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Clay Ross, Expressing American Folk As A Global ‘Patchwork’

Clay Ross, right, pulled together the American Patchwork Quartet with singer Falu Shah, drummer Clarence Penn, and bassist Yasushi Nakamura.

Late in 2012, I fell for a band called Matuto when they were booked on Music City Roots at the Loveless Cafe Barn. The name is a Portuguese word that they said was the rough equivalent of “hillbilly,” and they played an uncanny, accordion-driven blend of Brazilian, Appalachian and jazz. The guitarist and lead singer was a fellow named Clay Ross, and I took notice.

A few years later, I started appreciating a band with roots in Charleston, SC called Ranky Tanky, on a mission to revive and reimagine folk songs from the Gullah people of the low country and sea islands. The music throbbed with rhythm and soul, and next thing I knew they were winning their second Grammy Award for Best Regional Roots Album. Playing guitar and singing in this mostly African-American group was definitely white guy Clay Ross.

In case it wasn’t a pattern by that point, it officially became one with Ross’s latest conceptual ensemble. Its name isn’t as exotic as the others, but The American Patchwork Quartet is the latest iteration of the New York-based musician’s ethos and modus operandi.

“I'm always kind of dreaming up these scenarios, and then trying to navigate and recruit talented people that I really admire, and am inspired by, to just get into this situation and see what happens,” Ross says in Episode 274 of The String. “It's a fun space to live, because it's always interesting, you know? You're living in this question. And you're working through the groundlessness.”

Ross tells me his family wasn’t musical, but as he grew up trying out the piano, violin and ultimately guitar, he found that music was the one pursuit where “I just don't ever feel like I run out of energy for it.” He studied composition at the College of Charleston and followed his muse into a hybrid of jazz and roots music, with guitar heroes like Tony Rice and Bill Frisell. He moved to New York and got his sea legs playing jazz dates. Then he got motivated to chase down a gig with legendary Brazilian percussionist Cyro Baptista, which Ross says put him on big stages for the first time and galvanized his passion for global roots fusion.

“A big part of his concept was to bring the world together through his music. And that really hit me and touched me,” Ross says. “And that definitely has played a part in shaping my trajectory. And the reason that I'm so interested in all these global cultures and how they, how we can dialogue together through music.” A real band is “democracy in action,” he says. “It doesn't always work in the world. But it more often works in music. And, and that gives me hope that makes me feel inspired.”

Ross was inspired to assemble the American Patchwork Quartet with musicians he’d known a while from varied traditions and parts of the globe. The rhythm section is Yasushi Nakamura, born in Japan, on bass and Clarence Penn, a top-level jazz drummer from Detroit who studied with Ellis Marsalis. The focal point though inevitably becomes singer Falguni (Falu) Shah, a world-renowned Hindustani classical singer from Mumbai. Her interpretations of “Bury Me Beneath The Willow,” “Wayfaring Stranger,” and other less famous folk songs is like nothing I’ve ever heard. Ross invited and even challenged her to integrate her raga-based training and microtonal shadings with the ancient laments of Appalachia and the British Isles. For me, the tracks “Gone For Soldier” and “The Blackest Crow” should be in a hall of fame celebrating the folk process. Ross takes commanding lead vocals of his own on “Lazy John” and “Soul Of A Man,” while the two voices are often locked in succulent harmony. To say that this quartet is making these hallowed songs their own is an understatement.

As good as the album is, the APQ was conceived as a touring ensemble, with a layered mission. “I want people to look up on the stage and see this patchwork of American diversity,” is how Ross says he pitched his concept to his band-mates. “And I want to use these old American folk songs and the songs of past immigrant voices as a platform for us to explore our own American identities and for us to try to try to create something totally unique to us and very contemporary. And I want us all to bring our own voices to it and not try to imitate what has been done, but do it in our own way.”

Follow the American Patchwork Quartet’s tour dates here.

American Patchwork Quartet - Wayfaring Stranger

Craig Havighurst is WMOT's editorial director and host of <i>The String, a weekly interview show airing Mondays at 8 pm, repeating Sundays at 7 am. He also co-hosts The Old Fashioned on Saturdays at 9 am and Tuesdays at 8 pm. Threads and Instagram: @chavighurst. Email: craig@wmot.org</i>