Joel Ross sometimes talks about the instrument that has made him one of the most in-demand young jazz musicians in America as if it were a wardrobe stuck on a staircase between floors or a refrigerator that quits spitting out ice in the middle of a heat wave.
“Honestly, it’s still a love-hate relationship,” said the 24-year-old South Side native, speaking recently from his home in Brooklyn, New York. “The drum is my first love, and I actually fell in love with the piano a few years ago.”
Listening to Ross play, few would guess at his struggles with the vibraphone — a “big, awkward” and occasionally cantankerous instrument.
In less capable hands, the vibraphone — essentially a xylophone with a motor — might sound like wind chimes or something to ignore in a hotel lobby. Ross’ playing transports his audience, as though on a magic carpet skimming across a shimmering sea.
Ross, who will be in town Aug. 30 performing with his Good Vibes quintet at the Chicago Jazz Festival, grew up in the Avalon Park and Calumet Heights neighborhoods.
His parents were Chicago cops, now both retired. As toddlers, Ross and his twin, Joshua, were fascinated by a godparent playing drums at church.
“We would be watching him and kind of emulating him,” said Ross. “We’d get home and we’d be beating on stuff.”
The twins were given drum sets, with Ross’ brother showing more “natural talent.” Joshua now plays the drums professionally.
“When we were about 10 years old, we joined our elementary school concert band,” Ross said. “[Joshua] kind of made me do that mallet percussion because he was better at the snare drum and the actual drums. That’s how I got to play the xylophone and the orchestra bells.”
And the glockenspiel, a xylophone-like instrument.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been worried about what’s cool, per se,” he said. “It’s the love of the music that drives it.”
Ross and his brother, when in the fifth grade, auditioned for the All-City Concert Band and Jazz Band; they made the cut for both.
“We both auditioned on drums, and he was the better drummer,” Ross said. “So they suggested I play the vibraphone. I had never really heard of [it]. I didn’t really want to play it. But my dad and the percussion instructor strongly suggested that I stick with it. So I did. and I’m here now.”
The twins were part of the very first class at The Chicago High School for the Arts, which opened in 2009.
“He was clearly very, very talented even as a 13- and 14-year-old,” said Betsy Ko, head of the high school’s music department. “He had a very distinguished career with us.”
A decade later, Ross is earning rave reviews for his playing. Pitchfork.com called Ross’ solo debut album, “KingMaker,” released in May, a “marvel.”
“He’s so in command of the instrument and just really clear about what he wants to say that he’s very mesmerizing to watch,” said Ko.
Ross said his influences include Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Thelonious Monk.
“As a piano player, [Monk] found a way to develop a completely unique voice on the piano,” Ross said. “That was a shining example of how it can be done for an instrument that doesn’t use the voice [and how] it can still be vocal.”
One of the challenges with the vibraphone is that — because of its size — the instrument doesn’t travel with Ross on tour.
“We have to come in, sound check, get used to the instrument we’re going to be playing that day and then try to make music on it with everyone else,” he said. “We don’t have the same luxury of a horn player who takes their horn with them, gets to know their horn personally.”
Sometimes the motor dies, silencing the vibrato. Or a string breaks. Or the pedal that sustains the notes isn’t working.
“I just did a gig with my group in D.C. at Blues Alley, and the string broke on the first tune of the first set,” Ross said. “So I had to make it through the gig with a broken note.”
His 2019 tour schedule has included gigs in England, Italy, the Netherlands and the Canary Islands.
How, at such a young age, is he handling the jet-set life and the effusive praise he’s received?
“My family and my friends do a good job of keeping me humble,” Ross said. “It’s exciting. I tend to keep a level head about everything.”