Monthly Archives: March 2021

R.I.P Master Drummer Ralph Peterson (May 20, 1962-March 1, 2021) — A 2012 Downbeat Feature, a DB Blindfold Test from 2000, and Three Liner Notes

After a long struggle against the ravages of cancer, master drummer-educator (and composer, bandleader and trumpeter) Ralph Peterson succumbed this morning at the age of 58. He was a warrior, a force of nature, and is deeply missed. 

I’ve posted several pieces that I was honored to do with and about Ralph over the years.

2012 Downbeat Article, titled “Protecting the Truth”

Toward the end of the ’80s, Ralph Peterson related, Art Blakey—who first employed him as second drummer in the Jazz Messengers Big Band in 1983—came to his house repeatedly for dinner and a chance to bounce Peterson’s daughter, Sonora, on his lap.

“He liked my curry,” Peterson recalled in March. Dressed in loose sweats and sneakers, he sat on a piano bench in a compact Times Square rehearsal studio, directly opposite the former karate champion Anthony “Mafia” Holloway, his companion on the ride in from the Boston suburbs. After the interview, they’d continue on to Philadelphia, where, the next morning, Peterson—who recently earned his third-degree black belt—would referee and Holloway would senior-arbitrate a sport karate tournament held under the auspices of a regional league that Holloway runs.

Peterson cupped his belly. “You can see I’m still good at cooking,” he joked. He added that it’s his Thanksgiving custom to invite a holiday-stranded students at Berklee College of Music, where he is professor of percussion, to his house for dinner. “I cook for days in advance,” he said. “Last time, after we played, I started wondering why I was looking to New York for the next crop of talent. I’m sitting here in the incubator! The apprenticeship system in New York is different than when I got here, when you could still develop in bands and clubs. That’s fine, but after a while, God gives you lemons and you have to make lemonade. You’ve got to try to carry on this tradition and protect the truth about what the music is from wherever you are on the playing field of life. As long as I’m around, I’ll have something to say about that.”

To demonstrate his latest thoughts on the subject, Peterson opened his MacBook and pulled up the artwork for The Duality Perspective, the second release on Onyx, his imprint label. It follows Outer Reaches, an organ-two horns program that is a fresh, idiomatic, ferocious-to-reflective meditation on the legacies of organ visionary Larry Young and trumpet prophet Woody Shaw, and the drummers who propelled them—specifically Elvin Jones and Tony Williams—refracted through Peterson’s across-the-timeline drum conception.

The Duality illustration shows a circle containing two overlapping, yin-yang circles, one black with a white dot, one white with a black dot. Peterson’s profile nestles in the crook of a tree amidst branches that spread outside the circumference, tagged with names of the current personnel for the two primary vehicles that he has used over the decades to document his musical production. The fully-leaved branches shooting rightward represent his sporadically-working sextet (Sean Jones, trumpet; Tia Fuller, soprano saxophone; Walter Smith, tenor saxophone; Zaccai Curtis, piano; Luques Curtis, bass); four narrow budded sprigs on the left signify his Fo’tet, comprising Berklee wunderkinds Felix Peikli on clarinets, Joseph Doubleday on vibraphone, and Alexander Toth on bass. Six roots firmly planted at the bottom are for Peterson’s prime mentors from his own formative years—Blakey, Jones, Michael Carvin, Paul Jeffrey, Walter Davis, and Bill Fielder.

“You could lend either color to either band,” Peterson remarked. “I’m the common element that binds them—the solid high-impact of the sextet and the almost translucent sound of the Fo’tet, which someone once described as a steel fist in a velvet glove.”

Both sounds entered the jazz lexicon via five individualistic albums, all long out of print. They were recorded between April 1988 and August 1990 for the Japanese label Somethin’ Else and issued domestically in quick succession by Blue Note, which, as part of its mid-decade relaunch, assembled the hand-picked “young lion” sextet OTB (Out Of The Blue), for which Peterson propelled three dates with a big beat so evocative of Blakey’s that insiders dubbed him “Baby Bu.” (A decade later, Jones himself cosigned Peterson’s authoritative assimilation of his language, when, coming off surgery, he called the acolyte to cover for him—“just in case”—during a week at Manhattan’s Blue Note.)

On V and Volition, Peterson presented his quintet music, with trumpeter Terence Blanchard, saxophonist Steve Wilson, pianist Geri Allen and bassist Phil Bowler. The songs contained striking melodies and meaty harmonic structures that inferred the most progressive thinking of the ’60s. Peterson animated them with a host of rhythmic strategies, articulating thick four-to-the-floor swing, asymmetrical meters at once highbrow and elemental, ebullient Afro-Beats, and an unorthodox conception of the second line groove—Peterson calls it “funk with a limp”—that he’d developed prior to OTB with the Harrison-Blanchard Quintet. Throughout the proceedings, he displayed high musical acumen, sustaining consistent dialogue with the soloists, responding to their twists and turns while also anticipating their next moves.

These albums were widely influential amongst Generation X’ers, as was Triangular, an interactive trio recital with Allen and bassist Essiet Okon Essiet that Peterson describes as “part-Monk, part-Bud Powell, and part-Eric Dolphy, while reflecting my love for Jaki Byard and Andrew Hill.”

“They profoundly affected me and a lot of people I was coming up with,” said bassist Eric Revis, who played in Peterson’s quintet between 2001 and 2003 with trumpeter Jeremy Pelt, saxophonist Jimmy Greene and pianist Orrin Evans. “The seminal record of that time had been [Wynton Marsalis’] Black Codes (From The Underground), but this was different, with all these different time signatures, beautiful melodies, and an attitude that was so in-your-face. A lot of records then had not-very-good tunes and cats who could play the hell out of their instruments. This was one of the few where everything fell together.”

“That quintet was the next sound,” said drummer Eric Harland. “I liked the way Ralph and Geri would weave in and out of odd meters without it feeling as if you were counting to, say, an Indian raga or tal. He was just allowing himself to exist within the music. On those OTB records, he was playing over the stuff like a piano player. I loved Ralph’s fluidness, that he wasn’t bound by the theory of jazz drumming. His approach sounded organic, not patternistic; he was playing what he heard.”

In 1989 and 1990, Peterson established the sonic template he would chase for the next decade with Presents the Fo’tet and Ornettology. Joined by Don Byron on clarinet and bass clarinet,  Carrott on vibes and marimba, and Melissa Slocum on bass, he drew on lessons learned during late ’80s engagements with older experimentalists like Henry Threadgill and David Murray, constructing programs that involved “looser interpretation, less harmonic constraint and giving free rein to the primal elements of music.” Toward that end, Peterson orchestrated the interpretations—the repertoire mixed venturesome tunes by Fo’tet personnel with challenging items by Billy Strayhorn, Wayne Shorter, Thelonious Monk and Ornette Coleman—with rubato drums-and-cymbals tone poems and, as he puts it, “deep grooves that make you want to dance but you trip over yourself because it’s not quite symmetrical.”

“Within my generation was this notion that swing only moved a certain way, in a certain time signature, with a certain feel,” Peterson said. “But the people who said that didn’t know jack about the way music swung in Trinidad, or Haiti, or the Dominican Republic, or Brazil. If you listen and your body starts moving beyond your conscious control, you are under the influence of swing. It doesn’t have to be based on ding-ding, da-ding-ding, da-ding.

“An element of the ultra-conservative approach was too pristine for me. It didn’t have the energy of the motherland and the fire and fury of what we’ve survived as people in the Middle Passage. On the other hand, while I appreciated having no-holds-barred, I was also taught the importance of being able to express that level of freedom within the harmonic construct. I was looking for something that would be a little bit of both.”

As this period of creative efflorescence was unfolding, Peterson was beginning to unravel. As he puts it, his use of various mind-altering substances “stopped being cute” and “the darkness of it accelerated.” He made several attempts to reverse the implosion, documenting his recovery efforts via the Fo’tet—with Wilson playing soprano sax—on The Reclamation Project, a high-level 1994 session comprising all original music, and The Fo’tet Plays Monk, from 1995, comprising creative treatments of nine of the pianist’s gnarlier lines.

“I don’t hide my addiction and what I’ve overcome from my students,” said Peterson, who traces his sobriety to May 24, 1996. “Students have come to me because they feel safe. Once you build that kind of trust, you can teach something about music, too. That’s the way I trusted Walter Davis.”

A contemporary of Jackie McLean and Sonny Rollins whose formative years coincided with the height of New York City bebop, Walter Davis Jr. was a pianist who was close to Bud Powell, and whose tunes were staples of the Messengers’ book. Davis began hiring Peterson soon after he’d graduated from Rutgers University. “Walter taught me the tradition of Bud and Monk,” Peterson said. “He thought of trio in a triangular manner, not that the bass and drums lay down a carpet, but always a three-way conversation.”

Peterson also garnered bandstand experience on gigs with Davis and Rutgers professor Paul Jeffrey, a saxophonist who music directed for Monk during the ’70s. (Peterson played Monk’s funeral with him in 1982.) The young drummer took full advantage of Rutgers’ superior music faculty. “All the music from V and Triangular were writing assignments from my keyboard harmony class with Kenny Barron,” he recalled. “Through Bill Fielder I gained a fascination for how McCoy Tyner seemed to speak in a language all his own, for how could I get all of my music to sound different and the same at the same time. Certain harmonic passages were therapeutic. They could change the way I feel. Whenever I found something like that at the piano, I wrote it down, and it became part of a composition.”

The son of a police officer who rose to be mayor of Pleasantville, a New Jersey village adjacent to Atlantic City, Peterson took up trumpet in fourth grade. He describes his early drumming personality as a self-taught “basement experience.” Gifted at track (he ran the 400-meter hurdles) and basketball, he committed to music when his knees and ankles started to fray.

Initially a trumpet student at Rutgers, he quickly persuaded drum professor Michael “Thabo” Carvin to take him on, beginning a profound master-apprentice relationship.

“Michael told me to pick someone and make him my guy,” Peterson said. “He’d watch me sit in their space as long as I could, as deep as I could go. Then he’d tell me to divorce myself—“don’t play that any more when you come into my room.” That forced me to learn somebody else. When I came back to my guy, the two were connected. It’s the process Tony Williams referred to in his 1979 Zildjian Day interview, when he was asked if he had his own style. He said that he was just playing what he thought Max Roach and Art and Elvin would be playing if he were them.

“That’s what I teach my drummers now. They name guys who are younger than me, and I say, ‘OK, but do you know who they listened to? How can you effectively copy them if you don’t know where they came from? Then you’re tracing a lineage.’ That’s what some young players don’t understand about the importance of music as art as opposed to as popularity and product. One is not going to be around in 50 years.”

Reinforcing that sensibility were components of Carvin’s pedagogy that transcended technical particulars. “Thabo taught me that all drumming is sleight of hand, like a magic show. If you watch videos of Papa Jo Jones, it doesn’t look like he’s playing the things he’s playing. Before I knew who Papa Jo was, Carvin took me to his apartment—we’d clean it, and he’d fix some eggs. Later, it registered how important those moments were. I’d hear Thabo call someone ‘young talent,’ and remembered that the great-grandmaster of all drum-set drumming had called him ‘young talent.’”

Closing in on his 50th birthday and his 16th year of sobriety, Peterson, whose daughter is now 25, and has two grandchildren from his second marriage, talked the talk of someone comfortable in his skin.

“I almost killed myself trying to be somebody else,” he said. “I failed miserably in every conceivable aspect. Being a law enforcement officer’s son who went for music. Trying to figure out how not to be completely swallowed by my love for Art Blakey. Having the same experience with Elvin. Looking for a place. Where do I fit in? Am I playing enough? Am I swinging hard enough?

“Now I’m not making things happen; I’m letting them happen. I’ve stopped trying to be the mighty oak. There’s a tune on my new record called ‘Bamboo Bends In The Storm.’ I’ve started to fold my arms and let storms in life blow over. I’m more comfortable, too, because I feel less ignorant. As my musical IQ increased, my desperate need to cover shit up with velocity and pyrotechnics has rolled out like the tide. The dialogue is multi-directional within the group, not binary with soloists. It’s more thoughtful. It’s more considerate. But I still push music to the edge of the energy envelope, because I believe that’s where creativity is. You can’t be ultra-creative in the center of the comfort zone.”

