Although part of winning the 2012 Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition — which focused on drummers that year — was a recording contract with Concord Music Group, the label wasn't entirely receptive to Jamison Ross' plans. He wanted to sing on most of the tracks.
"They made me do a demo," Ross says from his home in New Orleans, still a little incredulous.
The request suggested to Ross that the label wasn't familiar with his music, because since growing up singing in church in Jacksonville, Florida, he's drummed, sang, played keyboards and tried to avoid getting boxed into categories or niches.
"When I hear myself as an artist, I don't hear just the drums," Ross says. "I hear the concept of melody with my voice and concept of rhythm with my drums."
His 2015 Concord debut, Jamison, received a Grammy nomination for Best Jazz Vocal Album. It is no surprise that Concord is releasing his follow-up album All For One. Before its Jan. 26 release begins a busy year of touring with both his band and jazz fusion outfit Snarky Puppy, Ross is at Little Gem Saloon for a five-night tribute to Nina Simone, whose induction to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame was announced recently. He'll perform her music as well as songs from the forthcoming album.
All For One's 13 tracks present an accessible blend of jazz, blues, soul and New Orleans-style R&B. Ross gently works drumsticks and brushes throughout, but the album highlights his emotive vocals on original songs and covers. The title track was written by New Orleans funk and soul artist Wilson Turbinton, aka Willie Tee. It opens with "A Mellow Good Time," which Allen Toussaint wrote for Lee Dorsey.
"Lee Dorsey is one of my favorite vocalists," Ross says. "He's one of the most soulful singers."
Ross grew up in Jacksonville and came to New Orleans (with the encouragement of drummer Jason Marsalis) to pursue a master's degree in jazz studies at the University of New Orleans. Ross says the two New Orleans tracks on All For One helped teach him how to write songs.
"A lot of this was me learning to write songs and tell stories," he says. "Look at the parallel between 'All for One' and 'A Mellow Good Time' — that's the way you should write songs and the way they should be played, the way it should feel. When you hear the originals, it's such a warm soulful blanket."
Several of Ross' ballads focus on love, both for his wife ("Unspoken") and his daughter ("Away").
Since releasing his first album, his band has grown in size, and the addition of an organ has given it a fuller sound and sets the atmosphere on many songs. Ross found the seeds of the concept while listing to Marvin Gaye's 1964 LP When I'm Alone I Cry, featuring the soul singer performing jazz standards backed by an orchestra.
While an international tour will keep Ross away from New Orleans during much of 2018, he's clear about why he chose the city as a home.
"I am in New Orleans because I want to go play with George Porter at the Maple Leaf some nights," he says. "I want to go play with Nicholas Payton and swing out. I want to go the Prime Example and play with Wendell Brunious and David Torkanowsky some nights. That's what music is."