Ralph Peterson: ‘The Music is Why I’m Here’

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Ralph Peterson teaches at Berklee College of Music in Boston.

(Photo: Steven Sussman)

Meanwhile, Peterson has been prolific with two new albums on his own Onyx label: I Remember Bu, an Art Blakey tribute recorded live at Scullers in Boston with his Berklee student ensemble, the GenNext Big Band; and Inward Venture, a smoking quintet date recorded live at The Side Door in Old Lyme, Connecticut, with his Aggregate Prime. The GenNext Big Band album was recorded shortly before a cancer procedure on Dec. 11, 2017. The Aggregate Prime album was recorded three months later in March 2018. “After my last surgery, Michael Carvin told me, ‘Well, you still here. You know what that means? You ain’t done yet!’ And I took that to heart and have been feeling it ever since. Like I told the kids in the class this morning, death is inevitable and nobody gets out of this life alive. And so, it’s about the work. The music is why I’m here—to play it, to teach it, to share it. That’s what I’m here for.”

I Remember Bu casts Peterson as keeper of the flame, passing the torch to younger musicians. “Thirty-five years later, I find myself doing for the students what Art Blakey did for me,” says the drummer and charter member of Blue Note Records’ 1980s band of Young Lions, Out of the Blue. “With this big band record, I’m expressing myself as a guardian of what I’ve been left by masters like [Blakey], Curtis Fuller, Buster Williams, Woody Shaw and Sonny Stitt.”

The tribute album finds the GenNext Big Band tackling tunes associated with Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, including Wayne Shorter’s “Free For All,” Charles Fambrough’s “Little Man” and “Ms. B.C.” by pianist-composer Pamela Watson (wife of alto saxophonist Bobby Watson, musical director of the Messengers from 1977 to 1981). The title track is a Peterson-penned jazz waltz that originally appeared on his 1994 Blue Note album, Art, dedicated to the then-recently deceased Blakey. Alto saxophonist Donald Harrison, a former Messenger, appears as guest soloist on several tracks, including Walter Davis Jr.’s “Uranus” (arranged by pianist and Berklee grad Antoni Vaquer), Clare Fischer’s “Pensativa” and Donald Brown’s “New York.” The band’s rendition of Todd Bayshore’s “For Paul,” a grand 6/8 vehicle dedicated to Paul Jeffrey, features some intensely searching tenor blowing by Tomoki Sanders, son of Pharoah Sanders. “He’s definitely calling on the ancestors there,” Peterson says.

Their big band interpretation of “Egyptian Dune Dance”—an 11/4 composition by former Jazz Messenger and Berklee faculty member Joanne Brackeen—is given an updated treatment with some inventive off-the-cuff rapping by student Ryan Easter, who not only name-checks Aretha Franklin in his freestyle showcase but also drops in references to Rosa Parks and Colin Kaepernick. “I told him that it needed to be family friendly, language-wise, but I also needed it to be a social sledgehammer,” Peterson says. “And he knocked it out of the park. When we do the CD-release party, we have to find another rapper, because Ryan’s out on the West Coast flexing his muscles in hip-hop production. So, now I have to put a call out through the student body to find the next MC who’s got the skill set to come in and spit freestyle.”

Peterson is one of four drummers appearing on the GenNext release. Student drummers Julian Pardo (“Uranus,” “Pensativa,” “Ms. BC”) and Karol Zabka (“Free For All,” “For Paul”) play alongside him, recreating the two-drummer chemistry he shared with Blakey in 1983. Pardo and Zabka are the drumming tandem on “Little Man,” which has Peterson playing trumpet. A third student, Jas Kayser, now touring with Lenny Kravitz, is the lone drummer on “Egyptian Dune Dance,” which showcases Peterson on a lovely cornet solo.

“All these kids have inspired me in ways that aren’t always easy to put into words,” the bandleader says. “The precision and accuracy come from their willingness to show up for rehearsals. They put in 50 hours of rehearsal over eight weeks. And when I was either on the road or was dealing with medical issues, they would rehearse and hold sectionals without me. That’s dedication. That’s what being a band is all about. So, now the big band exists as a subculture at Berklee. And it don’t sound like no damn college band.”

Peterson also is actively gigging with his potent Aggregate Prime quintet, featuring tenor saxophone titan Gary Thomas, guitarist Mark Whitfield, his son Davis Whitfield on piano and Peterson’s former Betty Carter bandmate Curtis Lundy on bass. “It’s important for me as an artist to have this other expression that you hear, with Aggregate Prime going on at the same time as the big band,” he explains. “[My] label’s job is to present both aspects. The symbol of the label, that yin-yang insignia, is what it’s all about.”

Both big band and quintet recordings represent different aspects of Peterson’s voracious musical appetite. “There’s a demographic that wishes I’d stop doing tributes to Art Blakey,” he confides. “But that’s OK, because there’s enough of a demographic that appreciates it. So, for those who want to hear the contemporary, cutting-edge, post-Messengers thoughts of Ralph Peterson, I give you Aggregate Prime featuring Gary Thomas, one of my three favorite saxophone players who are still alive. And he’s the baddest flute player on the planet. Period.”

Thomas demonstrates monster flute chops on the first track to Aggregate Prime’s Inward Venture, a recreation of Eric Dolphy’s “Gazzelloni” (named after classical flutist Severino Gazzelloni), which originally appeared on Dolphy’s 1964 Blue Note classic Out To Lunch. The younger Whitfield impresses on hard-swinging uptempo fare, like Lenny White’s “L’s Bop” and Andrew Hill’s “Venture Inward” (from the pianist’s 1968 Blue Note album Grass Roots), while his father distinguishes himself with fleet-fingered picking throughout Inward Venture. “The real surprise in this group is Davis Whitfield,” the leader says. “He sounds like a cross between John Hicks and McCoy Tyner with a little bit of Andrew Hill thrown in.”

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November 2021
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