"I think the idea of what jazz is, quote-unquote, is what has always attracted us to each other," guitarist and composer Clay Ross says of the guys from Gradual Lean. "It's the idea that jazz is more about being the best you can be as an instrumentalist or being free, technically, to explore whatever area of music you want to explore."
Ross played a lot of jazz-oriented gigs with Gradual Lean over the years. After working with renowned Brazilian bandleader Cyro Baptista and the fiery ensemble Beat the Donkey — and traveling to Brazil in person to hear, feel, and play the native rhythms and melodies himself, Ross writes his songs in a more exotic direction these days.
His latest album, an 11-song collection titled Matuto (that's the band name as well), bounces with an unorthodox variety of rhythms — particularly variations on the baião rhythmic formula.
A native of Anderson, S.C., Ross spent years studying and playing jazz at the CofC and around the scene before relocating to New York. He journeys back to his home state this month for a series of "reunion" concerts, including a show at the Pour House on Sunday evening.
"I haven't been back since Piccolo Spoleto [in 2008]," Ross says. "This year, with this new album out, we have some momentum going, and we're trying do more dates. A lot of things just pointed toward doing a little tour of it this year. We're doing six dates leading up to the show in Anderson."
Ross has conducted an annual holiday "reunion" concert in his hometown of Anderson for nine years. On Tues. Dec. 22, Ross and his touring band — drummer Adam Snow and bassist Brian Mulholland — perform at the Electric City Playhouse in Anderson. In Charleston, longtime colleague Kevin Hamilton (of Gradual Lean) will handle bass duties on stage.
"It's hard, but at the same time, it's really natural and makes a lot of sense," Ross says of performing with a different lineup. "I've been really lucky to have played with all these really talented musicians. Kevin Hamilton and I have been making music for, like 15 years. It's really easy to play with people who you've known that long — especially people who are that talented. He recently played the music here in New York and sounded great, so it's working out quite well."
Adam Snow will be keeping time on the drum kit during all of Ross' local dates this month. A revered drum professor at both Winthrop University and Davidson College, he keeps a busy schedule with a variety of jazz, funk, and world music projects.
"Adam and I actually went to high school together," says Ross. "He's done my reunion concerts in the past. He's a super-accomplished drummer who's really incredibly consistent. Like Kevin and Quentin and others, he's one of the guys I've known since I was young that I've always admired.
"We know what we're going to be doing, and I definitely look forward to playing in that environment," he adds. "You know, playing in the theaters and listening rooms is fun, but the clubs are sometimes even more fun, especially with the music we're playing. At its roots, it's dance music. All the rhythms I'm using in this music are from northeast Brazil, and they are, at their essence, dance music. I hope that people will dance. That would make my night."
Latin rhythms and worldly sub-genres of musical styles have become increasingly prevalent in Charleston's jazz/improv scene — from the independent artists gigging around the clubs to the big-stage productions of the Jazz Artists of Charleston. It's a trend that doesn't surprise Ross at all.
"It's a product of our time, and a positive aspect of globalization," he says.