Those dynamics mark Peterson’s playing with Zaccai and Luques Curtis on the sextet tracks of Duality Perspective and on their 2011 release The Completion Project (Truth/Revolution), which offers him the opportunity to lock in with percussionists Pedro Martinez, Rogerio Boccato and Reinaldo De Jesus. It’s evident that the drummer—who played alongside percussionist Pernell Saturnino during a 1999 engagement with David Sánchez—has devoted much energy toward assimilating the fundamentals of Afro-Caribbean drum dialects.

“Pernell pointed out that the first word in ‘Afro-Caribbean’ is not ‘Caribbean,’” Peterson said. “I started to feel clarity—that I have a relationship to timbales and music of the Afro-Caribbean culture because I was born into it. Instead of trying to be the African-American who was attached to the Caribbean piece, it’s OK that my grandmother was born in Trinidad and raised in Barbados. A thread runs through the music of that region back to West Africa. I may not play the Afro-Cuban grooves in 7 and clave the way the Cuban purists believe it should be done. But it didn’t start in Cuba. It actually started in Guinea and Senegal. My affinity for loving Art and Elvin is born of that same thread. So I’m accepting me. I no longer have anything to prove.

“Why you play something is more important than what you play. Don’t check out the thinnest, newest branch on the tree. If you dig into the root instead of being distracted by the fruit, the root will teach you what the fruit means. Then you can push forward.”


Ralph Peterson Blindfold Test (5-2-00):

1. Art Blakey, “Splendid,” AFRICAINE, Blue Note, 1961/1999, (#3) (5 stars)

Starting me out easy, right? I mean, Wayne and Lee and Bu, so then I guess my assumption would be Jymie Merritt on bass. [Who do you think the pianist is?] Cedar? No, not Cedar. Let me listen for a minute. Oh, yeah, Walter Davis! Hearing the way he comps. [It’s his tune also.] 10,000 stars for this. It doesn’t get any better, it doesn’t swing any harder than this. Well, what can I say? Art is probably, besides Michael Carvin, the most influential drummer on me directly — my playing and my ideas as a bandleader, man. So he taught me a lot. And just the way him and Walter set up on the groove on this thing is so deep! Walter played piano like a drummer. Especially when he comped, with his whole rhythmic approach, it was very percussive in nature. Walter gave me my first hit in New York at the Jazz Cultural Theater. I miss him a lot. He used to call me up at 7:30 in the morning and ask me the bridge to certain ballads. He didn’t just deal with me purely like a drummer. He always encouraged me to develop as a musician. Yeah, Humphrey. From New Jersey, too.

2. Roy Haynes, “Shades of Senegal,” PRAISE, Dreyfus, 1998 (#9) (5 stars)

[IMMEDIATELY] That’s Haynes. It doesn’t take long to hear. I mean, he’s got a language that he speaks. When you study these drummers, they kind of speak with a certain language. He’s got a very distinct kind of dribble in the left hand, and the way he works around the tom-toms with his right hand. I could literally SEE him when I heard that. The one thing I love about Roy’s sound is he plays a wide-open bass drum sound. The way Roy freed up the whole hi-hat thing is just amazing. Releasing the confines of the 2 and 4 thing, and creating such a dance with his ride cymbal, and then playing accents and having his hi-hat be a part of the coloring mechanism as opposed to the timekeeping mechanism. I’ve got to play later; I can get some ideas! Buhaina and Roy both get 5 stars. I mean, these guys are the grandmasters that made what little bit I play possible. So certainly 5 stars.

3. Freddie Hubbard, “Thermo,” THE BODY AND THE SOUL, Impulse, 1962/1996 (#9) (5 stars)

[IMMEDIATELY] “Thermo”!! I mean, Bobby Bradford called Freddie the natural. The way stuff comes out. A line like that is really not easy to play on the trumpet. So for it to even be conceived by a trumpet player begins to defy the odds. Whoo!! My awareness of Freddie’s recordings narrows it down to one of three cats — Ray Appleton, Clifford Jarvis or Louis Hayes. Neither one? Wow. The ride cymbal is something. I’m really into the sound of the ride cymbal. I should know this record. Ow!! Philly!!! The way Philly plays the shuffle is distinctly different from the way Art plays the shuffle. And the way Philly resolves structural points. His BASH-ti-dit-BASH. But it’s the cymbal sound that threw me. Very rarely have I heard Philly on such a dry sound. [Maybe it was a different pair of drums.] [LATER] Again, how can you not give the grandmasters five stars? I’m sure we’ll get to something…

4. George Coleman-Billy Higgins, “Thou Swell,” I COULD WRITE A BOOK: THE MUSIC OF RICHARD RODGERS, Telarc, 1998 (#11)

Is that Clifford Jordan? No. Junior Cook? No. Let me stop guessing. Got me. [AFTER] I’m not going to make any excuses, but the recording doesn’t sound like Billy. It’s a recent recording? [PLAY “Lover” FROM THE SESSION] That feels more like him. It’s in the context of the rest of the band. Which is easy to say after you know it’s him! But I didn’t recognize him. I’m not going to make any excuses. The thing about the masters is that although they have very distinctive sounds, they can also be very deceptive and play the things that you expect to hear them play. That’s what made them masters. You couldn’t hear them coming around the block. You know what I mean. So I’m not going to make any excuses because Billy Higgins faked me out. It won’t be the first time! [LAUGHS] 5 stars for the playing, but it might lose a star on the recording.

5. Dave Douglas, “Zonish,” SOUL ON SOUL, RCA, 2000 (#11). [Featuring Uri Caine, piano; Joey Baron, drums.] (4 stars)

Is that Cyrille? [No.] Is it Geri Allen? Paul Motian on drums? You got me again. [You should know who the piano player is.] I should know him because I play with him? Oh, it’s Uri Caine. Then this must be Dave Douglas’ record. I still don’t know who that is on the drums. Uri is such a versatile cat. He’s such a deep writer. It’s not Pheeroan. [LATER] Oh, it’s Joey. Okay. I like Joey’s inventiveness, his willingness to take risks. I was fortunate to be a part of the beginning of the rise to power of Dave Douglas. I think in a lot of ways it began with Uri’s TOYS record, which was a really both inside and outside statement for Dave, and things seemed to take off for him right after that record. I know he was real active on the downtown scene and all of that. I have a lot of respect for him. Plus he can read, man! He can read his ass off. I’d give it 4 stars.

6. Herlin Riley, “Blood Groove,” WATCH WHAT YOU’RE DOING, Criss-Cross, 1999, (#9) [Wycliffe Gordon, trombone; Victor Goines, soprano sax] (4 stars)

This sounds like it’s on the same label as Roy’s record was on. {It’s the same studio. Can you tell which studio?] Systems 2. [LAUGHS] So this could be a Dave Holland record. But it’s not. Wow. Ray Anderson? [No.] He’s got good hands. It made me think of Billy Kilson. [Do you have any sense of what part of the country the drummer is from?] No. [He’s from New Orleans.] James Black? So it’s newer than that. Herlin? So this is Wycliffe. Victor Goines? I like it. I like the way it dances. I’m not crazy about the mix. The piano is kind of distant. Herlin took a great solo; it sounded good. Herlin’s a great drummer. I’d give it a solid 4 stars. It has a nice dance to it, and it wasn’t necessarily overly New Orleans in its feel. It didn’t suggest anything overly New Orleans to me. What it suggested was somebody who has indulged and indulges in funk drumming of some type — or has been influenced by funk drummers certainly. And to hear James Black and have it be Herlin is kind of a natural outgrowth. James Black is probably the most influential drummer of the last 20-25 years. Black’s expansions to me were along the same lines of what Al Foster has developed and contributed in terms of independence, in terms of riding on the bell. Riding on the bell I got directly from Al Foster and James Black, and it’s something I’ve tried to incorporate. But it’s also something that came from my funk drumming roots. Black had such a… He’s so deep musically, man. He played more than one instrument, and his writing exhibited that. And his playing, the way he would develop a drum solo, you could hear it. The thing that I’m hearing right off the top of my head is his solo on “12’s It” from Branford’s record that I recorded on in the early ’80s.

7. Jerry Gonzalez, “Little Rootie Tootie,” Rumba Para Monk, Sunnyside, 1988 (5 stars)

Knowing that you know what instruments I play, my first guess would have to be… Oh, it’s obvious. That’s Jerry, “Rumba Para Monk.” Berrios. Larry Willis. I forget who else was in the band. I always wanted to play with this band. I’m trying to develop my bilingual tours. The little stint I did with David Sanchez did a lot to open me up as far as understanding. I had a lot of intuitive and instinctive ideas about how the shit should go, but working with Pernell Saturnino I got a lot of clarity. What I’m listening for, I’m trying to discern the difference between bembe and aguacua. I believe this is the bembe. I was recently playing at Sweet Basil with Henry Butler, and Jerry came down and played, I got up and played trumpet, and we had some fun. Jerry’s a good trumpet player. He inspires me, man. He gives me hope. I’m getting closer and closer now to calling myself ready to do a record, and I’m very interested in anybody who might be interested in that recording. I’ve actually developed a book and I’ve got commitments from a whole host of drummers and other musicians who believe enough in my trumpet playing to be a part of it. I even got a title for it — “Switch Hitter”! The way Jerry forwards the Afro-Cuban tradition and merges it with elements of American music, he deserves 5 stars. Because Jerry is teaching. That’s the thing I really appreciate. He’s raising awareness, not just about his music, the music of his culture, but the music of American culture, and it opens doors. It opens doors for people in his culture who might want to explore more deeply the music of Monk, and because of that, there’s a greater chance of them falling across the “Fotet Plays Monk” record. So it’s all part of the same… We’re all really part of the same effort. There’s no competition. 5 stars

8. Andrew Cyrille, “A Tribute To Bu,” GOOD TO GO, Soul Note, 1997 (5 stars) [James Newton, flute]

This hand drum thing is throwing me. Now, this sounds… That’s not Carvin. Michael sounds different than that. Is hearing any more of it going to help me? It’s a beautiful sound on the pattern he’s got going. It’s funny. It’s not necessarily a sound that I would have, but it’s working for them, and especially on the thing that they’re creating. [Do you know who the flutist is?] No. I’ll tell you one thing, though. Those are uncoated drum heads. Clear, without a black dot. That’s about the only thing I can say with any kind of safety, though. [LATER] That’s Cyrille! Wow! [And it’s called “Tribute to Bu”] Mmm, okay. I can hear that. This was recorded in Milan. Generationally speaking, my guess wasn’t that far off the mark. As he built it up towards the end it was like he got more lows on it or something. Cyrille always has been supportive of what I’m trying to do. Certainly a mentor, somebody I respect and appreciate. Definitely 5 stars. I have always been able to identify Cyrille through his cymbal work. So the fact that there wasn’t a lot there to identify is kind of what threw me. His cymbal sound has always been very clear. And it danced like Roy, but it had more of a drive like Bu. I mean, I can only talk about the way I identify guys, which is how I hear that they combine certain kinds of approaches that I identify. It may not have anything to do with what they’re doing, but it’s how I hear.

9. Kenny Barron, “Sonia Braga,” SPIRIT SONG, Verve, 2000 [featuring Eddie Henderson, trumpet; David Sanchez, tenor sax; Billy Hart, drums] (5 stars)

Is that Claudio Roditi? Oh, then he did something that only two cats play and make it work, and that’s Freddie and Eddie! That bent thing coming down. [But Eddie is a sideman on this.] Kenny Barron? So that has to be Ben Riley. No, not necessarily. I heard that cymbal. Oh, that’s David! You play with a cat for three or four months, you know… [Who’s the drummer?] By a process of elimination here… Lewis Nash? Oh, Victor Lewis! No? You got me, then. [LATER] Jabali’s another guy who’s like Cyrille; always has supportive energy for me. I remember introducing Jabali to my daughter when she was still just an armful, and how sincere he was when he told her welcome. And then there are specific experiences that I’ve had with Jabali that really endeared him to me, not just as a player, but as a part of that generation, like Carvin, that taught me not to be afraid to take risks; to understand the tradition and the history of it but don’t be afraid to take some risks. And just the way he’s playing this piece is beautiful. It’s perfect. Especially with that feel, that South American kind of lope to it, it’s not easy to keep. Man, 5 stars. You have to raise the bar now. You have to give the first two 5½ and everything else that I called 5 is 5. All of the original music on my first two records were writing assignments for Kenny Barron’s keyboard harmony class when I was at Rutgers. He taught me a lot! [LATER] After you get in touch with who it’s written for and about, and listening to the way they play it, oh my God, you just want to go have a cigarette after it’s all over!

