Clay Ross is a charismatic character. When he's not playing music in the Big Apple jazz scene, he travels around the Western Hemisphere in search of exotic styles of indigenous music.
A skillful guitarist and songwriter formerly based in Charleston, he heads back to the Lowcountry this week for a special concert with three old bandmates.
"This year, I wanted to work with the Jazz Artists of Charleston because I had such a great experience with their Holy City Homecoming event during Piccolo Spoleto in 2008," Ross says. "I was in touch with [JAC president] Leah Suárez about working together again. We put together this holiday show and things came together."
Ross spent years studying and playing jazz at the College of Charleston before going pro. He performed in Charleston and around the Carolinas in the early 2000s before relocating to New York five years ago.
In the late 2000s, Ross submerged himself in Brazilian music as a member of Cyro Baptista's renowned percussion ensemble Beat the Donkey.
The Brazilian influence is evident on Ross' latest album, an 11-song collection titled Matuto (that's the band name as well). It's an eclectic fusion of jazz, funk, and Latin styles, with several variations on the Brazil-based baião rhythmic formula.
"At its roots, it's dance music," he says. "All the rhythms I'm using in this music are from northeast Brazil, and they are, at their essence, dance music."
A native of the Upstate town of Anderson, he returns home each winter for a series of "reunion" concerts with several cohorts. He and his touring rhythm section — drummer Adam Snow and bassist Brian Mulholland — booked seven December concerts around the Carolinas, including shows in Charlotte, Saluda, Asheville, Greenville, and Columbia, plus a holiday concert in his hometown at the Electric City Playhouse.
Last December, Ross brought his touring band to the Pour House for a Sunday evening show. The core of the current version of longtime Charleston jazz/improv combo the Gradual Lean — drummer Quentin Baxter, guitarist Lee Barbour, and bassist Kevin Hamilton — performed an opening set. This Sunday, Ross reunites directly with his old bandmates, Baxter, Hamilton, and trumpeter Charlton Singleton, who's currently the conductor of the Charleston Jazz Orchestra.
"This gig in Charleston will be the first time the original members of the Gradual Lean have performed together in almost 10 years," says Ross. "We'll be doing new and old music I've written in a jazz quartet context. Last year, we played separate sets and then jammed a little bit at the end of the night. It's gonna be really fun this time."
Ross recorded enough extra material during the making of the Matuto album to cull tracks for an additional solo album titled Entre Nous. He mixed and released tracks as part of a monthly web series, one track at a time. The collection will be available at this week's show.
"Now, I have the full album, fully mastered with artwork, ready to go. I'm excited about it. Stylistically, it's all over the place, like a mixtape or jukebox kind of record. We'll be doing some of the strongest instrumentals at the concert in Charleston. They have the music already, so it's not like we're just going to get up and jam. But those guys can do anything at any time."
Over the last year, Ross performed quite a bit with his own bands, but he spent most of his time working with the April Verch Band, a folk/bluegrass combo led by world-class Canadian fiddler, singer, and step-dancer April Verch. The band specializes in a traditional repertoire rooted in the folk music she grew up with in Ontario.
"Honestly, this has been the busiest year I've had ever," Ross says. "April is an amazing musician. Through the Matuto project, I was getting more into bluegrass and I wanted to explore it some more. When this opportunity came along, it was perfect. It's been an education, and I've learned a lot about old-time and Appalachian music."
If Ross was immersed in be-bop, fusion, and modern jazz five years ago, he's detoured into a mix of Brazilian folk, John Hartford fiddle tunes, and country blues these days.
"I'm fascinated by the way things evolve, and it effects the way I feel about where I am," Ross says. "We're in this very global time in the world —through the internet and world travel — and the fact that I can incorporate all these different sounds is a symptom of the state of things. Music lovers can take advantage of how easy it is to go from one thing to the next.
"I'm not a household name, but I do make a living making music," he adds. "I can reach an audience with my music, and I'm blessed that they accept the idea that they don't always know what they're going to get, but they know it's going to be good."
Contact the JAC at (843) 641-0011 and jazzartistsofcharleston.org for tickets and more info.