Ralph Peterson's Beginnings
The master drummer, composer, and bandleader's earliest recordings.
Drummer Ralph Peterson, born in 1962, was a charismatic virtuoso, a composer and conceptualist, a natural bandleader, a teacher and mentor, an eternal student of and advocate for the music. His death from cancer in 2021 was a painful loss.
In 1988 and ’89, Peterson led three dates on Blue Note featuring pianist Geri Allen: V and Volition are both quintets, Triangular is a trio set. These three records, plus an additional three records (two by Ralph Peterson’s Fo’Tet, and a final quintet record), all on Blue Note, are out of print, not streaming anywhere in their complete form as of December 2022. All six made an impact, and were widely influential when they were released.
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Bassist/composer/bandleader Eric Revis summed it up in conversation with Ted Panken in 2012: “They [Peterson’s Blue Note records] profoundly affected me and a lot of people I was coming up with….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.”
Eric Harland, in the same Panken article, concurs: “That quintet was the next sound. 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.”
The first time I was lucky enough to play with Drew Gress, he asked me on the set break, “Hey Vinnie, did you ever hear Ralph Peterson Fo’Tet?” I told him I’d heard the band live, with Steve Wilson on soprano, at William Paterson, but hadn’t heard the records. He looked right at me and said “Well, you should!” That sticks with you. Thank you Drew!
Before getting into the records, here are a few reasons why Ralph Peterson is great:
First, while he’s all about swinging and the jazz tradition, he’s also totally aware of contemporary funk/soul/R&B and fusion drummers, and a host of Afro-Cuban and Afro-Caribbean traditions. He lets all those sounds color his playing in a natural, unforced way.
Second, Peterson has a strong affinity with the avant-garde. He recorded with Geri Allen, David Murray, Baikida Carroll, Don Byron, and did gigs with Henry Threadgill; you can hear the avant-garde in his writing; and you can really hear it in his playing.
Third, he’s a real improviser. He’s such a fearless improviser that sometimes it’s not clear how or if he’ll finish his phrase and stick the landing. This creates incredible drama and excitement. Ralph is just going for it, propriety be damned; he’s even willing to briefly overshadow the soloist and step out of line, all for the greater glory of the music. There’s some huge emotion in his playing, captivating to hear.
As Ralph said:
“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.” 1
Finally, like Tony Williams, Paul Motian, Andrew Cyrille, and many, many other drummers, Ralph Peterson created community. He thrived in bands, was always forming and joining bands. He was a lifelong receiver and giver of wisdom, committed to collaboration, developing new music with a consistent line-up. He was always supporting young players, hiring them for his bands, and playing on early releases by Jeremy Pelt and Melissa Aldana.
So there it is: a master of the whole spectrum of African diaspora drumming, with an interest in the avant-garde, a total improviser, and all about composing for specific players and being in bands. No wonder we all love his music.
Also, it’s simply a pleasure to hear Ralph Peterson. He’s intense and deeply serious, but there’s a lot of joy in there too.
On his great cycle of Blue Note albums, recorded from 1988 to 1992, all these facets are integrated into a fully developed sound, a complete conception that he asserted as a composer, bandleader, and drummer. Loving these records, I wanted to hear how he developed, so I got on Tom Lord and discogs.com and got some records. Here’s what I found.
Ralph Peterson enrolled at Rutgers University in 1980 as a trumpet player, after failing his audition as a drummer for not knowing any rudiments. Eventually he convinced Michael Carvin that he was serious about drumming, and Carvin took him on as a student. According to Peterson, it was Michael Carvin who introduced him to drumming that Peterson “couldn’t imitate after hearing it once2.”
In 1982, Peterson played second drumset with Art Blakey in the two-drummer Jazz Messenger big band, forging a deep and life-long bond with the master. He studied composition with Kenny Barron at Rutgers, and started gigging with Walter Davis Jr. By 1984, Peterson was on the scene, sounding great and making waves.
He first appears on record with the Terence Blanchard-Donald Harrison Quintet, a superior, ambitious group. The quintet was filled out with Mulgrew Miller and bassist Phil Bowler; Blanchard, Harrison, Miller, and Peterson were all Blakey alums. Discernment (Concord) recorded at the end of 1984, is Peterson’s first easily accessible recording.