10. Jeff Watts, “The Impaler,” CITIZEN TAIN, Columbia, 1999 (5 stars)

Tain. I played this tune in Brecker’s band, so… One of the things I appreciated most about this record is the way it opened Wynton back up. It was just nice to hear Wynton play on the edge of some shit again. See, I remember the first time I heard Tain. He was with Wallace Roney at Rutgers. Wallace came out on a Talent Deserving Wider Recognition concert, and brought Tain with him. And there’s shit that he plays, that he has played, that I’m still developing. Clearly, I’m not one of these cats whose ego is so large that I got too much shit happening to acknowledge one of my contemporaries, and how he kind of validated a lot… You know, a lot of the things…the risk-taking that I was experimenting with, I found validation in, or confirmation in Tain’s doing similar types of things, with time and structure. One of the projects I would like to do in the future is to do a record of drummers’ music, and I look forward to Tain’s contribution to the record. He’s already talked about being willing to do that. Tain’s one of my favorite drummers to play trumpet with, surprisingly enough, as weak as my chops are. I know that I’m going to play my best playing with him. He makes you play your best. You’re either going to play your best or you’re going to fold the fuck up and go home. And he brings it every time. And I believe in that in music. Plus, his acknowledgement to his R&B roots with this bass line I have a real appreciation for, too. Where he extracted this bass line from came from one of my favorite R&B bands. Remember the Ohio Players? Remember “Skin Tight”? That was one of my favorite pieces. This is “Skin Tight” in seven! And I heard it right away. But it’s relevant to the title! “The Impaler”! [LAUGHS] You know what I mean? I’m also very curious and interested in Afro-Cuban styles outside of the realm of four. The whole platform of the Fotet is the addressing of swing outside of the realm of four. So I’m really very much into anybody who is willing to explore and take some risks in that area. I mean, I love Tain. He’s a friend of mine. He’s seen me through a lot of phases in my life, and always been supportive of me. I must say it, he’s one of the few cats in my generation that I will go out to hear. Because he has the ability to both play the room and push the envelope. You know what I mean? Sometimes… You’ve got to play the room all the time, but sometimes when there’s music happening, playing the room has to not be the first consideration. Of all of the recordings of Jeff that I’ve enjoyed in terms of his sound… There’s a clarity here that I appreciate in terms of his ride cymbal. Let me say that. But I would have liked to have heard a little more room sound in his drum sound. Of course, knowing where they recorded it, that’s a big room, and there’s a lot of room sound in there. Five-and-a-half stars.

It’s also amazing… I think it was commendable for Tain to kind of be as patient as he was for putting his record out as a leader. Let’s hope that the shelf life of his first record… My first record didn’t do bad, mind you. But one of my issues these days, and something that I think is going to come into its own resolution as a result of today’s technology, is this whole idea of putting records out of print and then telling artists that the records aren’t selling. You know what I’m saying? One way or the other, I’d like to get my other eight records back in the pipeline. And I know this isn’t about me, but one of the things that I’m frustrated about as a leader is the consistency I’ve tried to have as a leader putting out records. Nine records, man. And I haven’t had a BAD review on any of them. Volition was the weakest really because of two things, my condition and the fact that the record company was cutting corners on material, so that in the transfer… If you listen to the Japanese pressing of Volition and listen to the Blue Note pressing of Volition, they sound like two different records in terms of impact. And where you lose… There was some pretty intricate writing on there that needed to have its impact there for the statement on the CD to be effective. Making a record… This maybe you can put in. Making a record as a leader is easy — relatively. Being a bandleader is the shit that takes work over the years. I’m grateful for the success I’ve had, but I’m wishing for more success even than I’ve had. Being able to hold the band together for ten years, like I did the Fotet. But that ain’t no easy thing. And the music NEEDS us to be bandleaders, needs me, needs Tain, needs drummers to be bandleaders. God forbid… The grandmasters are not going to be here forever, and a lot of them aren’t here. And I don’t know when the industry is going to wake up and recognize that every real shift in the music’s evolution has come as a result of innovation in the drum chair which has forced the music to change, and start to pay attention to drummers as bandleaders on a consistent basis.

11. Bill Dixon-Tony Oxley, “Indirizzo: Via Cimarosa Sei,” PAPYRUS, Black Saint. (4 stars)

My first instinct is to say a guy named Jan Christensen, just because of all the myriad of sounds that I’ve heard so far. Triangles and… Hugh Ragin and Tani Tabbal. [Good guess, but no.] [LAUGHS] You’re faking me out here! [The trumpeter is an older guy.] Lester Bowie and Don Moye? [No.] Okay, I give up. [Before I tell you who it is, how many stars would you give it?] I feel like it’s going to be a setup now! [No.] I liked it! I liked the expansiveness of it. Four stars. [AFTER] It developed nicely, and there was a lot of sounds that I could identify. There was clearly a dialogue between the two, and I could appreciate that. It wasn’t just like anti-music. It kind of had a starting point and it went somewhere, and it almost came back to the original sparse energy. A lot of cats in my generation can’t even sit still long enough to hear that!

12. Cindy Blackman, “Sword of the Painter,” WORKS ON CANVAS, High Note, 2000. (4 stars)

Wow. Cindy. I mean, the hommage to Tony Williams is clear. She’s bad, man! My God! The hands, the ideas. It takes a lot of work to go that deeply into somebody’s playing and still maintain a sense of yourself. And it may not be apparent to non-drummers, but to me, that’s just who Cindy is. That’s the way she is musically. She’s not chasing anybody. I’m talking about Tony. And now, more than ever, thank God for Cindy Blackman, because now the sound stays alive, and the thing can move forward. I would have liked to hear something involving a little more harmony. Four stars, just on the strength of her playing. Maybe lose a half-star for compositional depth, so 3½-4 stars.

I am trying and I am trying to teach my students to listen long enough to learn something, to find something to appreciate. You know what I mean? Of course, nowadays, there is less of an assumption that if something is recorded, it’s recorded because it’s good. 35 years ago, you could assume that anything that was on record was good, was worth having. If you couldn’t hear it yet, you just had to keep growing as a player until… I didn’t like Joe Henderson the first time I heard him. I couldn’t identify with his sound. I was so deeply entrenched in Coltrane that the difference in the sound was disturbing to me! Now, needless to say, he’s like one of the most influential not just players in terms of style, but in terms of solo construction. I mean, he’s one of the master architects of how to build an effective solo.

13. Gonzalo Rubalcaba, “Circuito IV,” ANTIGUA, Blue Note, 1998.

It certainly goes a lot of places rhythmically. I’m wondering if… This is something I’d have to listen to over and over before I could really appreciate it for what it was doing. Because it’s well-executed. There’s a lot of really hard shit being played. But it seems almost fragmented, in a way. And that may be the point. That may be exactly the point. I’m completely clueless on this. It might be Tommy Campbell on drums. [It’s not an American band.] Is it Irakere? [You’re warm.] Chucho? [No.] But the trumpeter sounds like Arturo. You got me. [AFTER] I’d give it 2½. In my observation, Gonzalo represents the beginning of a new and disturbing phenomenon in terms of trends with people getting record dates and being put on the front lines as leaders. And what’s disturbing is that they haven’t spent any time in the trenches playing with a wide variety of different kinds of musicians that proved that they can play with anybody else besides themselves or play anybody’s music but theirs. I mean, you put Jack deJohnette with anybody and he’s going to make them sound good, if they can play the instrument at all. And I’m not speaking so much to his Cubanistic expression. But to herald him as this icon in the broader category of jazz without him having the experience… Danilo spent more time in the trenches. David spent more time in the trenches. I remember doing a record with David that never came out, back out in Sorcerer Studios before they remodeled the motherfucker. And not like I’m looking for everybody to have paid the kind… It’s not a dues-paying thing. It’s an experience thing. Because it comes out in the playing. [Before knowing it was Gonzalo, you would have said the same thing about it, that the music reflected the same things you’re saying?] In terms of its fragmentation, yes. A lot of the musicians of Latino heritage have a thing about how we as American jazz musicians don’t spend enough time investigating what it is that they do. Having spent a little more time now, and having experienced how much more there is to learn, I’d say to an extent they’re right. However, the backhanded kind of addressing of the concept of swing as it relates to 4/4 in American jazz music is not being addressed in reciprocation. It’s just not.

14. Don Byron, “Bernhard Goetz, James Ramseur, and Me,” ROMANCE WITH THE UNSEEN, Blue Note, 1999 (4½ stars)

I played this with Don. This must be the project with Jack. Don and I have been talking about doing some playing again together. During this Uri Caine project, we got in touch with what we appreciated in each other’s playing. On projects like these, you have four cats really playing their ass off at the same time, but not always necessarily together. The problem is, the industry supports these projects over bands. Now, Jack is one of my favorite drummers. Conceptually, the way he plays the ride cymbal… I can’t hear his ride cymbal here the way I would like in the mix. He’s got a very distinctive touch, and I would like to have heard him. And the cymbals that he’s playing are specifically designed to cut. So the fact that they didn’t make it past the final mix is a little disturbing. But Jack comes through. He’s the kind of player you want to build what you’re doing around. You don’t call Jack deJohnette to get him to conform to what you’re doing, and that’s actually the kind of drummer that I believe I’m developing into. You’ve got to kind of have some awareness of what it is I’m bringing before you call for it. Now, there are exceptions. David’s gig, Betty’s gig. Nobody, including me, expected me to keep that gig for nine months. You know what I’m saying?

Don is a great musician, and has an incredible musical personality. I enjoy playing with Don more than I enjoy listening to Don. Because Don gives you so much to feed on and feed back to him… Of his records that I’ve heard, I haven’t heard a lot of people disrupting what he’s playing and forcing him to like DIG into some stuff that he hadn’t maybe prepared for, even in the prior musical moment. You know? That’s one of the reasons I’d like to get back to playing with him, to bring that… I think that’s what we both got in touch with, playing in Uri’s Bach project together, is what’s possible musically along those lines. The clarinet needed Don Byron. Four stars, with another half for Jack.

15. John Swana, “Pure Bliss,” TUG OF WAR, Criss-Cross, 1999. [feat. Byron Landham, drums]

I said Carl Allen, and then I guessed Louis Hayes. Let me shut up and listen. I feel I know who that trumpet player is, but I can’t put my finger on it. Tom Harrell. No? Shit!! [Someone you’ve probably played with a fair number of times.] Let me hear the trumpet solo again. Is that Dwayne Burno on bass? [Yes.] I like it. It’s swinging, it’s got some little funny shit in it in terms of the time, these little 3/4 bars… Terrell Stafford? I give up. [LATER] Swana! I knew I’d heard them fuckin’ lines before, man! [LAUGHS] Oh, so that can only be one of three drummers, then! [LAUGHS] Kenny? Billy Drummond? Shit. [I’m sure you know him pretty well.] Greg Hutchinson? [LATER] Oh, Byron! Okay. I should have made the Philadelphia connection. Byron’s a great drummer, man. He’s very tasty and a great sense of swing. But see, I wish there was something about Byron’s playing that told me who he was right away. I mean, some cats are known for being known right away. Some cats could be any number of a half-a-dozen cats because of their pliability; not because of a negative, but because of their versatility. And Byron kind of falls in that category. I like Swana, man, except that he don’t give up no lines, man! He don’t share none of that information! [LAUGHS] I’ll give it 4½ stars, man.

Usually I either hear it right away, or I use my powers of deductive reasoning to figure out who it is. Swana was not… It bothers me, because like I said, we’ve played together, and I knew the lines! Some of them I have tried to cop!


Liner Notes, Ralph Peterson (Back To Stay) – Sirocco Jazz:

“My life condition will be apparent in my music always,” says Ralph Peterson, the 37-year-old drumman-composer-bandleader who has endured no small measure of inner turbulence. Fans will note that the ambiance of Back To Stay, his ninth recording, is marked by the focus and indomitable energy of a spirit in balance. “Like a wood nickel, I keep coming back,” he continues. “I’m in the game for the long haul now, and I’ve figured out that the key to winning the game is staying in the game.”

