Phelan grew up in East Blue Hill listening to the sweet sounds of “A-Train” wafting up through the rafters as they rehearsed in the living room below. After getting schooled by Steve Orlofsky and graduating from George Stevens Academy in 2002, he made the move to New Orleans and graduated from Loyola University in 2007 with a degree in Jazz Saxophone. Subsequent stops included a brief stay in Brazil where he studied, recorded, and performed with choro guitarist Anisio Dias. Volunteering at a community music center in Brazil inspired him to become an educator, and he moved to New York City where he received an M.A. in teaching music from Hunter College. He currently lives and teaches music, art, and technology at a charter school in Harpswell, Maine.
Since his earliest years in East Blue Hill, 26-year-old Ross Gallagher has been on a journey of musical exploration. As a child, Gallagher was surrounded by performing jazz musicians who visited and rehearsed in his family home.
Captivated by the sound of the bass, the young Gallagher began playing the electric instrument as a fifth-grader and the upright acoustic double bass as a high school freshman.
He became an integral part of an award-winning jazz band and combo at George Stevens Academy and went on to study music and composition and earn his bachelor’s degree at New York City’s prestigious New School, a mecca for students of the performing arts.
For the past several years, in addition to performing in a wide variety of musical settings, Gallagher has been writing music that seeks to represent his perceptions of the world around him — as it is and as it could be. Now that music is available to those who want to hear it in a recording titled Utopian Dreams/Dystopian Visions that’s available online in an unlimited streaming format and high-quality download and will soon be released on a compact disc.
In a recent phone conversation from New York City, Gallagher talked about his roots and his music. The new recording is meant to be taken not just as a collection of disparate songs but as a musical statement.
“After spending a lot of time in different jazz circles and seeing a lot of music being made that was just songs,” he said, “what I wanted to shy away from was throwing out song after song.”
The music spans a range of emotion—foreboding, pathos, joy and hopefulness—that have been filtered through Gallagher’s experiences with “the highs and lows of what I perceive to be happening in our society.” In the end, he said, “it’s a dream-like envisioning of the way we’d like the world to be. One of the really important points for me is that it ends on a very hopeful note.”
In an age where nearly everything is categorized, one would be hard-pressed to do that with Utopian Dreams/Dystopian Visions.
Gallagher says that all of his melodies were written in notation with ample opportunity for improvisation by the cast of stellar musicians who joined him in the recording project. In addition to Gallagher on the double bass, they include Ari Chersky on guitar, Sam Harris on synthesizer, Danny Fisher-Lochhead and Curtis MacDonald on alto saxophones, Kyle Wilson on tenor saxophone and Craig Weinrib on drums.
“I wanted to combine improvising and composition so that it doesn’t become stale,” Gallagher said.
The diversity of his music comes in no small part out of his childhood influences.
“The natural character of Maine and the sound and the silence of the natural landscape” also have had an ongoing influence on Ross, who spent long and joyful hours in the woods and fields surrounding his East Blue Hill home.
Gallagher’s father, John, and mother, Lee Lehto, both are artists who provided what Ross calls “an open palette for exploring sound early in my life.”
He cites his father, a bassist in constant demand within Maine’s jazz circles, as a “huge influence.” Traveling musicians who performed at Blue Hill’s Left Bank Café were frequent visitors to the Gallagher home, as was the jazz quintet A-Train, with whom the senior Gallagher performed. And young Ross was the very willing beneficiary of that exposure.
He also describes longtime George Stevens Academy band director Steve Orlofsky, for whom he played in high school, as “one of the great enablers in my musical life. He created a really safe place for me and my friends to create our own music. He was very supportive of our exploring ideas and would push us to fulfill them. He was a great teacher in the sense of teaching students to teach themselves.”
The summer Maine Jazz Camp also gave Gallagher an opportunity to be exposed to experimental and talented New York musicians who opened the door wide to the concept of open-minded jazz exploration.
“That influence was huge and really unique,” Gallagher said. “It was a really intensive and exciting time.”
With his first recording now completed, Gallagher is continuing to expand his musical palette.
He recently toured through the South as bassist with Hurray for the Riff-Raff, a folk-blues and Americana band based in New Orleans, and that tour may lead to a continuing association.
He’s also putting together a band for a few upcoming performances to showcase the new recording.
“There’s also work with a rock band that I’ve been coming to know,” Gallagher said.
He’s also excited about collaborating on an upcoming project with his older brother, Phelan, a saxophonist who teaches at the Harpswell Coastal Academy here in Maine.
“We’ve been doing some music this winter with different instruments,” said Gallagher, with an eye toward expanding their own duo beyond the bass-saxophone concept.
“The prospects are opening up in a way that I really value,” said Gallagher. “Almost every form of music has bass, and that’s allowing me to develop a career in music that’s extremely diverse. I feel really fortunate in that I don’t have to pigeon-hole myself in any kind of music.”