker, seeking the conscious realization of the perfection of what is."

What is the impact of music on the civil & human rights, political, spiritual and socio-cultural implications?

I may have addressed this question in parts of my previous responses. Music’s impact on anything, is to connect us to the essential nature of ourselves; our freedom; our unique sovereignty as Human Beings. True love, is the ultimate ‘revolutionary’ act/choice. Unconditional love. It’s not for the faint of heart, or “ism” ‘tourists’. It is truly impartial and all inclusive. It is politically dangerous for the same reasons. It perhaps defines what it is to be Human… As such, the culture of society is impacted at every possible level, in all spheres of activity or endeavor. If music can carry us into that field of being, of awareness, then let us not hesitate to, ‘Pump up the volume!’.

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