You don’t enter the mix without talent and individuality, qualities Peterson’s peers cosigned even before he emerged in the mid-’80s as co-leader of the high visibility ensemble OTB and as a member of the Harrison-Blanchard Group. Sustaining a band keeps you in the fray, and Peterson’s decade-old Fo’tet, featuring a signature soprano sax-vibraphone front line, is the platform by which he expresses deeply held musical principles. The current iteration features reed-master Ralph Bowen — the leader’s OTB bandmate and presently Director of Jazz Studies at Rutgers University, where Peterson is Jazz Drums Professor — in the soprano chair long occupied by Steve Wilson (presently busy with Chick Corea’s Origin), joining Fo’tet lifers Brian Carrott and Belden Bullock. On Back To Stay, all navigate Peterson’s challenging structures and explosive postulations with grace and bite, while tenor powerhouse Michael Brecker — who for a good chunk of 1998-99 fed off the drummer’s distinctive mix of primal drive, intellectual hunger, mastery of fundamentals, big ears, and penchant for swinging ebulliently through any situation — chimes in with a pair of spot-on statements.

“I’ve always loved soprano saxophone, and if they’d used it in my high school marching band, I probably wouldn’t have played trumpet,” says Peterson, who matriculated at Rutgers through the Brass Department. “Sopranos don’t project as well as trumpets, but they occupy the same timbral area. With Ralph Bowen, you’re talking about the highest level of musicianship and competence on all the saxophones. The speed at which he reads and interprets harmony is frightening sometimes, and he’s got great time and a warm sound. As a player with the ability to play on every harmonic sound from a tune, he’s learning now that he doesn’t have to, that he can weave melodic and rhythmic addressing of the harmony.

“Brian Carrott’s approach to the vibraphone is rooted in the African balafon tradition as opposed to the xylophone tradition. His rhythmic and melodic approach is angular, not linear. When I play a rhythm, Brian understands it, and can complement it without mimicking. He plays great piano, and teaches piano, so his harmonic prowess is not to be questioned. And he’s an amazing soloist and comper for himself.

“It’s important in my band for everybody to concentrate, but the way that I write time signatures and bass lines makes it essential that the bass player’s concentration be unshakable. Belden Bullock’s sound and concentration are superb.”

Peterson states, “I believe I was predestined to be a drummer.” Raised in a musical family, he first hit the traps at 3. “My early playing was a basement experience,” he recalls. “I played with records by James Brown, Earth Wind & Fire and Parliament-Funkadelics, where the beat was powerful and primal. I ran 400-meter hurdles and played basketball in high school, but I committed to music when my knees started going south on me and I got a stress fracture in my right instep; I’d wanted to play since I saw Sonny Payne with the Count Basie Orchestra when I was 13. But my interpretation of Jazz didn’t venture very far beyond Maynard Ferguson’s Primal Scream until I was out of high school. I’m not a jazz baby. I’m a funk baby who came through the Fusion realm of George Duke and Stanley Clarke.

“When I got to Rutgers, I failed the percussion audition because I didn’t know rudiments; I had never really studied the instrument. I learned how to read what little bit of rhythms I could from my trumpet studies, which began in fourth grade. Once Michael Carvin at Rutgers finally believed that I was a drummer and let me study with him, I began to learn about Art Blakey and Philly Joe Jones and Max Roach and Elvin Jones and Tony Williams, who I had heard of but didn’t know why. One reason I started playing trumpet is because the horn lines were becoming more interesting in the ’70s than the drum beats! After you cop, what’s next? Here was drumming that I couldn’t imitate after hearing it once. Discovering these guys, who were playing stuff I couldn’t do, reawakened the searching spirit, and it’s been awake ever since.”

While in college, Peterson began an ongoing gig in pianist Walter Davis, Jr.’s trio, and worked in Blakey’s two-drummer big band; proximity with the mentors evolved to enduring friendship. “Art became my idol not only as a drummer, but as a bandleader and a molder of men; he mentioned to me that he was in my playing, and I didn’t have to try to emulate him any more. Walter taught me the tradition of Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk, and how to play trio in a triangular manner, not that bass and drums lay down a carpet, but always three-way conversation, with input and dialogue and conversation from all the components in the ensemble. That’s how the music was when he was 17 playing in Bird’s band, and I perpetuate that tradition.”

In the manner of Buhaina, on Back To Stay, Peterson brings in a composition from each Fo’tetista in addition to his four originals and three interpretations of iconic jazz standards.

The explosive title track features authoritative duelling saxophones from Brecker and Bowen. The leader explains: “It’s set up in cycles of 6-bar phrases, while the bass line is built around a 7/4 vamp that happens 8 times; though it’s asymmetrical in a conventional sense, it’s actually very even. The melody reminds me of the minor pentatonic sound of McCoy Tyner. It’s a wide-open, fun tune to play on. Michael stepped in without a rehearsal and played it cold, which is amazing. His playing has a lot of conviction; he knows the direction he wants to go. The challenge for me in his band was to take him there but show him a different route, and I think we did it.

“‘Surrender’ is a tune that anyone can walk away from the gig singing. I adapted Tony Williams’ ‘Sister Cheryl’ rhythm, paying tribute to his influence on me. There’s a spiritual peace, a centeredness that comes as a result of surrender, allowing the universe to happen instead of trying to make it happen. It’s a principal part of the lifestyle change I made with regard to recovery.

“Inner Evolution,” an open blowing tune with a minor connotation, “also has 6-bar phrases, on which the challenge is trying to make an asymmetrical structure (dropping the 3/4 bar in the middle of a 4/4 phrase) swing.”

“‘Apple’s Eye” is a love song, about a special person and the special place they have in my heart. The harmonic pattern is after Toots Thielemans’ ‘Bluesette.'”

Belden Bullock’s “From Within,” a sweet melody with a bluesy 7/4 Funk-Swing feel, has “blowing changes that remind me of Bobby Hutcherson and Joe Henderson on Blue Note in the Stick-Up era.”

Ralph Bowen’s “Did You Notice?” showcases the composer’s keening soprano sound. “It’s in a very peculiar meter, 3/2, which gives you an idea of the way Ralph’s mind works!” Peterson laughs. “It was challenging to read, posing the challenge to transition smoothly from the straightahead section to the floaty Latin section, where I’m playing a bastardized combination of a songo and a rumba.”

Carrott’s “Hidden Treasures” “starts very cool, placid, then takes off into a rhythmic section where I get an opportunity to play djembe and cowbell. That was my first Fo’Tet experiment with percussion, and it’s a glance at things to come. Lately I’ve been playing with David Sanchez, which is a refreshing challenge, and I’m getting a true understanding of the rhythms of Latin American culture. Each speaks differently, and evokes a different spirit. Like Michael and Walter and all the people I’ve loved playing with, David insists that I bring my own thing. It would be silly to expect me to play stone-cold as if I grew up in the Afro-Cuban Latin drumming tradition.”

Peterson addresses 4/4 swing on a bright-tempoed version of Duke Pearson’s infectiously melodic “Is That So?” “My concept of 4/4 is to play each beat like the first beat, rather than accenting the one,” Peterson says. “That’s how I interpret Jimmy Cobb’s approach to ride cymbal; it carries the intensity and focus of the first beat through the rest of the bar.”

John Coltrane’s “Miles Mode” and Mal Waldron’s “Soul Eyes” debuted on John Coltrane (Impulse-21), “one of the records that I used to play with for hours and hours and had two or three copies of when I was in college. On ‘Miles Mode’ we fragmented the phrases, inserted 3-bar drum breaks between the first, second and third statements, and changed keys with each soloist.”

Brecker offers an elegant declamation on “Soul Eyes,” caressing the lovely melody with a nuanced, capacious sound, while Peterson presents a trumpet voice that reminds you of Blue Mitchell in tonal aspiration, and Kenny Dorham and Freddie Hubbard in harmonic content and phrasing, overdubbing his solo over the rhythm section. “Drums and trumpet is like yin and yang for me, two sides of the same element,” Peterson notes. “Things come out on each that I can’t get to on the other.”

More than anything, Back To Stay displays Peterson’s mature mastery of the rhythmic metanarrative. “It’s dangerous when you start trying to downplay the role of drums in music,” he declares. “I play with a lot of intensity and energy, but someone who says I play loud isn’t listening to me. I don’t play any one way all the time; each rhythmic approach is designed to awaken the spirit differently.

“I’m starting to connect with John Coltrane’s influence spiritually. His life changed, and towards the end of his life, his focus of expression changed; similarly, my life has taken a turn where spiritual concerns outweigh material concerns and prestige and notoriety. Believe me, I’ve got an ego like everybody else’s. But being a musician used to be what I was; now it’s simply what I do. What I am is a father and a son and a brother and a sponsor. The press and records could stop, but those things will go on. And they connect me with the power given me, the gift to play music — it closes a circle.”


Liner Notes for The Art Of War” – Criss Cross:

“If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.” — Sun Tzu, The Art of War, 500 B.C.

The nostrum “life begins at 40” may or may not be a universally applicable truth. But it’s incontrovertible that, as he approaches his fifth decade, the drummer-composer-bandleader Ralph Peterson has attained a certain equilibrium — call it self-knowledge — that is manifest in his music.

“The strongest sword has to go through the hottest fire,” Peterson remarks. “My mettle has been tested, and I’m still here. One thing that’s kept me here is are the philosophical concepts of The Art of War and Book of Five Rings, and the unifying principle that you can’t fight when you’re mad. Likewise, you can’t do business when you’re angry. I had to get in touch with the things I was angry about in my twenties and early thirties, when I thought I could change the world. My illusions were shattered and I didn’t necessarily respond well. But I survived my responses, and came to realize that I could only change me, and whatever effect I had on the world would be my change of the world.”

Mirroring his hard-won philosophy of how to wage the jazz battle, Peterson titled his latest release The Art of War. Recorded in one seven-hour session following a three-day workshopping stint at Manhattan’s Jazz Standard, it marks a turning point. Since 1990 Peterson has primarily expressed his musical vision with the front-line configuration of clarinet or soprano saxophone and vibraphone on numerous well-regarded recordings with the  pianoless Fo’tet. Here he returns to the two horns and rhythm quintet format that kicked off his recorded oeuvre [V-1990], with an approach that he describes as “Blakeyesque but with the edginess of Miles.” In doing so, he emulates the career path of Art Blakey and Elvin Jones, two primary mentors and style models, who both were pushing forty when they began to stamp their tonal personality on bands comprised of generation-younger musicians.

The link is palpable. Peterson is used to comparisons with Blakey; one of his first gigs after matriculating from Rutgers was second drummer in Buhaina’s touring big band, and he’s filled Blakey’s chair for numerous units comprised of Jazz Messengers alumni. Then, about a month before this session, Elvin Jones, recovering from surgery, called Peterson to cover for him during the maestro’s week at Manhattan’s Blue Note, which the acolyte did with panache on three occasions.

“I demand a lot of interplay between the soloists and the rhythm section, and the drummer in particular,” Peterson responds. “I’ve noticed in the last decade that the role of drummers has become de-emphasized towards support-and accompaniment rather than  interplay and dialogue. Art Blakey, Elvin Jones and Tony Williams put out a lot for the soloist to deal with rather than providing a magic carpet for them to ride on. I think it’s important for younger players to experience that; it molds them into leaders with strong concepts, and there are fewer and fewer outlets. I worked with [pianist] Walter Davis, who was shaped and molded first of all by Bird, but then through his association with Art Blakey, and his influence on me conceptually is what I try to pass on.”

Peterson took his time piecing together all the elements of this unit, which will tour in the 2001-2002 season. Each is twenty-something, and each is well-equipped  to navigate the primal complexities of Peterson’s sonic landscape. He conceptualized the band as a vehicle to do something with his good friend, the pianist Orrin Evans, a veteran of four Criss-Cross dates whose voice Peterson internalized on a succession of Evans gigs since the early ’90s. Then came bassist Eric Revis, whose “energy and strength” Peterson experienced first-hand when sitting in with the Branford Marsalis Quartet at the Village Vanguard one night.

“I literally began to salivate at the prospect of a rhythm section with Eric and Orrin,” Peterson says. “Both guys play past their instrument, and what they hear includes drums. That fits my conception of trying to connect components of the drumset with the rhythm section and soloists, the ride cymbal’s connective link with the bass being the link between pure rhythm and pure harmony. Orrin’s harmonic sense is growing, and he’s found the courage to reach as a pianist in a way that I haven’t heard since the mid to late ’80s. He has the potential to become a new voice.

