By Terra Ganey
The Pigeon Press( Portland, Oregon)
If you were to make a list of objects unlikely to be found in a music studio here are three things that might appear on it: neon green shag carpet, a book analyzing the content of an online comic strip called Toothpaste for Dinner and a collection of obscure surrealist paintings from the 1960s. Now, if you were to make another list of objects that can be found in the music studio of Elliot Ross, you would find on it the same three things. Had I not arrived 1p minutes early to my 30-Minute Free Introductory Lesson with Mr. Ross, I would never have noticed the two books (the green carpet was hard to miss), as I discovered them underneath a dictionary of musical terms and the January 2016 edition of Stereophile Magazine, listening to Ross instruct a young boy on the difference between a quarter note and a half note. The smell of rain floated in through an unfinished mail slot and mixed with the perfume from a lavender candle that burned on the front desk. On the large street-view window, a decal read ‘Rhapsody Music School’ in a shade of green only slightly deeper than the carpet.
Ross’s recording studio, which doubles as a music school (or rather, his music school that doubles as a studio), is separated from the lobby by a curtain, and from the street outside by a floor-to-ceiling window. As the curtain parted, the little boy I had heard earlier emerged with his mother with a ukulele, and, presumably, his newfound knowledge of quarter notes and half notes. I stood up as they passed, and Mr. Ross greeted me with a firm handshake. He appeared tall and well-built, although that may have just been an illusion caused by the bulky green sweater he had on. His glasses were two thick ovals connected by a thin piece of wire, and rested on his nose like a bird about to take off from its perch. On top of his head, where I had expected to find his signature golfer’s cap, was a wreath of thin hair surrounding a balding patch. The golfer’s cap was placed instead atop an electronic keyboard that sat in the corner of the room.
As soon as we sat down in his studio, Ross hit the ground running, and I scrambled to get my recording device out as he transitioned quickly from a short introduction to a shameless self-promotion. Handing me a record, he began to discuss his jazz group, Moongriffin, and their first album (the one I currently held in my hand). I flipped over the LP, still in its plastic cover, and pretended to read the back while I listened.
Ross’s voice is reminiscent of Allen Ginsberg: a deep monotone that prevents any emotion from permeating his thoughts. “Those guys,” he said, referring to the musicians featured on his album, “are all guys I met from the Chicago scene.” As he went on about all the artists he knew or the ones he had worked with, more names came out of his mouth than I would have had time to count, and I was quite ashamed to admit I knew less than half of them.
About 1o minutes into our conversation, Ross asked if I was a fan of Bird (Charlie Parker) and when I said that I wasn’t, he was quick to respond. “Any time you have trouble appreciating somebody like [Bird], I’d say it means you haven’t listened enough,” he said. Before I could give a reason for my preference, he began to speak fondly of Parker, as well as Coltrane and a series of jazz giants from the 20th century. I wondered what he would give to be alive in their time.
A couple minutes later, Ross began rummaging through a box of records without explanation. He continued to speak, although I could barely hear him with his back turned and his head buried between Stan Getz and Duke Ellington. Soon enough he resurfaced with a Sun Ra record in hand.
“Do you know who John Gilmore is?” he asked. I nodded enthusiastically, excited that I recognized the name. He went on to explain that John Gilmore was the tenor saxophonist featured on the album, and I went on to realize that I had been thinking of an entirely different John Gilmore, though I didn’t care to say so. Ross set the record on his vintage turntable, let the needle fall, and sat in silence for about a minute and a half, listening. This was the only period of silence––from him, at least––I can remember while I was in his presence.
The record, Lanquidity, was released in 1978 under the genre jazz fusion/avant-garde jazz. Opening with soft piano and ballad-style drums, the first track (for which the album is named) features 16 musicians playing 36 different instruments, of which Sun Ra himself plays 13. With generous use of synthesizers and orchestra bells, the album has a buoyant, trance-like feel, introducing new instruments and modal phrasing throughout. Featured on the hypnotic opening track is none other than tenor saxophonist John Gilmore. At least one of Ross’s infamous name-drops had some relevance to the conversation.
As an artist, Ross seems to have followed a path similar to Sun Ra’s. Both have roots in Chicago, having gotten several of their biggest breaks there, and, like many other musicians, made the jump to New York City in an attempt to make it in one of the biggest music scenes in the country. However, where Ross seemed overwhelmed by his consistent trouble in finding gigs, Sun Ra soon found praise from jazz giants like Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk before making a final move to Philadelphia, not unlike Ross’s final move back to Portland.
