Sacramento guitarist Ross Hammond has played on large stages and in small corners throughout the United States. His sound is equal parts jazz, folk, blues, spirituals and world music. His latest release is "Humanity Suite," a live, long-form jazz suite written for sextet and recorded at the Crocker Art Museum.
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Guitarist Ross Hammond is serious about music and the message it carries: "That's how life makes sense. Through music. I feel like that's the best voice I have; being able to play and being able to translate what I'm feeling into what I'm playing."
Hammond's 11th and most recent album is Cathedrals, released in June and featuring his quartet with saxophonist Vinny Golia, bassist Steuart Liebig and drummer Alex Cline. It's the sequel to Adored, his 2012 record with the same band.
"I'm really happy with the way those records came out," he said. "I feel like we were able to make a statement and say we're from California and California has some great stuff happening. I like Cathedrals even more than Adored. Adored was great. It packed a punch and said something right away. But I feel like the music on Cathedrals is a little bit more happening composition-wise and the way the music flows together."
Hammond says he tries through his compositions to address the human condition and to deal with strong emotions. In the last few years, the birth of his daughter has found him exploring childhood and fatherhood in his writing.
"I like to work with themes and have variations on themes," Hammond said. "I don't feel like my music is very difficult or heady or ultra-modern or cerebral. Even though it's instrumental music, I feel like stories can be told. It's a really spiritual approach to writing music."
The Sacramento News and Review called Hammond "one of Sacramento's greatest jazz generators and arguably its most accessible." Hammond is busy as both a leader and sideman, playing four or five nights a week in Northern California, LA, Seattle and elsewhere on the West Coast. He also travels at least twice a year to the East Coast, usually to New York, Boston and Philadelphia. He's performed with many well-known musicians, including saxophonist Oliver Lake; drummers Calvin Weston and Mike Pride; and bassist Ken Filiano. Hammond plays in a duo with drummer Scott Amendola called Lovely Builders and in a project called Electropoetic Coffee with poet Lawrence Dinkins. Upcoming tours will see him on stage with Dwight Trible and rising saxophone star Catherine Sikora.
Hammond started playing guitar – a gift from his mother – at age 12, not long after moving from Lexington, KY, to Sacramento, CA. He wanted to play drums, but his mother advocated for the more portable guitar, a prescient choice given Hammond's extensive touring as an adult. Like many young guitarists, Hammond started playing funk and soul and rock music in high school. Then in college, his horizons expanded.
"I was taking lessons from a really good guitar teacher named Jim Beeler, and he introduced me to Kenny Burrell and Grant Green and Wes Montgomery and Mark Whitfield. It was a step further than what I was already doing."
Hammond also gravitated toward free jazz "in the Afro sense. Stuff that has a really strong blues-rooted groove and the rhythmic thing is really there and battling horns – a cacophony of sound. But I'm also really into folk music. So I think in a sense the melodies I write are based on lullabies or things that I sing around the house. I always want to have something that's combining those things. Free-jazz improvisation with something that's thematic, a larger thematic idea that's the undercurrent of the piece. If I'm improvising, I try to play melodies against what's happening."
Hammond's own listening tastes suggest the eclecticism of his compositions. On any given day his house will be filled with the sounds of Joni Mitchell or Iron & Wine or Tarbaby or Iron Maiden. He also stays current with the jazz scene. "I'm constantly hearing music that's flooring me and I'm trying to stay up on it. I feel like if you don't stay up on the new music you're living in a bubble and I don't want to do that. "
Hammond's next project is a suite for sextet called The Humanity Suite, based on silhouettes by artist Karen Walker.
"She's giving an exhibition in Sacramento and I got a commission to compose music based on her work. It's a suite of different compositions that are linked together with improv sections and solos and duos. That'll be at the Crocker Museum in Sacramento in October. I'm going to try to record it, too. So we're going to perform it in October and hopefully release it next year. "
For Ross Hammond, it's the variety of experience that he finds most attractive about being a musician, and an improvising musician in particular.
"If you're finding that things are always the same, the chances are that you're really not improvising," he said. "I enjoy playing and figuring out what kind of spaces I'm going to get into. The improv guys that I like the most are the ones that can do a lot of different stuff. They can play jazz, free, rhythmic, African, blues, folk songs. I don't want to put out a project where we only play one thing for an hour. I guess my goal is to have a voice and to bring my voice into any style that we're playing so you can always tell that it's me playing. I feel like Vinnie Golia has that and Oliver Lake has that. Whatever project they're in, you can tell it's them that's playing. That's a great thing that musicians should be trying to achieve."
-Jason Crane, The Jazz Session
(photo by George Thomson)