top of page

REVIEW | Joel Ross "nublues" by Jeff Cebulski

Joel Ross


Blue Note, 2024

By Jeff Cebulski | ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Being in the midst of Black History Month, I think it’s important to note that The Blues, for African-Americans, serves as a narrative, a form, a motif, and a trope. Reading Albert Murray helps.

For black jazz musicians, at least, the Blues serves as an underpinning to much of its expression, be it artistic or rhetorical.

I was thinking about all this while listening to Chicago-bred vibraphonist Joel Ross’ sterling new Blue Note album nublues. Ross, a clearly rising star in the jazz universe, has defined himself during three initial releases as a thoughtful artist who incorporates his upbringing and traditions into compositional themes while expanding the generic palette.

nublues, though, advances his development one notch further, as Ross truly enters the public milieu via his interpretation of the Blues, following a New School education on the matter courtesy of teacher Darius Jones. While clearly derivative, the material on nublues is artfully rendered, combining those elements I mentioned above. Using Coltrane as inspiration, Ross has created another theme-driven release; this time, though, the narrative is perhaps implied while the other three rule, as the young leader asked his ensemble mates to “play the blues” as they saw fit, a Kind of Miles approach. While nublues is probably not as earthshaking as Kind of Blue was, the attempt to reclaim the form in the midst of the current brain-bashing over race and its persistent effects is heartening.

Involved in this refreshing effort are Immanuel Wilkins on alto, Jeremy Corren on piano, Kansa Mendenhall on bass, and Jeremy Dutton on drums, with guest flautist Gabrielle Gabo.

The album begins with a reverent “early,” which hearkens memory of the intro to A Love Supreme. And then, I think, to clarify the influence, Ross seamlessly moves into “Equinox,” Coltrane’s own advanced blues vehicle that the vibraphonist has included in his performance repertoire. Another clue to Ross’ thematic bent occurs at the end when the group plays a repeating phrase that is also tacked on at the finish of the closer, “Central Park West.”

The lighthearted “mellowdee,” which has shades of Keith Jarrett’s 70’s quartet, follows, with Wilkins sounding like Jan Garbarek (or Dewey, take your pick) as he trades passages with the multifluent Ross. As an example of more adventurous composition, the song turns quiet midway, led by Correa’s stately expression, before Wilkins leads the ensemble through another repeating measure.

“chant” brings Garo to the fore in a relatively short, multi-tracked chamber display that again uses a repetitive refrain as a base element, perhaps as a transition to “what am i waiting for?”, a pensive, reflective piece. Bringing the proceedings back to a quasi-church context is “bach (God the Father in Eternity)”, which indeed sounds like the old master’s music, in style and reverence. Garo contributes the main melody with Wilkins’ and Mendenhall’s accompaniment while Ross adds touches that sound a lot like Milt Jackson with the MJQ.

The title cut, perhaps the most improvised moment thus far, extends the Jackson connection with some extra reverb besides in the opening bars, leading to a bowed moment from Mendenhall and ambient improvs before Wilkins joins the mix with an intense, abstract flavor while Dutton pounds away.

In a distinct contrast of blues vision, “ya know” emerges from that into a swing mode. Mendenhall’s dancing bass supports Dutton’s slightly restrained beat as Wilkins’ dexterous sax signing heralds Ross’ own swing solo and a fine addition from Corren.

A smooth transition to Monk’s “Evidence” occurs. The ensemble manages to almost up-Monk the composer, going one off-beat further (kudos to the rhythm section) as the group quotes the theme and then takes off in its own direction, finishing with yet another repetitive section, as if a suite was finished. Impressive stuff.

As mentioned prior, the album closes where it began, in the Land (Cathedral?) of Coltrane. On “central park west” the players stick pretty much to the classic melody, an homage to the inspirational agent, in my view, of Ross’ vision. 

So, how nu is nublues? Perhaps in Joel Ross’ conception of finding the Blues in varying degrees and layers across different traditions. And in so doing, this new album strikes me as a crucial advancement in his artistic development. The continuing brotherhood of this ensemble and its ability to translate the leader’s vision, both musically and philosophically, bodes well for the latest generation of jazz geniuses and their fans.

Joel Ross, nublues. Blue Note, 2024.

Joel Ross, vibes

Immanuel Wilkins, alto sax

Jeremy Corren, piano

Kansa Mendenhall, bass

Jeremy Dutton, drums

Gabrielle Gabo, flute

About Jeff Cebulski

Jeff Cebulski, who lives in Chicago, is a retired English educator (both secondary and collegiate) and longtime jazz aficionado. His career in jazz includes radio programs at two stations in southeast Wisconsin, an online show on Kennesaw State’s (GA) Owl Radio from 2007 until 2015, and review/feature writing for Chicago Jazz Magazine since 2016, including his column "Jazz With Mr. C". He has interviewed many jazz artists, including Joshua Redman, Charles Lloyd, Dave Holland, John Beasley, and Chris Brubeck, as well as several Chicago-based players. Jeff is a member of the Jazz Journalists Association. Contact Jeff at


bottom of page