Ross Pederson & Individualism

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“I do march to the beat of my own drum,” says Ross Pederson, and that drum has led him to release Identity on his own label.

(Photo: Will Adamy)

With a propensity for chasing a rainbow of stylistic colors, Ross Pederson has embarked on a quest to speak as many different musical languages as possible while also keeping wide open to a variety of artistic possibilities.

For his spirited debut recording, Identity, the New York-based drummer/composer/producer decided to break out on his own without a net in the midst of his decade-long steady work as a sideman — gigs that included being one of the original drummers in Snarky Puppy, providing rhythmic support for saxophonist Grace Kelly and vocalist Shayna Steel, and touring as a long-term member of the Manhattan Transfer band.

“I’ve always been the bridesmaid but never the bride,” Pederson says in a WhatsApp conversation during the Sweden stop of Manhattan Transfer’s global 50th anniversary farewell tour. “That’s the plight of the sideman. But I have roots in so many different kinds of music that don’t appear in those gigs. It’s jazz but also pop, electronica, programming and even hip-hop. I’ve always been looking for an outlet to express my broad musical tastes. As a result, Identity is a little bit of everything.”

In a do-it-yourself mode, Pederson ultimately chose to not attach Identity to an imprint. “I do march to the beat of my own drum,” he says. “I did have contacts with a few labels who offered me some good advice about how to proceed with my first record.”

Since Pederson had been on Snarky Puppy’s first album, he decided to have a conversation with leader Mike League about the possibility of releasing Identity on the band’s GroundUP label. “I had a positive experience with the band, and it was overall a success,” he says. “But Mike was honest with me. They were more interested in focusing GroundUP on world music — acts that were different musically from Snarky Puppy. So they passed, but then told me that I’d be better off on my own —no middle man and you can be free to curate what you want to do. I could pitch the album any way I wanted to.”

Even so, the prospects were daunting. Pederson talked to other friends for advice, including Constance Hauman, who founded New York-based Isotopia Records. Others convinced him that issuing his own album was following in a trend for artists to put their music out by themselves. “I became convinced in my heart that I could do it on my own, as if to just prove it to myself that I could do it,” Pederson says. “I didn’t want someone to tell me how to make my music and how to do it. There would be no influence on my songs and their styles. It’s a mixed bag of sorts. My guess is most labels wouldn’t like that approach, anyway.”

Identity encompasses Pederson’s eclectic worldview. Born in Fargo, North Dakota, he started drumming in high school, where his influences ranged from Jimi Hendrix to Nirvana. His viewpoints expanded when he attended the University of North Texas, then exploded stylistically from jazz to pop when he made his way to New York.

For the debut, two of his long-term associates were onboard. Bassist Sam Minaie, a protégé of Charlie Haden, solidified the beat. Keyboardist David Cook (known as the musical director for a number of artists, most notably Taylor Swift) painted a tapestry of colors on piano, Wurlitzer, Hammond B-3, Rhodes and synth. The core trio splashed, grooved, mused and navigated the dense spectrum of electronics. “Our relationship goes deep,” says Pederson of his trio mates.

Pederson enlisted select players to buoy the sessions, including tenor saxophonist Donny McCaslin. “When I moved to New York, I became highly influenced by his musical tastes,” Pederson says. “He was jazz, but his sensitivity was driven by indie rock and electronics. I identified with him.”

The group recorded the tracks live in the Brooklyn studio The Bunker. Pederson retreated to his home studio to add in layers of synths and percussion. The next step was to bring in another keyboardist friend, J3PO (aka Julian Pollack), to add the magic touches and further embellish the tunes. Pederson sent the tracks to L.A., where Pollack was working with Marcus Miller and Chris Botti on their projects.

Thematically, Identity investigates stress release in the haunting “Anxiety” and explores the arpeggiated beauty of “Now.” The B-3 featured “Contemplation” is soulful, churchy and meditative. As for the electronics-fueled “Sagittarius,“ Pederson says it’s about his adventure-seeking birth sign.

Another guest star on Identity came through serendipity. To fully demonstrate that Pederson is free to record what he wants, he delivered a grooving rap song, “Bigger Than That.” As he was working on the piece, he was hearing something different than jazz. He asked his wife if the song needed a rapper. She agreed and he signed on Jswiss, who improvised lyrics to the tune that has found favor on hip-hop playlists in Apple Music and Spotify.

For now, that may be the future for Identity. But Pederson has been getting the word out. “Social media is the biggest way I know of marketing it,” he says. “Some of the tracks have made it to playlists. That increases its visibility. Indie folks, like me, do a lot of sharing. And JP30 is pushing it on his playlist. My Spotify monthly listeners have been increasing.” He’s also connected to the DistroKid Music Distribution digital music service that collects royalties from streaming platforms.

Pederson carries around hard copies of the album when he’s touring, and he’s taken on a quasi sideman gig with Japanese pop superstar Senri Oe. He sells out the Blue Note in Japan, with his fans buying Identity. Back home, Pederson turned heads at the official album release party at Nublu on New York’s Lower East Side.

There was interest. Nothing firm, but Identity could be the spark for something new. Pederson says, “I was approached by a label guy who told me, when you’ve got your next record, let’s talk.” DB



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