The opening track, Blanchard’s “Worth The Pain”, is a ferocious, up-tempo burnout, with an angular melody and dramatic solos, the very definition of Young Lion jazz. Peterson’s trademark intensity is immediately present, his dramatic fills and interjections defining the tune. The fire burned hot at the beginning, later it would burn just as hot but would take on additional humanity. Harrison’s arrangement of “When The Saints Go Marching In” is streaming, and features Peterson’s take on the second line, a crucial part of his toolbox.
Discernment is excellent, but the group’s follow up, 1986’s Nascence (Columbia) is the more developed music. Though closely related to the Jazz Messengers and Wynton’s quintet, Nascence demonstrates the Blanchard and Harrison group’s distinct identity.
It’s the vamps; Blanchard and Harrison’s melodies often coalesce around hip vamps of different sorts (odd time, asymmetrical 4/4, funky), perfect for Peterson and the group to pull apart.
Nascence opens with Harrison’s “Guardian of the Flame”, where Peterson fills with audacity and bravado over a badass 4/4 Phrygian vamp, translating Billy Cobham from fusion to acoustic jazz. “Chong-Chong” has the whole band back in a second-line groove, with some fun and natural R&B references from Miller and Peterson.
Wynton’s Black Codes (From The Underground) (Columbia, 1985) was already an acknowledged influence in 1986. Blanchard’s “Tacit Approval of Desmond’s Plight”, for Bishop Desmond Tutu, borrows the unforgettable 5/8 opening of “Black Codes” almost verbatim before an off-kilter 7/4 vamp for the trumpet solo. Peterson tailors his choices to every soloist, keeping the energy up. It seems that Peterson’s “Monief”, in 17/8, must be coming from Harrison and Blanchard’s vamp-oriented acoustic music.
The two records from Blanchard and Harrison drive home a point: the new jazz sound was doing business. In fact, the commercial potential of the Young Lions influenced Bruce Lundvall’s decision to relaunch Blue Note Records in 1985. One of their first orders of business was assembling Out Of The Blue, a group of emerging young players to tour and record, pushing the Blue Note brand and maybe launching their own careers.
The initial line up was Kenny Garrett, Michael Phillip Mossman on trumpet, Ralph Bowen on tenor, pianist Harry Pickens, and Robert Hurst. Out Of The Blue’s first album O.T.B.(Blue Note, recorded 1985) introduces the world to Ralph Peterson the collaborator, co-leader, and supporter of the up-and-coming (of course, Peterson was up-and-coming himself then.)
O.T.B. opens with Robert Hurst’s “RH Factor”, an unpredictable, jagged minor modal burner, perfect for the first track of a Young Lion album. Peterson is aggressive and exciting as always, but there’s nuance and shade, as he makes subtle adjustments for solos from Mossman, Garrett, and Bowen.
On Garrett’s “Eastern Love Village”, Peterson’s discreet mallets on the toms maintain the atmosphere, supporting the tune, a true team player. On “Hot House”, from Out Of The Blue’s second release Inside Track (Blue Note, recorded 1986), the trio of Harry Pickens, Hurst, and Peterson set a great tempo, then split the difference between bebop and contemporary ideas. Pickens and Peterson’s trades demonstrate how quickly Peterson was developing; but for a some telltale signs, it might be a very aggressive Kenny Washington on drums.
The Young Lions were only a part of the story of jazz in the 1980’s. Several figures from the avant-garde drew lots of commercial and critical water in the 80’s, including James Newton, Jane Ira Bloom, and the World Saxophone Quartet. Peterson’s forceful swing and ease with new music made him a natural fit for one of the 80’s emblematic jazz musicians, David Murray.
Murray, influential and very popular, was somewhere between the radical expression of the avant-garde and something which would connect with a sophisticated jazz club audience. Murray’s engaging, crowd-pleasing avant-gardism is a key ingredient of Peterson’s developed sound.
With Murray, Peterson adapted his Blakey-oriented style accordingly. Not as concerned with showing his command of the language and proximity to the heart core of jazz, as with Blanchard and Harrison, Peterson now has something in common with Pheeroan akLaff, Tani Tabbal, and Andrew Cyrille. Several Murray studio and live dates with Peterson (New Life, I Want To Talk About You, Hope Scope, Lovers, Deep River, Ballads, Spirituals, and Tenors), ranging from octet to quartet, track Peterson’s rapid growth.