“Eric has an incredibly strong, centered beat, and a huge sound. Some younger bass players who are into the high-bridge, gut-string sound — a la Paul Chambers or early Ron Carter — lose note distinction. But Eric articulates his notes. His ability to play with Jeff Watts testifies to his concentration level. I need somebody who is strong enough to not always go with me. Everything I do ain’t always correct! I’m trying to play on the edge, to find new ground, so I need somebody who can hold it down, so to speak.”

The powerfully built Peterson (the “funk-with-a-limp” anthem “Freight Train” is titled for his nickname at karate school) next recruited a pair of five-tool power forwards for his front line. Since emerging from Hartt Conservatory of Music in 1997, Jimmy Greene has steadily ascended in the jazz meritocracy by dint of his centered tone, penchant for playing around and behind the rhythm with fluid assurance, and gift for conjuring memorable melodies and developing them into cogent stories. Peterson initially heard Greene’s pure soprano sound and fleet alto sax on jobs with David Weiss and the New Composers Ensemble, and experienced his tenor on a subsequent European jaunt with Tom Harrell. Other credits include work with Horace Silver, Jason Lindner, Avishai Cohen, Omer Avital, Lewis Nash and Harry Connick.

Jeremy Pelt is one of New York’s busiest young trumpeters, thanks to a huge sound, flyspeck reading skills, and comfort zone with a wide range of styles and functions that he traverses with finesse and authority. Testifying to Pelt’s skills are recent jobs with the Jimmy Heath Quintet, the Cannonball Adderley Legacy Band with Louis Hayes and Vincent Herring, Lonnie Plaxico’s Sextet, and the Mingus Orchestra. Peterson — he started out on trumpet and continues to deploy it as his second voice — heard Pelt play the senior recital of one of his drum students at Rutgers University, and was instantly impressed.

“Jeremy and Jimmy know how to dip into the tradition but move forward,” Peterson explains. “There’s only 12 notes, and we have to study what’s behind us in order to move forward. A lot of cats who can’t play in a certain traditional style, use choice as an excuse for not being able to play in that style. I’m a player who’s always had a foot in both camps. That’s been a double-edged sword, because a segment of the in-cats took exception to me playing with the out-cats, and vice-versa. But that quality is what I’m looking for. Not that the quintet won’t play outside or not play odd meters, but we’ll try to do it in a way that suggests a certain band tradition.”

That comment perfectly describes the clarion title track, which could have been a Blakey flagwaver. “The battle continues,” Peterson laughs. “The Brigadier General has been gone for a while, but the warriors are still present! The harmony that underlies the melody after the grand pause in the beginning is based on the motion between the tenor saxophone and the piano over an F-minor chord.” The second section is based on an odd-metered phrase that Peterson worked out on trumpet; he credits Graham Haynes, Jerry Gonzalez, Gary Thomas and Steve Coleman as inspirations.

“The Choice Not Taken” is an introspective tune with a sweet melody and bossa feel that features mature solos by Greene (soprano), Evans and Pelt. “Deepak Chopra’s book How To Know God says that the difference between one person being happy and another miserable often has to do with the choice not taken,” Peterson states. “Life is meant to be lived and mistakes are meant to be learned from. I’ve accepted responsibility for my choices, and I have no regrets, I’m real peaceful and settled, and this tune is in that spirit and mindset.

Peterson’s other four originals on The Art of War are of the old wine in new bottles variety. “That decision comes from the concept of protracted warfare, fighting over the long haul,” Peterson explains. “My Blue Note records are out of print, and people have asked me where they can hear these tunes. The simplest answer is to re-record the material — add something, take something away.”

“Freight Train” comes from a date Peterson co-produced with bassist Kevin Harris a decade ago, while the floaty, Shorteresque “All My Tomorrows” is from the 1994 Fo’tet record Reclamation Project. Of the latter, Peterson remarks: “I did a gig in Philadelphia with Orrin, Avishai Cohen and Ravi Coltrane, and I had to write a second part for this. Writing for two horns is more delicate than writing for three, because you have so many options in harmonization and so much more room to go wrong! The tune is not built on the II-V-I progression, so writing everything in thirds just was not going to work. The under-part could very well be the melody.”

Orrin Evans asked Peterson to include “Smoke Rings,” which debuted on Triangular, a 1988 trio date with Geri Allen and Phil Bowler. “This was inspired by and dedicated to Dannie Richmond, who when he wanted a cigarette would holler, ‘Hey, baby, smoke rings’,” Peterson recalls. “I blew the dust off it and wrote a three-horn arrangement in Don Braden’s Contemporary Standards Ensemble. It’s a 24-bar blues with a 4-bar tag. It doesn’t have a feeling of resolution until the very last section, which leads to the turnaround which brings us back to the feeling of tension and unsettledness. The thought behind that sound is that I never want to get so comfortable that I lose my searching spirit.”

“Monief” [V], is another oft-requested Peterson original. “This is a live gig tune,” Peterson declares. “Every time we play it, it comes out different. A 17-beat bassline pattern grouped in two bars of 5 and a bar of 7 holds it together. To move from that into swing and back out is something we never tried in the earlier manifestations.”

In the manner of Buhaina and Elvin Jones, Peterson makes originals by his bandmembers members an integral part of the mix. Jeremy Pelt — who shows beyond-his-years lyricism on the tender “Portrait of Jenny,” his own choice for a ballad feature — displays his knack for expressing romantic yearning in music on “Inner Sanctum.” Then Pelt turns around with “Apocalypse,” a Branford Marsalis-esque burnout line which, the leader notes, comprises a bar of 5/4 and five bars of 3/4, turning the tune into a 20-bar structure in 4/4 time.

The album concludes with “Big Jimmy” by Orrin Evans, which Peterson played at a much faster tempo on Captain Black, Evans’ 1997 Criss-Cross date. “I wanted to slow it down to get to the meat of the tune — the changes and the phrasing,” Peterson says. “Plus, we’ve got a Big Jimmy in the band!”

Thus ends a cannily-planned opening salvo by Peterson and his band of seasoned young warriors, whose friendly jousting brings to mind Karl von Clausewitz’s postulation, “War is nothing but a duel on an extensive scale.” Their maturity and cool passion evoke Sun Tzu’s adage, “The general who wins a battle makes many calculations in his temple ere the battle is fought; it is by attention to this point that I can foresee who is likely to win or lose.”


Liner Notes – Ralph Peterson (Tests of Time) – 2001:

It’s no coincidence that Ralph Peterson opens his third Criss-Cross record — it’s his 16th as a leader — with a homage to Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers and ends it with an evocation of the procedures of Miles Davis’ still pathbreaking mid-’60s quintet.

“Buhaina and Miles are the two most influential bandleaders, the two shining examples of leadership,” says the 41-year-old drummer. “The realization of their concept was contingent — dependent almost — on the strength of the sidemen.”

In the manner of his idols, Peterson devotes a good chunk of Tests of Time to imprinting his inimitable tonal personality on the original music of his young leaders-in-waiting. The result is a triumph of group improvisation, validating Peterson’s comment several years ago that “horn players have to decide whether they’re going to play through or play over my stuff — and playing through is the best way.” Confronted by one of the most challenging drumming personalities of the era, one defined by oceanic power and restless intellect, Peterson’s men respond to his protean musical moods with grace, authority and uninhibited imagination.

“Each record shows more cohesion, because I think they understand where I’m trying to go with the band,” Peterson says. “I’m learning not to be so locked into my own convictions that I ignore a good idea. These guys have a lot of good ideas, and I’m open to them at all times. I’m able to get into an interpretive thing which is very different than drumming from a composer’s posture. You can put in your two cents and take it somewhere it hasn’t gone before.”

Consider the ensemble’s response to “Question,” a brisk, angular line by Eric Revis with an aura reminiscent of Eric Dolphy and Ornette Coleman. After an extended collective improvisation by Jeremy Pelt on trumpet and Jimmy Greene on tenor saxophone, pianist Orrin Evans settles things down with a two-chorus solo on the changes.

“It’s a great piece to do live, because it will be different every time we do it,” Peterson says. “The structure is harmonically open for 6 bars, followed by 3 bars of chords, followed by another cycle, but the last bar of the tune is in 5/4. So in order to keep it swinging, you can’t get caught up in 2-and-4, because when you get to the 5/4 bar at the end of the chorus you’ll be turned around every time.

“Eric is an amazing writer. He conceives basslines that are so formally logical as to suggest composition rather than mere motif. He’s also a true bass player, which means that he’s clear about the importance of his role as the harmonic foundation of the music. He’s also an excellent soloist. His sound is huge, his conception is imaginative, and his pulse is strong. The strength of his beat reminds me of Mingus.”

Over Peterson’s swirling brushes, Revis uncorks an elegant solo to open “Cheryl,” a flowing Mingusian waltz by Pelt, who spent quality time in the Mingus Orchestra after moving to New York five years ago. The composer follows with a delicate, poignant flugelhorn statement, before he joins Greene — here on flute — for a nuanced reading of the melody.

“It’s probably more difficult to play on than it sounds,” says Peterson, who performed on Pelt’s own recent Criss-Cross release, Insight [Criss-1228] “Jeremy’s sound is SO warm and lush and wide that it lends itself to ballads. It’s good to see a cat his age play ballads, and not be caught up in the need to demonstrate his technical prowess at all times.”

Pelt’s sophistication and sense of pace mark “Telepathy,” a well-wrought tension-and-release structure. “The vamp is one beat shorter than the normal feel, and there’s a hole of silence after the 4/4 section that I find interesting,” states Peterson, who sustains a constant dialogue with his front liners throughout the track. “Young cats often write music filled with as many notes and chords as they can think of from the first bar to the last double-bar. Jeremy’s reverence for Miles is obvious here; it has the flavor of Filles de Kilimanjaro.”

A similar blend of virtuosic effervescence and mature restraint defines the tonal personality of Jimmy Greene, who uncorks a series of consistently melodic statements and contributes a harmonically provocative arrangement of “I Love You,” the Cole Porter standard.

“Jimmy has grown tremendously in the last few years,” Peterson says. “He has a pure sound on all his instruments, and has struck a good balance between where he has come from and where he wants to go. I think everybody in the band demonstrates that. I love the opening sounds, a minor with a flat 6th moving to Phrygian, my favorite mode. The straight-eight quasi-boogaloo feel is something people aren’t used to hearing from me, but I enjoy it.”

In fact, throughout Tests of Time, Peterson, known for his declarative patterns and explosive sound, reins himself in, with keen attention to dynamics and space. Note the floaty quality of his drumwork on Orrin Evans’ “Prayer For Columbine,” composed by the pianist in response to the massacre by two students of their classmates at a Colorado high school several years ago.

“Since that scene was a result of restless thinking that never got addressed, my goal on that piece was to play as restlessly as possible,” he says. “I never settle into a groove for long.”

Evans has publicly stated his regard for Triangular, a 1988 Blue Note trio recording by Peterson, pianist Geri Allen and bassist Phil Bowler, and the young pianist’s relationship with the drummer, strong since he graduated high school a decade ago, is almost telepathic.

“There’s something special Geri Allen was onto then that Orrin has picked up on,” Peterson says. “It’s got Jaki Byard in it. It’s got Eric Dolphy in it. It’s not confined by the harmonic rules of changes, but it’s not out for the sake of anti-music either. When it starts to press the envelope or when we play within changes or a vamp, there’s a dramatic and emotional content. Orrin has also spent time developing on the drumset, which is starting to become evident in his piano playing. That’s a basis for mutual connection, because my piano playing is still pretty sad as far as getting around the instrument.”

Peterson’s connection with Ms. Allen led indirectly to his lovely rubato arrangement of “When I Fall In Love.” “Around 1990 at the Mount Fuji Jazz Festival, I had the great fortune of hanging out with Herbie Hancock at the piano in the bar of the Mount Fuji Hotel,” he says. “Phil Bowler asked Herbie about his reharmonization of ‘Round Midnight,’ and Herbie began to explain what I’ve identified as a true tritone substitution. Geri ran upstairs and wrote down a bunch of notes. After she gave me the notes, I stared at them for six months before they started making sense. I finally gathered that Herbie had found a different way to maneuver around II-V-I chords using minor-third motion. That is, he would go down a minor third from the II-chord to get the V-substitution, and a minor third down from the V-substitution to get the II-substitution. That means that the II-substitution is starting on the flat-V of the original II, and you begin a progression way outside the harmony that it’s going to resolve to. Using that and voice-leading, I put together this reharmonization about ten years ago. I kept playing it on piano, but had never found a situation where I could finally record it.”

