Master drummer, respected composer-bandleader and talent scout extraordinaire Ralph Peterson has carried on in the tradition of his mentor and idol Art Blakey, who was renowned for his hard-driving approach to the kit and his uncanny knack for discovering new talent. The list of jazz greats who passed through the ranks of Blakey’s Jazz Messengers reads like a Who’s Who in Jazz. Similarly, Peterson helped launch the careers of several promising young players in his various bands over the years, including trumpeters Sean Jones and Jeremy Pelt, saxophonists Steve Wilson, Ralph Bowen and Tia Fuller, vibist Bryan Carrot and pianist Orrin Evans. With his Unity Project, Peterson adds three new names to the list – trumpeter Josh Evans, tenor saxophonist Jovan Alexandre and Hammond B-3 organist Pat Bianchi. Together with their fearless leader, they collectively push the envelope to extremes on Outer Reaches, an exhilarating homage to Larry Young’s classic 1965 Blue Note recording Unity. Peterson’s 15th album as a leader overall is also the inaugural release on his Onyx Music label.
“That record changed my life,” Peterson says of the Larry Young landmark featuring trumpeter Woody Shaw, tenor saxophonist Joe Henderson and drummer Elvin Jones. “There are about 10 or 15 records that were like paradigm-shifters for me. And that was certainly was one of them. Unity and albums like Joe Henderson’s The Kicker, Art Blakey’s Free For All and Ornette Coleman’s The Shape of Jazz to Come were all game-changers for me. But I had to grow into an appreciation for them. In fact, the older I get the more powerful I realize some of those recordings are.”
On Outer Reaches, Peterson and his young crew come out of the gate charging hard on Woody Shaw’s “The Moontrane. The leader sets the hard-driving pace with his typically deep-grooving swing factor, and Evans responds in kind with a bold trumpet solo over Bianchi’s grooving B-3 bass lines and insistent comping. Alexandre also turns in an authoritative tenor solo and Bianchi follows with some Larry Young-inspired magic on the keys.
On a startling recreation of the Larry Young-Elvin Jones duet rendition of “Monk’s Dream” on Unity, Peterson’s approach is highly interactive, briskly swinging and exceedingly hip, in the tradition of another one of his drumming idols, Roy Haynes. Bianchi wails with confidence on this freeform take on the Thelonious Monk class and Peterson also turns in a dramatic extended drum solo near the end of the piece.
The hard-swinging title track, one of four Peterson originals, showcases the impressive facility and flow of ideas from young tenor saxophonist Alexandre along with the bristling energy and audacious risk-taking of young trumpeter Evans. Bianchi digs in with a nod to Jimmy Smith here, nonchalantly double-timing his phrasing over the powerful pulse laid down by Peterson. Their exciting exchanges with the drums near the end of this heightened offering shows how the adventurous, forward-thinking bandleader still has one foot firmly in the hard bop camp.
Woody Shaw’s lovely waltz-time “Katrina Ballerina” (from the trumpeter’s 1974 album, The Moontrane) has Evans blowing lyrical lines with a mellow tone as Bianchi lays out a velvety B-3 cushion and Peterson gracefully underscores the proceedings with deft brushwork. Alexandre’s tenor solo here is particularly warm and inviting yet still probing. Switching from the sublime to the incendiary, they jump into Shaw’s blazing “Beyond All Limits” (from Unity) with abandon. Evans’ trumpet solo here is especially galvanizing and Alexandre follows with some heat of his own as Bianchi and Peterson fuel the fires. The young B-3 maven and the drumming elder also turn in outstanding solos on this runaway romp.
Peterson’s “On My Side” is a luxurious brushes ballad dedicated to his mother while his jaunty “An Inside Job” swings in easy midtempo fashion with Peterson providing polyrhythmic thrills along the way. Bianchi is also prominently showcased on this infectious grooving number. Peterson’s “Beyond My Wildest Dream,” dedicated to his wife Diane, is a briskly swinging number with a memorable melody. Evans, Bianchi and Peterson all deliver potent solos here.
Bianchi and Peterson (on brushes this time) engage in another conversational duet on Young’s “Ritha” (from his 1964 Blue Note debut, Into Somethin’). Then on Shaw’s “Zoltan” (from Unity) the leader showcases some different aspects of his drumming prowess, including some authentic parade drumming reminiscent of Art Blakey’s work on the Messengers anthem “Blues March.” Evans and Alexandre engage in some spirited cat-and-mouse play on this urgent number and guest guitarist Dave “Fuze” Fiuczynski contributes on of his trademark outré solos before Peterson unleashes a dynamic drum solo.