On “Train Whistle” from Murray’s New Life (Black Saint, recorded 1985), Peterson cuts through the thicket of Ellingtonia and swings out with the legendary Baikida Carroll. The live I Want To Talk About You (Black Saint, recorded 1986) has a great version of Murray’s “Morning Song”, Peterson’s backbeat neither dominating nor hanging back, just sitting in the exact right spot. On Peterson’s own “Thabo” (drummer Michael Carvin’s African name) from Hope Scope (Black Saint, recorded 1987), he pulls Murray and pianist Dave Burrell into a Wayne Shorter-era Messengers bag, while Burrell and Murray simultaneously pull Peterson closer to their conception, with some delightful surreality in Peterson’s solo.
The stage was now set for V, Triangular, and Volition. Ted Panken and Ethan Iverson have listened carefully to these records. You can read Ted’s work here; and here is a link to Ethan’s Substack which has writing about Peterson, Geri Allen, and related subjects. Thank you Ethan and Ted!
After those releases, Ralph Peterson’s next Blue Note project upped the avant-garde ante. Ralph Peterson Presents The Fo’Tet (recorded Dec 1989) featured clarinetist Don Byron, vibraphonist Bryan Carrott, and bassist Melissa Slocum, with David Murray and Ku-umba Frank Lacy guesting. The salty-sweet combination, Ralph Peterson with Don Byron, similar to Peterson and Geri Allen, can only be called a gas. Byron’s Lee Morgan dedication “Homegoing” is haunting and unpredictable; the group’s reading of Lacy’s mostly free-time “Confrontation” is a standout, maybe the closest Peterson came on one of his own albums to AACM/World Saxophone Quartet avant-gardism. Probably “Johnny Come Lately” with a classic, dramatic arrangement from (I assume) Peterson sums the Fo’Tet best.
The Fo’Tet’s follow up, Ornettology (recorded 1990, Blue Note) sustains the mission. Mostly original tunes, with Monk’s “I Mean You”, Wayne Shorter’s “Iris”, and Ornette’s “Congeniality” also included. Monk, Wayne Shorter, Ornette Coleman: we see the connection between them. We have Ralph Peterson and his generation to thank for that.
The final Ralph Peterson album on Blue Note is Art (recorded 1992) with Graham Haynes on cornet and Michele Rosewoman on piano joining Steve Wilson and Phil Bowler for a hard look at Blakey’s legacy. Peterson’s “Art of Blakey” features him playing a Blakey shuffle, very powerful, nuanced and detailed, channeling Art Blakey. I’m too young to have seen Art (not that I’m young), so hearing Ralph play Art helps me imagine what it must have been like. Art is a fitting end to an important run of records.
As of this moment, none of his six Blue Note records are officially streaming in their complete form, though there are few tunes on YouTube. Maybe this post will cause some other folks to listen and write about Ralph. Maybe we can get Blue Note’s attention.
After Blue Note, Ralph Peterson beat a drug addiction, about which he spoke bravely and openly for the rest of his life. He kept developing, refining his sound and approach, forming bands, composing, and recording. His four records for Criss Cross (The Art of War, 2001, Subliminal Seduction, 2002, Tests Of Time, 2003, The Fo’Tet Augmented, 2004) are all excellent and should be heard. Subliminal Seduction features two free, unaccompanied drum solos; he could have done a whole solo drum album.
In 2008, he started his own label, releasing live and studio dates. Here’s his Bandcamp. He played and taught until the end, finally felled by cancer on March 1, 2021, age 58.
Ralph Peterson was a bright light, a complex, gifted, and generous musician. He scared me within an inch of my life the first time I heard him. I was terrified of him and his music, so powerful and intense was his playing, absolutely unforgettable. During the pandemic, I finally got ahold of all his Blue Note records, and heard an ambitious and experimental master, stretching his wings and creating our world.
All gratitude and respect for Mr. Ralph Peterson.
Special thanks to Mr. Steve Wilson for taking the time to talk to me about Ralph Peterson, helping me understand his contribution, and telling me how many records there were, pre-Wikipedia.
In conversation with Ted Panken, “Protecting The Truth”, Downbeat, 2012. Found at tedpanken.wordpress.com
In conversation with Ted Panken, in liner notes to Ralph Peterson: Back To Stay, Sirocco Jazz, 1999. Found at tedpanken.wordpress.com