Decidedly not rubato is Peterson’s surging arrangement of “Neo Terra,” a Freddie Hubbard gem from Windjammer — an obscure album from his ’70s crossover period — that calls up the ascendant aura of Free For All, the 1964 masterpiece by the Hubbard-Wayne Shorter edition of Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers. The leader dedicates the performance to his late uncle Andrew, who brought him the album. “It’s the first Freddie Hubbard tune I learned on trumpet,” says Peterson, who still navigates the instrument fluently. “I took some liberties with the form. It’s a long form, with four 16-bar sections, and the bassline is a straight cycle of D-minor that gets repeated after the bridge. It’s easy to forget where you are in the loop. In the third cycle, I inserted a polychord, putting D-flat over D-minor, which creates a dark sound, and becomes a musical buoy or lighthouse that tells us where we are in the form.” Propelled by Revis’ heroic groove, Pelt unleashes a clarion statement worthy of the composer, matched for wit, energy and ingenuity by Greene and Evans.

With “Respect For Truth,” a bluesy, deeply swinging G-minor opus, Peterson offers his own homage to Blakey, one reflecting the more grounded 1962-63 Hubbard-Shorter period. “It’s feelgood music,” Peterson says. “If that one don’t get you moving in the set, you’re either dead or a mannequin. I wrote it to feature the way that Eric walks basslines.”

Discussing the title track, Peterson says, “I don’t know if I have any nerdy platitudes for that one. It’s a love song about the strength and enduring quality of love. I’m going to be around for a while, and the strength of my work will be judged in the test of time.”

First recorded at the cusp of the ’90s on Presents The Fo’Tet, with Don Byron on bass clarinet, “Ballad for Queen Tiye” is Peterson’s love song for his daughter, Sonora Tiye, who is now 14 and plays piano, cello and flute. “It’s about a melody being more than just the notes on top,” the composer says. “The bass line is integral to making the piece work. I played it for Sonora Tiye recently, but she didn’t remember the song. So I decided to redocument it with Jimmy on flute — which he plays extremely well – as a way to inspire her to continue her flute studies.”

Peterson’s lucid, extravagant playing on “The Dark Prince,” which closes the album, evokes Tony Williams at his finest. The composer suggests listeners experience it in conjunction with “Essence of the Wizard” from Subliminal Seduction, his previous Criss-Cross offering. “It’s the Miles Davis mini-suite,” he laughs. “The opening statement here is based on a figure Miles always stuck into his solos, and I built the piece around it. There are three sets of solo instructions — changes for the trumpet, changes for the piano, and open-ended for the tenor. The first two sections are 7-bar cycles, which force you to think outside of the 4-bar and 8-bar Neobop concept.”

In conclusion, Peterson offers some reflections on the applicability of the lessons of Buhaina and Miles to musicians attempting to make musical sense of the 21st century. “You’ve still got to show up on time and you’ve still got to bring it every night,” he says. “You can’t chase tonight’s magic tomorrow; you’ve got to be chasing some new magic. And always push the envelope. Use the same material, but construct it differently night after night. Miles’ group had the ability to play standards so openly that it sounded like free music, but with total harmonic validity.

“The beauty of this music is that we can express our admiration for the players who came before us, or even our contemporaries. No individual is above the music. Nothing is more important than the music.”

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Filed under Blindfold Test, Ralph Peterson

For the 91st Birth Anniversary of Trombonist Benny Powell (March 1, 1930-June 26, 2010), the Proceedings Of a WKCR Musician Show on October 13, 1993

Benny Powell Musician Show, Oct. 13, 1993:

[MUSIC: B. Powell, “Pow-Wee”; Randy Weston-Benny, “Volcano”; “Harvard Blues”; “In Memory Of”; Benny Powell, “We Small Hours of the Morning”; Frank Foster, “Alternative” (from No Count–1956]

TP: Benny Powell and I both had subway rides from hell today, but we’re here now, and we’ll swing ourselves out of it.

BENNY: Thanks. I’m glad I got here.

TP: You’ve selected a wide array that reflects the breadth of your interests, but mostly we’ll be hearing music you heard as a young trombonist and the trombone players who inspired you — J.J. Johnson I think most prominently, Bennie Green, Bill Harris, we’ll go back to Lawrence Brown. But tell me what you were thinking about in organizing the show.

BENNY: I’ve been looking forward to this really, because music is always about listening, and just to hear all these things again that I haven’t heard in a very long time, and just to think about them, is very nice. So I’m really looking forward to this show. This is sort of like “This Is Your Life.” I’ve been around for a very long time, and I’ve been very fortunate to have worked and recorded with a lot of people, especially on the recording side. I was surprised at how many different kinds of bands I’d played with, and different atmospheres and different times. It’s really nice to be part of all of that.

TP: The first repertoire we’ll hear touches on Benny Powell’s experiences in the Count Basie Band. There must be 50-60 records…

BENNY: Maybe more than that. I was there 12 years, so during the course of that time…

TP: We’ll take you through the Verve days, the Roulette days, and focus on a couple of specially selected solos. When you joined me here a few months ago, I asked you how much spontaneity there was from performance to performance? Was it the same set from night to night, or were there variances? Did you have set solos, or did that change?

BENNY: No, everything was pretty well set. It was highly professional. But there was a spark that used to go through the band sometimes, most of the time. It was a highly spiritual band. But I think we had a pride in playing good every night, and seeing if we could play better tonight than we did last night.

So far as set solos, that was funny, because in those days, with arrangements, they were written very much different than these days. A trombone solo might have been just 8 bars in those days. Now it’s kind of stretched out. So each thing had its own purpose.

TP: When you joined Basie, it was the end of the 78 era, when people were getting used to recordings lasting more than 3-4 minutes. The people you’d listened to were making their statements in a short range of time.

BENNY: A very short range. Later I learned to appreciate that, to appreciate a three-minute record. At the time that we were doing it, I didn’t really see what a concise form it was. I think one time I was doing the Merv Griffin Show, and Ray Charles was being interviewed, and he made me aware of that. He said, “A book has 300-some-odd pages to tell its story; we have 3 minutes.” I thought about that. At that time, 3 minutes was a long time.

TP: At the time you came into the band, you’ve described yourself as “a stone bebopper,” and the Basie band was doing something a little bit different. A lot of the band members were young… Was there any conflict between what you really wanted to be doing and what the function required?

BENNY: Not really. I think anybody who came up during the time I did wanted to play with Dizzy Gillespie’s band, wanted to play with Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker and so forth. But there was not really a conflict. In retrospect… I talk to Randy Weston about this very much. We saw the tail end of an era, that was the big bands and so forth, and the beginning of bebop, and that was a very important period in American history, because bebop was turning the music completely around to where it is today, and we can sort of see it from that point.

TP: It was also turning attitudes around as well as music.

BENNY: Bebop restructured the whole thing.

TP: What were some of the ways it did that for you. You came up in New Orleans, which has many musical cross-currents roiling around, and you were part of a small clique of musicians focusing on bebop.

BENNY: In the 40s there was a musician named Emory Thompson, who spent a little time in New York in the early 40s. So he came back to New Orleans with pictures of Charlie Parker and the horn-rimmed glasses and the whole bebop thing.At this time, I was an impressionable kid of about 12 or 13. So I latched onto it at that age. So for a while, until I was into my 20s, I didn’t want to hear about anything. And bebop was so pervasive during those days. It was really the beginning period, and those people who felt a fervor for it really felt strongly about it being a music of worth, and we were ready to go to war.

TP: New Orleans is famous for the way that music has been integrated into the culture of the city, into the fabric of everyday life through the marching bands and various other functions. The trombone has a rich legacy in the brass bands, of course. Were you second-lining at all?

BENNY: Well, the Second Line is actually not the players. The second line is the audience that walks along the sidewalk; the players walk in the middle of the street. So sidelining, as I knew it, was just the people who marched along, and they danced along, I should say. In fact, they would sort of choreograph things. The band would play…it was sort of like call-and-response. The band would play something, and it was sort of like, DUH-DAH-DEEEE-TT… YEAH! They had little breaks and so forth. But DUH-DAH-DEEEE-TT was the trumpet player and YEAH! was the audience. So it was really like a big party. The Second Line never walked down the street. They sort of sashayed or paraded down the street, and they had all sorts of props. One was an umbrella. I don’t know where the umbrella tradition comes from in the New Orleans parade, but the Grand Marshal always has this elaborate umbrella. But also, there were dances that people could do with handkerchiefs and so forth, and the sideline had their own choreography. But mainly it was like a cheerleading type thing.

TP: How did the older musicians in New Orleans respond to the young whippersnappers who were coming up playing this different music?

BENNY: Musicians are always tolerant of each other, no matter whether you like a guy’s style of not. First of all, older musicians judge you by your tone. If you’ve got a nice tone and you can get over the horn… Now, there were some older guys who I guess were known for their particular style. There was a certain style of tenor player who was kind of more a showboater. Now, bebop was a threat to him, first of all, because he couldn’t play it. Then secondly, it made him feel inferior. So the resistance perhaps came more from a guy like that than… I really don’t know what the older musicians’ attitude was towards us.

TP: But you never caught any particular flack.

BENNY: Well, I was fortunate, because I was with a very young band in New Orleans. I guess I was 15 and the other guys… But we did very well. So the older musicians were rather proud of us. But musicians at that time didn’t have all those different factions. If you all lived in the same town, some… I imagine some of the older guys who were really into maybe Dixieland era did have some not too good words to say about it, but that’s part of any growth.

TP: Let’s get into music from the Basie years. The first selection is one of the most famous Basie-associated pieces, “April in Paris.”

BENNY: I have a funny thing about that. The whole time I was with Basie’s band, the critics were very kind to me. Sometimes when we would play at Newport, the band would get reviewed. The only solo I might have played in this concert was that little part in “April in Paris” — at the end of the review, the guy would say, “Outstanding solos were Frank Wess, Joe Newman, Benny Powell…” — that always did tickle me. That was my claim to fame for many years.

TP: Thad played that little line that was much…

BENNY: Thad hated that. He was a very creative musician, and to have to play the same thing every night was like putting a racehorse in a matchbox and saying, “don’t move.” You’ll hear it on this. He quotes from “Pop Goes the Weasel.” Now, this was nice to him in the studio; that’s what he felt at the time. But that began to be part of the record, so he had to play that every night.

TP: And Basie would say “One more time.”

BENNY: Well, he didn’t mind that. That was Basie’s thing. But to play “Pop Goes The Weasel” every night was too much.

[MUSIC: Basie, “April in Paris”; Sarah Vaughan-Basie, “Until I Met You”; Basie, “Misunderstood Blues”; Joe Williams-Basie, “Roll ‘Em Pete”; Basie-Jimmy Rushing, “Lazy Lady Blues”-1946]

POWELL: Basie’s whole alliance with singers was very interesting. When I joined the band in 1951, prior to that Basie had a small group with Clark Terry, Buddy DeFranco…I think about six pieces — Jimmy Lewis was in that group. Then he organized a big band again to start to play on weekends. We’d go to Richmond, Virginia, just for the weekend. It went on like that for a little while. Then I think Billy Eckstine started doing tours with us. Billy Eckstine was still very popular during those days. I can remember playing some concerts with him as part of the Birdland tour.

But then, when Joe Williams joined the band and Joe had such a big hit with “Every Day I Have The Blues,” this sort of boosted Basie onto a wider market than he had been reaching before. Then after we toured with many singers… The band was a fine band, so singers liked to work with the band. Sarah Vaughan was almost like a sister to the band. Every time we were in California, she would invite the whole band to her house for dinner, and so forth.

In later days, Basie always did present singers and always did give singers an opportunity…

TP: He was under contract to Roulette for a while, so he paired off with Sinatra and Tony Bennett, and others as well through the 60s.

BENNY: Right. Well, as I said, it was such a good band that… Sinatra did a lot of recordings with the band.

TP: There’s something so vocal about the sound of the trombone; it’s often used in conjunction with singers or for playing obbligatos.

BENNY: I think that’s what I liked so much about this trombone solo that just played. This was Count Basie’s band, with Jimmy Rushing singing, but it was done by a trombone player who wasn’t too very well known, named George Matthews. I don’t know if he ever recorded anything but this. One of the things I like about it is his expressiveness — how expressive he was. But trombones have a tradition with voices and so forth, tracing back to Bessie Smith [and Big Green] — the trombone and voice are sort of a natural marriage.

TP: You gave a double take when “Roll ‘Em Pete” came on.

