Ralph Peterson’s GenNext Big Band

Listen Up!
(Onyx Productions)

In 1957, Art Blakey experimented with expanding the Jazz Messengers to a 14-piece band, featuring smart arrangements by trombonist Melba Liston. Thirty years later, he returned to the format, enlisting a young Rutgers grad to sit in the second drum chair. Ralph Peterson had that spot until Blakey’s 1990 death, and he’s never forgotten the experience. Peterson’s Gen-Next Big Band is a direct tribute to that erstwhile large group, a student ensemble in the Blakey mold, right down to a second drummer next to Peterson.

The band’s first offering, I Remember Bu, was recorded during a 2017 live gig at Boston’s Scullers Jazz Club, right around the time Peterson was beginning treatment for liver cancer. Some life events affirm the preciousness of time, and teacher and students have focused their urgency on Listen Up!, the group’s first studio album. Blakey continues to get his due, with Peterson enlisting trombonist and Jazz Messenger alum Kuumba Frank Lacy as a featured soloist, and drawing plenty of selections from the Blakey canon. Most of the arrangements were done by Berklee students, a testament to that school’s well-established curriculum. And while no wheels are reinvented here, they are well-oiled, easily spinning out professional-grade work. Lacy and Peterson provide the star power, but they’re pushed by the relentless enthusiasm of the younger players. Somewhere, Blakey’s roaring approval through an angelic grin.