By the time this article hits the stands, Clay Ross will be safely back in his apartment in Brooklyn’s Park Slope district, having just spent two weeks serenading his old southern stomping grounds with the music of Matuto. It took four trips to the Brazilian countryside to bring the 32-year-old native of Anderson, SC to the music of Bill Monroe. Ross has earned Jazz Ambassador status for his guitar stylings, but his new disc, Matuto (Ropeadope), is a subtle blend of bluegrass and baiao that adds playful vocals, cavaquinho and kashaka to his musical arsenal.
Ross grew up hearing his father’s classic rock, and, like most kids learning guitar in the early ’90s, he loved Metallica and wanted to play heavy metal. Discovering that guitar hero Randy Rhoads also played classical, Ross began studying classical. “I’d go through phases with guitarists,” he explains. “I’d pick a guy that I was in awe of, study them for maybe a year, imitate them, transcribe their solos, try to put things into my playing.”
After enrolling at College of Charleston, he met jazz drummer Quentin Baxter, and soon was soaking up a different strain of guitarists — the likes of Pat Metheny and Bill Frisell. “Those early Pat Martino records with Don Patterson on organ,” he says. “His lines were awesome. I still have some of that in my playing. I love Grant Green’s deceptively simplistic approach, the soulful, pure quality of his sound. When he hits a note, that’s the note, and you feel it. But lately I’ve been way into the bluegrass cats, so I’m studying Tony Rice, Brian Sutton, David Greer, trying to get my right hand really strong in that flatpicking style.”
While in college he co-founded the jazz/fusion band Gradual Lean. “Jazz has a strong identity in Charleston,” he contends, “and because of the tourism, there’s a lot of opportunity to play and get paid for it, so man it was great. I didn’t go to Berklee College of Music, but I feel like the time I spent in Charleston was just as good because I came to New York having had a lot of real experience. I came to New York with the skills of knowing how to work gigs and create gigs and actually perform on the bandstand, not just in the classroom.”
Ross had been in Charleston for about eight years when he bolted from that comfort zone to New York in 2002. Arriving in town, he contacted fellow South Carolinian Bob Belden, a Grammy-winning arranger and record producer living in the city. “He told me, ‘You’ll see after you’ve been here long enough, how just surviving in this city is an accomplishment.’ And I was scared, you know. He sent me an e-mail a few weeks ago that said it’s amazing that I came up here to do one thing and ended up finding something else that allowed me to be more myself. He said that a lot of people come to New York to play bebop and they find nothing, but if you come up to find music, it’s everywhere. It’s very true. If I came up here to be the same guy I was in Charleston, then man I’m gonna get beat down because there’s not room for that. I’ve got to come here and let the city show me. I think that’s what New York is all about, and it’s humbling. You’ve got to drop a lot of ideas about what you were, so that you can make room for what you can become.”
Ross started hanging out at Smalls and other jazz clubs, doing the required things to get “inside” the scene. He met accordion player Victor Prieto and they started a duo to hustle work. “That was the first time I’d ever heard Chorinho [aka Choro], this style of Brazilian ragtime. It was developed in Rio de Janeiro in the 1940s, and is very much compatible with the ragtime movement in New Orleans at the same time. Similar harmony, but rhythmically very different, because of Brazilian percussion elements like pandiero and surdos. It’s great music. That was the entry point.”
In 2005 Ross heard that percussionist Cyro Baptista was looking for a guitarist for his ensemble Beat The Donkey, and he made it known he wanted the gig. “Everytime that Cyro played a show or did a workshop I’d be there. I stalked him a little,” the guitarist laughs. “He didn’t know who I was, but I knew that I could bring something good to the group and also get a lot from it. We’ve toured the world, it’s been awesome. And it’s deeply affected my music. Cyro’s energy is contagious, and his approach to music, the way he’s been successful in music purely through the power of his presence and his personality, and being 100 percent himself — that’s inspired me.”
Baptista encouraged Ross to start singing again. “I had put that way on the back burner for the years that I was studying jazz. It was all about instrumental music. But then I ended up having opportunities to work with musicians in New York. When Cyro found out that I could sing it, became this huge asset in his eyes and to the band, and I was like, ‘Wow, okay. I guess you’re right.’ It taught me to see everything differently.”
In 2006 Ross was chosen to be a Jazz Ambassador by the US State Department, and has taken his music to Macedonia, Kosovo, Greece, Turkey and recently to Recife. “It’s what they call ‘soft diplomacy.’ It’s all about trying to win hearts and minds with music. Understand people more so that they’ll better understand us and we can work together. I can’t think of a better job for a musician.” On the first of four tours to Recife, Brazil, he fell in love with the music. “Recife is such a concentration of Afro-Brazilian culture and music, and I just love the rhythms. The beats are incredible. That just planted the seed, and now I’ll be learning about it for the rest of my life. I’m just scraping the surface of it. The music is just incredible. Each rhythmic part is very simple, but when they’re all put together it makes this real infectious sound, and it’s complex in its arrangement.
“In general, people in Brazil don’t think Brazilian music is nearly as amazing as I do,” he notes. “I’m fascinated, I’m foaming at the mouth over it. And then I realize, there’s something in my backyard, like focused and concentrated. Literally, Bill Monroe started bluegrass music in Greenville, South Carolina and Asheville, North Carolina, right where I grew up. And I ignored it. I wouldn’t say I hated it, but nothing I did in music ever reflected any sense of hillbilly, for sure.
“I want it to be a part of my musical identity, and I can choose to display it or not, but I’m going to know about it,” he says. Ross is studying mountain-style guitar picking, and using it onstage with Matuto (Brazilian slang for “country boy”). He still plays his Gibson ES-175, but he has seriously changed his tone. “I was doing this real dark jazzy sound before, and lately the sound’s become much more bright, reaching for more bite, and even a bit of what you could call twang. A brighter, more shimmery sound.”
At the Matuto CD release party in Manhattan, the stage at Joe’s Pub shook with fiddle, flute, accordion, guitar, bass and four percussionists. “It’s folk music, and even though it’s exotic folk music that’s something new for people, it’s like a very focused sound. It’s a lot less harmony, and simpler 16-bar forms. It’s dance music. It’s not dense harmony with odd-paired bars and meters, and it’s really refreshing in that way. It just sounds to me more pure and more direct.”