The leader pulls out his trusty trumpet on a swinging 3/4 rendition of the Christmas carol “We Three Kings” (which he overdubs on top of the powerful foundation he lays down on drums with Bianchi’s organ). And the collection closes on a crunchy note with a scintillating power trio of Bianchi, Peterson and Fiuczynski recreating the high energy tumult of John McLaughlin’s “Spectrum” (from the first Tony Williams Lifetime album, 1969’s Emergency!, which featured Young on organ with McLaughlin on guitar and Williams on drums). Fuze’s audacious guitar solo here should make other six-stringers sit up and take notice, and his energy is matched stride-for-stride by Bianchi’s B-3 incendiary work and Peterson’s powerhouse drumming. “I wanted somebody who had respect for inside but who could also push the limits harmonically and soundwise and come up with some things that were adventurous,” Peterson says of his choice of Fiuczynski for this Emergency!-styled power trio. “I wasn’t looking for machine-like precision but something that was kind of soupy and not always clearly defined. And Fuze was killing. He got right up on it.”
“This is something that I’ve always wanted to do,” says Peterson of his new Unity Project release. “It was another goal realized and now we’re trying to wake everybody up to the good news about it as I plot the next move.”
A respected educator who is currently a fullprofessor at the Berklee College of Music, Peterson’s protégés include such potent new drummers on the New York scene as Ari Hoenig, E.J. Strickland, Justin Faulkner, Rodney Green, Vince Ector, Jonathan Blake, Dion Parsons and Mark Whitfield Jr. He is also a clinician and endorser for Mapex Drums, Vic Firth Sticks, Axis Pedals as well as Bosphorus Cymbals, where he designed their newest cymbal line aptly called The Oracle.
Peterson, who studied with master drummer Michael Carvin at Rutgers University in 1980. In 1983, he met Blakey, who chose Peterson to be the second drummer in his big band for a performance at the Boston Globe Festival. Ralph continued in the Jazz Messenger Big Band until Blakey’s death in 1990. Peterson takes seriously the honor and responsibility of being the “Last Messenger Drummer” and later paid homage to Blakey on his 1993 Blue Note recording Art. “Being chosen by Art Blakey is more than just something I throw around as a badger of honor,” he says, “it’s something I work real hard to live up to.” (Peterson’s most recent discoveries are two Berklee students, clarinetist Felix Pelkli and bassist Norishida Shiota, whom he plans to showcase on an upcoming Fo’tet project).
Born on May 20, 1962 in Pleasantville, New Jersey, Peterson first got behind the traps set at age three. As he told Jazziz magazine:“I believe I was predestined to be a drummer,” he says. “My early playing was a basement experience, playing along with records by James Brown, Earth Wind & Fire and Parliament- Funkadelic, where the beat was powerful and primal. 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.”
At Rutgers, under the tutelage of Michael Carvin, he learned about Art Blakey, Philly Joe Jones, Max Roach, Elvin Jones and Tony Williams. While a junior in college, he began an ongoing gig in pianist Walter Davis, Jr.'s trio. As he recalled to jazz writer Ted Panken, “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.” Following his gig with Walter Davis, Jr., Peterson was recruited by Blakey for his two-drummer big band. “Art became my idol not only as a drummer, but as a bandleader and a molder of men,” he told Panken.
Peterson emerged on the jazz scene in the mid ‘80s with Out of the Blue, a band of young lions put together by Blue Note Records. He recorded three albums with the group – 1985’s Out of the Blue, 1986’s Inside Track and 1986’s Live at Mt. Fuji. He subsequently worked through the ‘80s in bands led by Branford Marsalis, David Murray, Craig Harris, James Spaulding, Roy Hargrove, Jon Faddis, Dewey Redman and Terence Blanchard and Donald Harrison. He debuted as a leader in 1988 with Triangular on Blue Note, followed later that year by V, 1990’s Presents the Fo’tet, 1991’s Volition, 1992’ Ornetteology and 1993’s Art.
In the 1990s, Peterson played as a sideman with Jack Walrath, Craig Handy, Charles Lloyd, Kip Hanrahan Bheki Mseleku, Courtney Pine, Steve Coleman, George Colligan, Stanley Cowell, Mark Shim and Betty Carter while also releasing two albums on the Evidence label, 1994’s The Reclamation Project and 1995’s Fo’tet Plays Monk. The following decade he released a string of recordings on Criss Cross – 2001’s The Art of War, 2002’s Subliminal Seduction, 2003’s Test of Time and 2004’s Fo’tet Augmented – as well as two albums in 2000 on the British Sirrocco label, Back to Stay (which featured Michael Brecker) and Triangular 2 (with pianist Dave Kikoski and bassist Gerald Cannon). Aside from the Unity Project, The Fo’tet and his Quintet, where he plays trumpet (recording later this year), Peterson also leads a trio that features such stellar sidemen as The Curtis Brothers (Luques and Zaccai), Orrin Evans and young monster Victor Gould as well as an electric group featuring saxophonist Craig Handy and guitarist Dave Stryker.