BENNY: Yes. Well, it startled me because I remember all of those nights… In fact, I asked you to play it because I used to play an obbligato on trombone behind Joe Williams’ vocals. It was a nice little marriage. I thought I played rather well in the cracks and so forth. But this is what I was listening for. I think this particular version was done in concert, and by that time… We were speaking about things would become parts of the arrangement. By this time, the saxophones had harmonized the little riffs I played. Again, once you started playing that, you had to play it every night. So I was expecting to hear just myself, and I heard this whole saxophone section playing what was my solo originally. I brought the record in, and I was like, “Whose record is that?!” But in latter years, a lot of things were done… There’s a lot on the market now, Count Basie and live performances. So a lot of times on live performances there would be a different version from the recorded studio version, because by the time we had played it, it was very loose and a lot of things might be completely changed.

TP: Before that was “The Misunderstood Blues” by Frank Foster, from a Basie album on Roulette called Easin’ It, which consists of all Frank Foster arrangements. You brought it in.

BENNY: Well, just because I feel such a closeness with Frank Foster. Basie had taught us all that we had a family, and we still do feel like a family. After all of these years playing with Frank Wess, maybe two years ago I heard a radio broadcast he did with Jamil Nasser. It’s very hard for somebody you’ve known for 25 years to impress you, but he impressed me so much I had to call him and tell him. He’s one of my very favorite people on earth, a very astute man.

I guess when I hear Basie’s band, everybody was such an individual, I can almost see a face for each solo. It really brings back such pleasant memories, because I was there for 12 years of my life, and it was the formative years. I think I joined him when I was 21 and left when I was 33. So I more or less grew up in the band. The reason I asked you to play the song by Sarah Vaughan (“Until I Met You”), which was a Freddie Green composition. Many people don’t realize how many tunes Freddie Green wrote.

But the good thing about the whole Basie band is it was like a university on wheels. We spent much time traveling. As you’re traveling, just sitting on the bus, nobody wants an idle moment. Who wants to just stare out the window? So actually, guys were studying things. Everybody had their heads in a book. I remember when Freddie Green first bought this book on arranging, he more or less taught himself to arrange. All of the guys were really like eggheads. Everybody who got in… At this time Eddie Jones was into calculus. He was into computers before many other people.

TP: As you said, such individual personalities, and yet functioning as such a finely honed unit.

BENNY: That’s what was so amazing. When we were on the bandstand, we acted as one. When we got off the bandstand, we ran in 25 different…like a bunch of ants. Everybody had a strong personality. Billy Mitchell at the time was studying hypnosis in regards to dentistry and childbirth. You’d walk up and down the aisle and just see… It was a very productive atmosphere. You could get a good, intelligent conversation from anybody you sat next to.

TP: What was Basie’s attitude? Whatever you do is cool as long as it sounds right on the stand?

BENNY: Somehow he had a way of disciplining without actually being a disciplinarian. Somehow you knew that your shoes should be shined, you knew you should have a clean shirt on, your suit should be pressed, and you should be reasonably sober. In fact, it was very funny, because… He didn’t really say very much. He was a man of action. There were a couple of heavy drinkers in the band. Budd Johnson was one of them, and I say it in the most loving way, but sometimes Budd would hang out all night and then come to the gig after not having slept for 24 hours, and maybe wasted. What Basie would do was call all of his features. He had to stand up in front and play long solos, and then he’d call another one, and let the poor guy just suffer out there. That was his way. He never said a word to the guys.

TP: I think I’ve heard about Ellington doing that to inebriated band-members.

BENNY: That was a whole psychological study. It would take three psychologists to study the Ellington band. I wasn’t a member of that band, but it seemed like they, too, were individuals. Of course, they were strong individuals, because that’s the way he was able to get all of that good music out of them. But off the bandstand… I don’t know how Duke controlled them. I’m sure it was out-slicking them.

For the last couple of years I’ve traveled places and I’ll inherit a rhythm section in whatever city or country it might be in, and I’d have to work with that. There are fine musicians all over the world, and that’s fine. But in the last year I decided I didn’t want to do that any more. I wanted to have a more organized presentation. So I wrote and produced an album, arranged the kind of presentation I want to have. It’s working now. We’re going to play this coming Saturday, October 16, at La Cave on First Avenue and 62nd Street. I’m very pleased and proud of my guys. I’m the oldest in the group. Jessie Hamin, II, is my drummer; he also owns the label that put out my album.

TP: Inspire Records, Why Don’t You Say Yes Sometime.

BENNY: Then there’s Donald Smith; he’s a pianist and singer. I can’t say enough about him. A sweet guy. I told you, I’ve been traveling around, inheriting rhythm sections, and it works sometimes and sometimes it doesn’t. I was in France, and I’d inherited a rhythm section of younger guys, and they didn’t know any tunes past Miles Davis. So each night I’d have to tell them what we’re going to play the next night so they could go home and study it out of their books of that day. Well, that’s ok, and we make it work, but that was no pleasure for me. Most of the times, you have to just make do with bigger rehearsals.

Anyway, when I started rehearsing this particular group, we were at rehearsal, and almost everybody, for cosmetic sake or whatever, had somewhere to go within two hours. I mean, you do that to make yourself look important. So I asked, “What time do you guys have to leave, so I’ll know what I have to work with?” They told me, “When we get the music together, we’ll leave.” Now, that was the first time in all my travels everywhere that guys had that attitude. As I said, when I go the clubs I inherit what’s there, and most times those guys are there because they haven’t really put in their time to get to New York! They are not New York class. But these guys have been beautiful in that regard. There’s a new young guy playing bass, Eric Lemon, along with the guy who is up front with me, Talib Kibwe. He and I have been working with Randy Weston for the last five or six years. Quite a strong player.

TP: He played with Abdullah Ibrahim for a while during the earlier part of the 80s.

BENNY: Yes. He’s gaining popularity, spending half his time in the U.S. and half in Paris and Africa. So he’s made a name for himself in other parts, and it’s growing here as well. Anyway, they’re really sweet guys to play with.

TP: Let’s move to some of the trombonists who had an impact on you early. We’ll hear Trummy Young with the Lunceford band, and Lawence Brown and Bill Harris. Before we get into it, I’d like to know about the way you heard these people. Were you able to hear the Lunceford band in the theater? Or through records?

BENNY: My first exposure was through radio. Because during these days, the early 40s, radio broadcasts of many performances of big bands. In fact, that’s how many big bands gained the popularity they did. Radio really helped us. Television let us down. (That’s a little aside.)

I was a kid, about 12 years old, and I was listening to children’s programs. There was a program called Let’s Pretend. That would come on about 11:30. The bands were broadcast from the Pompton turnpike. I can’t remember the name of the ballroom. But Duke Ellington’s band, many bands… Every Saturday there was a band broadcast. So I got a chance to hear Lawrence Brown with Duke Ellington during those days; certainly Trummy Young. Trummy Young had a hit record during those days. It was one of the only records that really featured a trombone solo. It was called “Margie,” and it made quite an impact.

The history of trombones and soloists is quite interesting. It seems like during the history, a couple of guys have made a little dent, but trombone en masse has not. Some of us are still struggling to make our little dents, but we haven’t been accepted. We’re sort of like a stepchild. It seems the major solo instruments are trumpets and tenor saxophones.

TP: I guess in the standard histories, the brass instruments were more prominent in the solo function during the 1920s, and there were great trombonists during the Swing Era in the 30s. Then as the histories go, during bebop there was a certain technical adaptation involved in adapting bebop to the trombone that made it more difficult to project a sound.

BENNY: You’re quite right about that. I was thinking that in earlier years, trombonists did have more prominence because of the way the music was written. A lot of times there would be contrapuntal lines between the trumpet and trombone. Louis Armstrong and his trombonist, or even back earlier than that. Trombones served as a real voice and as part of the ensemble. But still then, there’s nothing comparable on trombone to Louis Armstrong, certainly — but nothing comparable on anything else!

TP: No individual comparable. Also during the 20s and early 30s, a lot of bands didn’t record, territory bands or carnival bands, and particularly I’d think in carnival bands the trombone would have been quite prominent. I’ve read oral histories where people talk about trombonists who could just sight-read a whole book, but no one ever knew about them.

BENNY: Yeah, it’s kind of a mystery instrument.

TP: How did you come to pick it up?

BENNY: It was quite by accident. I was at an uncle’s house, and I was sitting on the sofa, and you know how kids turn around on the sofa and face backwards. That’s what I did. As I looked behind it, I saw this case. I was curious to know what it was. So I asked my uncle about it. He said it was a trombone that he had bought for one of his sons, who decided he would rather do sports. So he asked if I wanted to see it, and he let me see it, and I showed interest in it, so he let me take it home and he let me study. So it was through a quirk of fate. But I had been playing drums prior to this, just a little parade drums. In fact, Vernell Fournier and I were in grammar school playing drums together.Wilbur Hogan a little later was in the same band. Joseph A Craig Grammar School.

TP: We’re about to hear the aforementioned “Margie” by the Jimmie Lunceford band featuring Trummy Young. Did you see the Lunceford band in person? You mentioned hearing them on radio.

BENNY: Yes, I saw them in person. Every Sunday night there would be a dance in New Orleans. I remember it was across the railroad tracks in the warehouse district. I guess maybe they rented warehouses. I remember you had to cross…

TP: I think Danny Barker confirms that in his memoir.

BENNY: He probably named it. He was there from day one. But that was a very good experience for us, because the younger musicians used to get there early when the bus arrived, and we’d ask the older musicians to let us carry their instruments into the hall. They would, and they would talk to us. I remember Art Blakey met Vernell during those days, when he was a little kid. He called him Frenchy; then he called him Frenchy when he saw him. But it was a great way for us to meet older musicians, and find out what the road was like and so forth. I remember asking…I can’t remember exactly what trombonist it was…asking a question about the trombone, Sunday night, when I’d see him at the dance. And this guy told me, “Well, if you really want to know, the bus is leaving tomorrow at noontime; be in hotel room at 11 o’clock.” Certainly he would meet you there and tell you so much stuff. My head was reeling by the time I left. Because I’m a little impressionable kid, and here he is telling me about what the real deal is. So it was fascinating. I’m still fascinated with older musicians. I am the biggest fan of Doc Cheatham, because he exemplifies the true jazz spirit to me. He’s open, and he plays beautifully, he lives beautifully, and he wants to spread happiness — and he does spread happiness. Doc Cheatham is 88 years old, and still hitting high Ds!

[MUSIC: Lunceford-Trummy Young, “Margie”; Elllington-Lawrence Brown, “On A Turqoise Cloud”–1947]

TP: Lawrence Brown’s solo moved you profoundly then, and again just now.

BENNY: I love that solo. It sounds like it comes from out of the heavens. When I was a kid and listening to the bands on the radio, I just could imagine them in the most elegant places. Because I was a kid. I had no frame of reference. I didn’t know what it looked like at the Pompton turnpike, but it just sounded like heaven. Then all of that pretty much… You were talking about the corelation between the voice and the trombone, and there it’s used to optimal advantage. They just complemented each other so much. It’s almost uncanny what they really do for each other.

The trombone solo before that by Trummy Young on “Margie,” was again a fantastic solo because when he comes in, he comes in strong, and it’s really like a whole new character. He sort of took charge of that…


BENNY: >..bebop era. As a matter of fact, there are some things that he’s on with Charlie Parker. He was right in the middle. He was a contemporary until he died. I had the good fortune of interviewing in Hawaii in about 1982. At this time, I asked how did he keep… Oh, he was telling me about Ornette Coleman and all of the… He said, “Every morning, I go walking with my little Walkman, and I get the cassettes, I have somebody send them, and I keep up.” His conversation was very contemporary. Oh, it’s a beautiful tape, because it was done outside in Hawaii and you can hear the birds behind him. He was talking about how he made it. He said what to do is to latch on to somebody else, somebody who has a name. He said Jimmie Lunceford had a big name from having broadcast, so when he joined the Lunceford band he was very fortunate to latch on to somebody who had a name, so he made a name for himself. Anyway, he had good words of advice for survival. But I think the main thing that he said was just, “Leave yourself open for all musical experiences; don’t cancel anything – if it’s not particularly your cup of tea, you can always walk away from it, and maybe try and get back and check it out the second time. If it still is not your cup of tea…well, there’s another cup of tea that you will enjoy.