These thoughts ran through my head as the first track from Lanquidity ran through about half of its eight minutes and 21 seconds, until finally Ross spoke again, bringing up his Chicago days. “There was a period of time where I was in at least six bands,” he said. “Sometimes I would be playing three shows in one weekend, all in different towns.”
By a happy mistake, I ended up fumbling over my words, and rather than asking what was different about the music scene in Chicago, I asked if there were downfalls to playing music in Portland. This set Ross off on a spree of rapid-fire criticisms to the music scene here in town; it was the first time I had heard emotion in his voice. He spoke first of the closed-mindedness of musicians here.
“You can go to a place like Jimmy Mak’s,” he said, referring to a well-known jazz club here in town, “but all you’ll hear there is old standards. How many times can people hear Coltrane’s “My Favorite Things” or a version of “How High the Moon” before those songs get boring?” I was surprised; Ross had spoken so fondly of Coltrane earlier, as well as many others who had established standards like “My Favorite Things” in the first place. He went on to discuss how Portland had no ear for experimental jazz: the kind of jazz that Ross himself creates. I felt the need to disagree. The way I saw it, there were plenty of groups in the area that were considered “experimental” or “avant-garde”, and it seemed like a contradiction for Ross to find himself underappreciated when he was playing a show for the Portland Jazz Festival the next weekend. However, I voiced no such opinion. Perhaps his music was just too ahead of its time.
Ross describes his debut album, Glimpse of Future, as a “space jazz masterpiece” and features several up-and-coming artists such as Gerald Bailey (trumpet) and Nate Lepine (saxophone and flute), most of whom he had met while working in Chicago. The album makes ample use of synthesizers and electronic sound effects, juxtaposed with smooth melodic lines carried through a small horn section. As a stylistic choice, most of the improvisation on each track is kept simple and significantly “inside the box” for a relatively “outside the box” album. If any music enthusiast were to listen to the entirety of the album, their best guess as to genre would probably be electronic jazz, and although electronic jazz and experimental jazz are not mutually exclusive, it would be a stretch to call Glimpse of Future experimental. In fact, the similarities between Moongriffin’s album and the 1978 Sun Ra record Mr. Ross had played for me earlier did not go unnoticed. The structure and dense, rhythmic curiousness of both albums could have easily originated in the same era.
As the half-hour turned into 45 minutes, Ross became very forthcoming with advice and tips. He would often tell me to listen to an album when I got home, or to try a new technique, or to “forget about learning songs in all twelve keys,” as it was “useless anyway.” I didn’t know him well enough to judge whether this stemmed from a feeling of superiority, or from the part of his personality that was designated to teach music.
For his final stunt, Ross decided to put his piano skills on display. Although primarily a guitarist, he began studying piano at age eightand found it useful in the composition process. He led me to a back room of the studio and sat down in front of an upright piano. Handing me a few loose sheets of music, he explained that they were early drafts of a song he had written for his debut album.
“I wrote this on a plane,” he told me. “I had no keyboard or instrument at all, I just started with some chords and worked from there. Of course it sounded totally different when I sat down to play it than it did in my head.” Before I could say anything in response, Ross began to play the song. It had a solemn, brooding melody accompanied by a series of augmented minor chords (which I was only able to recognize because they were written on the hard copy he had given me). Ross played piano with a particular style, and a technique I had never seen before. The movements of his hands on the keys seemed awkward and jerky, but somehow the music came out the opposite: smooth and mellow. I could only imagine how he played guitar. The song lasted about three minutes. After he has finished playing, I asked if composing music came easily to him.
“Well yeah,” he said, indignant. “I wrote that on an airplane. All you really have to do is pick some chords you like, and write a melody to go with it. It only has to sound good to you, no one else matters. As long as it sounds cool to you, it’s good.”
This seemed like an excessively simplistic approach to writing music, but I had no time to argue, as we had used up a full hour and Ross’s next client was sitting in the waiting room, flipping through Toothpaste for Dinner. I gathered my things and Ross greeted the little boy, giving him a high five and leading him into the studio to begin their lesson.
As I passed by the front window on my way home, Ross pointed me out to the little boy and they both turned to wave goodbye.
Photo Credit: Rick Harris