Category Archives: Ralph Peterson

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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