TP: Lawrence Brown, another of the great trombone virtuosos, who in the Ellington band covered every function, from that incredible buttery sound that we heard on “On a Turqoise Cloud” to something as rapid-fire as “Rose Of the Rio Grande.”

BENNY: I had to grow up to the Ellington band, too. I listened to them in the early 40s, and then when bebop hit I didn’t want to hear anything but Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie and J.J. Johnson and Monk and those… So it was a while before I got back to Ellington, and was able to listen to orchestral music and see all the beauty in that writing. But I’m telling you, bebop just hit everybody over the head like a sledgehammer.

TP: We’ll hear a set of trombone players identified with the bebop period, beginning with Bill Harris and Bennie Green. We’ll hear something by Bill Harris from 1945 for Keynote Records, a septet with some Hermanites and the superb Chicago drummer who played with Earl Hines for a number of years, Alvin Burroughs. It’s a feature for Bill Harris. Also Pete Candoli, Flip Philips, Ralph Burns (piano and arrangement), Billy Bauer, Chubby Jackson.

BENNY: What I loved about Bill Harris was his sense of humor. I understand he wasn’t a very learned musician in the formal sense. He did everything his way. I think he perhaps taught himself. But he was one of those rare individuals who can really come up with something strong and individual. So his playing was like nobody else’s I had heard before. And what really got me was his sense of humor.

[MUSIC: Bill Harris, “Mean To Me”; Bennie Green, “Whirl-A-Licks” (1951); Bennie Green-Gene Ammons, “That’s All” (1958)]

TP: Bennie Green performing with his high school classmate Gene Ammons, identified on this Blue Note recording, I guess for contractual reasons, by his nickname, “Jug,” which I guess would have hipped everyone to who was playing. Soul Stirring. “Whirl-A-Licks” also had Eddie Lockjaw Davis and Art Blakey… Hearing those two back-to-back gives you a sense of Bennie Green’s range.

BENNY: He was a strong influence on trombone players. He still incorporated some of Trummy Young, but he was beginning to push trombone a little farther. The tempo that he picked was one that most trombone players… It’s difficult to play trombone that fast. There’s no valves on it. It’s much easier to press a little valve down than it is to slide it into another position. The way we articulate is tonguing and so forth, and your tongue is not really that fast. Trumpet and saxophones don’t really have to tongue everything. They can do it with the keys. But we don’t have any, so it’s kind of difficult. So most guys play in slower tempos, or heretofore had played it at slower tempos. But Bennie raised the tempo and started everybody to playing a little faster. Of course, J.J. also. J.J. started playing like a trumpet. He had amazing facilities and could play very fast.

TP: When you think of J.J. Johnson, it’s someone extrapolating vocabularly from another instrument to the trombone?

BENNY: to me, J.J. is like an architect. His solos, every brick is in the proper place, none are sticking out. He’s a very precise man. I think he developed the techniques, because it is possible to play on trombone but you have to really study very much for alternate positions and so forth. It’s difficult, and you have to put in really a lot of time with it — I think J.J. did.

TP: I’m sure you did, too.

BENNY: Well, yeah. In order to keep up with everybody else, we used to practice. I was with Lionel Hampton’s band when I was a kid, and Jimmy Cleveland was my roommate. We’d get up and practice ALL day. When we got to work that night, we could play faster than the trumpets, and we took delight in it. But we had to practice all day to achieve that, because that’s what you’ve got to do. Jimmy Cleveland had amazing facility, amazing chops, and beautiful ideas. As a matter of fact, in Lionel Hampton’s band, the trombone section at one time contained Al Gray, Jimmy Cleveland and myself.

In fact, I was just thinking that we haven’t said enough about Al Gray and his influence on my life. I’ve been playing along with Al Gray since the late 40s with Lionel Hampton. I’m sure he’s been a big influence on my life, maybe more than I realize. Because playing with him every night, I certainly got a chance to hear him a lot. He’s a great, aggressive trombonist. As a matter of fact, most of the times he got the lion’s share of the solos with Count Basie’s band and Lionel Hampton’s band, because he was an amazing soloist, very strong and very assertive.

I’ll tell you a story about when he first joined the band. Tom MacIntosh, the writer, is a trombonist as well. The Basie Band was going to Europe in about 2 weeks, but before we were going to play Pep’s Show Bar in Philadelphia. It was in the wintertime, and as we got there everybody got the flu. Anyway, Tommy McIntosh was one of the guys, and he had to stay home from work one night. Philadelphia is Al Gray’s home town. Al just happened to be in the audience, and somebody asked him to go and get his horn. He came back and played. We were going to England the next week, and Basie certainly needed a strong soloist like Al. Needless to say, there went Tommy MacIntosh’s gig. I remember, because Tom was so hurt. When we were going to Philadelphia, I was sitting next to him on the train, and he was just ecstatic about joining Count Basie’s band. Oh, he was just so happy! He left Juilliard about 6 months before he was to get his degree to go with Basie. As we were going down to Philadelphia, I was trying to pull his coat. I said, “Man, it’s nice to be happy about coming with Count Basie, but if you don’t shut up about how happy you are, Count Basie’s going to want you to pay him.” Anyway, I kind of took him under my wing.

But as I said, he lost his gig. Anyway, when we came back, he wanted to show me a kindness for having been kind to him, and I remember he invited me over to his house for dinner. Only that night his wife had to work late, so he prepared the dinner. I don’t know too much about cooking, but I think he roasted a chicken that’s supposed to be stewed. Anyway, we sat down and he started to try to carve his chicken! Oh, man, the funniest thing you ever saw. Because by this time it was like rubber. It was bouncing all over the place. Tommy MacIntosh was a sweet soul.

But I have very fond memories of so many musicians. It’s really been a delight. Being in the musical field, it’s great; you meet all of these great minds and all of these quirky ways of thinking — and it’s fun. I love it.

I was surprised more than anybody when John Carter called me, because I knew he and Bobby Bradford had this avant-garde duo. Since I was not for coming from the swing era and swing bands, when John called I was very surprised. And when I heard the music, I was even more surprised, because as you’ll hear, it’s a complete departure from the music I’d been associated.

TP: Without further ado, let’s get into J.J. Johnson, who you described as the great architect. It’s amazing how, at these incredible tempos, he seems to be sitting there watching the flow move around him like a chess player thinking 10 moves ahead. This is “Coppin’ The Bop” from 1946 for Savoy, with Cecil Payne, Bud Powell, Leonard Gaskin and Max Roach.

[MUSIC: J.J. Johnson, “Coppin’ the Bop”-1946; J.J., “Pennies From Heaven”-1955]

TP: We hear J.J. Johnson’s style already fully formed on “Coppin’ The Bop”.

BENNY: It’s amazing how he’s always sounded contemporary, no matter what year. These things from 1946. Look how long ago that was. And it sounds contemporary today.

TP: Younger trombonists are still trying to incorporate that level of elegance and phrasing and dynamics into their vocabulary.

BENNY: All of us are. Include me in that!

TP: Another characteristic of J.J. Johnson’s style is to rearrange standards, and always put little twists on things, which he did on “Pennies From Heaven” on Blue Note, 1955 – Hank Mobley, Horace Silver, Paul Chambers, Kenny Clarke.

BENNY: He’s a fine arranger. I think that accounts for the fact that everything is in its correct place. Guys who play instruments and who are good arrangers, too, have one-up on most players. They know how not to play everything they know in one bar and have nothing left over for the next bar. They know how to spread their ideas out. He’s certainly one of the finest. I’ve worked with him in a lot of idioms, from small groups… As a matter of fact, we had something called The Toledo Trombones, Herb Alpert… I’ve worked with him from that kind of group to… He wrote a lot of television shows in Los Angeles while we both still lived there, and I was always so pleased whenever he would hire me for anything. To be hired by J.J. is like sort of being endorsed by Duncan Hines or God!

TP: We’ll hear a piece featuring you from John Carter’s Castles Of Ghana.

BENNY: Before that, we’ll hear a poem I wrote… I started producing my own albums in the late 70s or 80s because I wanted to do things without having somebody to tell me, “Yes, you can do this” or “no, you can’t do that.” At this time, I was studying to be an actor, so I wanted to incorporate that into my musical presentation. So I wrote this poem, and at this time I thought it was really a heavy poem. When I listen to it now, it’s nice, but it reminds me of a certain romantic period in my life. I guess everybody is a poet for 5 minutes.This was my mine.

Anyway, I started producing my own things, and then I got a chance to really break away completely from the style of music that I had played previously, with John Carter, since it was a complete departure. John Carter’s music was very interesting, because half of it was written, the other half was verbal. We did an anthology tracing African Americans from Africa to the New World. He would tell us… I remember one piece, “Run, Juba, Run.” he said, “Now, picture yourself just getting off a ship,” and I don’t mean a cruise or anything – a slave ship. “You’ve been taken away from your home and brought to this new place. So this particular time that we want to record about now, is you’re standing in the water, maybe in South Carolina, and all the loneliness… Anyway, he would set up emotional scenes for you to play, and he wanted all of this in his music. On the surface, it sounds very…well, I can’t say discordant. It sounds experimental. But if you know the stories that these things are supposed to be depicting, it was really a good departure.”

[MUSIC: Benny Powell, “Let me Sing You My song”; John Carter, “The Fallen Prince”-1986]

TP: Talk about your thoughts on putting together this new CD, which comprises 3 sessions from 1991.

BENNY: To me, trombone has to be showcased exactly right. It itself is a mellow instrument, and it can really put you to sleep if it’s done too mellow. So I try different types of tunes. Some are sambas, some are waltzes, some are just straight-ahead swing. But I tried to showcase myself in the most interesting manner to me. It was fun putting it all together, because I wrote about five of the tunes, and I didn’t consider myself a serious writer, but I know that when you produce your own album it makes sense to have some of your own tunes. Who knows? You might write another “Body and Soul” and be able to retire for life. But I wrote about five of these tunes, and when I took them in to rehearsal and the musicians played them, when they played it back to me, after they added their own ideas to it, it sounded much better than the thing I had originally wrote. As a matter of fact, I said, “Wow, did I write that?” It was the input of Ronnie Matthews, Fred Hopkins, Talib Kibwe, John Stubblefield, Jerome Richardson – all of them had a great deal in making suggestions.

One thing I wanted to do was make it a happy, fun album. When I was Basie’s band, there were a lot of housewives who used to always say, “I can put on this music and do my housework by it because it’s kind of up and bright.” Well, that’s the kind of music I like. I like happy music and I like music that makes people feel good. So that’s what I was aiming for.

[MUSIC: Benny Powell, “Dance of the Nile” (by Talib Kibwe, Ronnie Matthews, Fred Hopkins, Carl Allen]

TP: Cued up is something Benny recorded with the Metropole Orchestra.

BENNY: When I left Basie’s band I got a chance to do some guest appearances with orchestras in Europe. This is one of them. It was recorded in Hilversum, Holland, with the radio band. Very seldom do I get a chance to play with strings in the United States. It costs too much money to hire all of those strings. But in Europe, it’s possible sometimes. This is why musicians sometimes like to go to Europe and out of the country, because it gives you the opportunity to do things that you wouldn’t normally do here. This is one of my favorite tunes, by Thad Jones – “A Child Is Born.”


TP: To conclude, we’ll hear you playing Horace Silver’s “Fingerpoppin’”.

BP: Horace Silver is one of my favorite writers. I hope sometime to be able to do a whole album of Horace Silver tunes. I think he rates with the all-time arrangers. He’s still alive and kicking and I think he should be acknowledged much more, especially for his writing. He was responsible for a whole period of music, and for turning the music back to the church for a little bit, if you will.

[MUSIC: Benny Powell 5, “Finger-Poppin’”]

TP: We didn’t have a chance to listen to much of the music you brought, including the non-trombonists who you felt were essential to your development – the Dizzy Gillespie Big Band…

BP: Lester Young.

TP: We didn’t hear “Castle Rock,” which is a favorite.

BP: Lockjaw.

TP: Trummy Young and Bird.

BP: Yes, or even some of the contemporary trombonists like Steve Turre, Robin Eubanks, Jamal Haynes… There’s some good guys on the horizon.

TP: Coming up is a composition of yours.

BP: I wrote this for Vernell Fournier. We went to grammar school together, as I told you. So we got a chance to record together, which was a sort of life-long dream, because it’s something we talked about when we were kids in high school. It’s called “Lifelong Dream.”

[Benny-Metropole Orchestra, “Lifelong Dream”-1985]

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