The jazz world was devastated earlier this week by the passing of Ralph Peterson Jr., a drummer, composer, bandleader, educator, entrepreneur, and all-around volcano of a musician and human, at the age of 58. It feels (and indeed is) soon to be digging in to his vast discography, but I wanted to be able to share some memories with those who might find that nourishing and to point some folks on the margins of the jazz world in the direction of some starting points from which to go down the Sir Ralph rabbit hole that I and many others have been in this week.
As I became serious about jazz, Ralph was on a disproportionate number of the then-recent albums that established my template for what music could and should be. What I love about jazz has always centered around the drums, and especially drummers who interact, play with a high level of polyrhythmic energy, groove like crazy, use a broad range of dynamics (including being willing to HIT the drums), and do all this in service of the music and with intricate sensitivity to the tune being played. And there were basically two drummers of the musical generation prior to mine who I kept hearing and hearing about over and over, Jeff “Tain” Watts and Ralph. In Ralph’s case there was the further Rutgers connection, though sadly for me we never quite overlapped there (he was a student a good bit before I entered as an undergrad and then he returned to teach there, prior to his landing at Berklee, right after I finished grad school). He was the embodiment of a timeless musician – he sounded exceptionally mature even on his earliest recordings and brought youthful vigor to his most recent ones.
While his legacy would be huge even if the ONLY thing he ever did was play the drums, his other endeavors were important and impressive as well. As a bandleader his vision was clear and his projects were distinctive, each one having a specific sound and conception, though all bearing his unmistakable stamp. One thing I particularly love about what he brought to the music is his devotion to the lineage. This can be seen in both directions – his loyalty to his/the music’s elders and his sense of responsibility to nurture subsequent generations, whether formally as an educator or as apprentices in his bands. These things converged in some fascinating and beautiful ways.
In the agonizing process of making a list of 10 tracks, I left out quite a few Ralph Peterson recordings that deserve your ears, as well as albums by David Murray, Roy Hargrove, Michele Rosewoman, Don Byron, Charles Lloyd, George Colligan, Orrin Evans, Luis Perdomo, the Curtis Brothers, and Todd Marcus, among others. These are 10 that have particularly impacted me, and while I tried to focus on still-in-print things so that folks could check these out in non-YouTube settings, I’ll note that #2 and #3 were just too important to me to omit.
1 ) “Blues in Six” from Moon Alley by Tom Harrell (recorded 1985)
I lump this one, featuring Kenny Barron on piano, together a bit in the “young RP playing with his Rutgers professors” category, alongside the sadly obscure Love Progression by William Fielder (aka “Prof”). This track is the intense, deep-pocketed opening salvo on an amazing record that, like Prof’s, provides an early example of Ralph and Kenny Garrett’s wonderful synergy.
2 ) “Nathan Jones” from Live at Mt. Fuji by Out of the Blue (recorded 1986)
I still don’t understand how OTB’s work hasn’t been reissued by Blue Note, but musicians of my generation know how burnin’ and important this label-organized group of young all-stars was. Featuring three additional Rutgers alumni (Harry Pickens, Ralph Bowen, and Michael Philip Mossman, the latter two subsequent teachers of mine) the band also helped expose the world to Garrett, bassist Robert Hurst, and bassist Kenny Davis (who as of this record had taken over). There are a few RP original tunes on these records, and hearing them stretch out on this one (originally on the Inside Track album) is heavy.
3 ) “Bemsha Swing” from Triangular (recorded 1988)
One of the greatest trio records of the last 50 years. I dare anyone to challenge me there. With Essiet Okun Essiet and the late Geri Allen, the fire and creativity never abate on this record. I could have thrown a dart to pick a tune, but I always find myself grinning when I hear the New Orleans-inspired street beat on this interpretation of a classic Thelonious Monk song (co-written with Denzil Best).
4 ) “Four Hundred Years Ago Tomorrow” from Scorpio Rising by Walter Davis, Jr. (recorded 1989)
Another album that helped share Ralph’s gifts with the world, this one also helps demonstrate his deep devotion to the (often comparatively neglected) elders of jazz and even more specifically to the lineage of Jazz Messengers alumni. I remember him speaking with particular fondness of his work with Walter Davis, Jr. and we can all learn a lot from hearing how seamlessly and supportively RP illuminates the frequently-shifting grooves in this tricky song.
5 ) “Isotope” from Three For All + One by Craig Handy (recorded 1993)
I suspect a number of folks reading this were cutting their teeth (in music school or otherwise) in the ‘90s – I’m not sure how many of you were into this album when it came out, but as soon as my friend Noah Bloom hipped me to this one I was floored. The quartet tracks with frequent RP collaborator Dave Kikoski are great too, but as much as I loved Sonny Rollins’ pianoless trios, something about the astonishing level of fire that emanated from Ralph, Craig Handy, and the late Charles Fambrough opened up major conceptual and emotional doors for me (ironic to say that as a pianist, I suppose).
6 ) “Freight Train” from The Art of War (recorded 2001)
“Funk” tunes recorded by jazz musicians can sound a bit rote sometime, but I’m not sure that Ralph ever played a rote note in his life. He sure as heck didn’t play any of them on the three albums by his important early 2000s quintet of with Jeremy Pelt, Jimmy Greene, Orrin Evans, and Eric Revis. The pocket is deep throughout, yet the interactivity is absolutely constant, and the resulting intensity and shared creativity provide a template for how (and why) to stay engaged, no matter the groove.
7 ) “Beautious B” from The Fo’tet Augmented (recorded 2003)
Ralph’s Fo’tet is another of his projects that had a wide musical influence. Fourteen years after the groups debut album, they recorded this work that demonstrates, predictably, the staying power of their potency and the distinctiveness of their sound. Clarinetist Don Byron returns to the fold for the first time since 1990 (though RP played on some of Don’s music and they worked together on Uri Caine projects in the meantime), while the rich vibes of Bryan Carrott provide the central color that he gave to every Fo’tet recording. The group is rounded out by bassist Belden Bullock, a veteran of two prior Fo’tet records, and is “augmented” by the percussion of Ralph’s Berklee colleague Eguie Castrillo on percussion. One doesn’t necessarily think first about ballads when assessing the work of a volcanically powerful drummer, but Ralph’s sensitivity was an important factor in his musicianship, not to mention his moody composing such as on this gorgeous song.
8 ) “Second Thoughts” from Alive At Firehouse 12, Volume 1 – The Unity Project (recorded 2012)
When I went to check out Ralph’s Unity Project in New Haven this night I didn’t know it’d become a record, but boy am I glad to have had more than one opportunity to listen to it. We hear Craig Handy again, alongside Josh Evans on trumpet and Jake Sherman on organ, filling in for usual band member Pat Bianchi and demonstrating Ralph’s ongoing commitment to nurturing younger musicians. This hard-swinging tune is another example of Ralph’s commitment to amplifying the music of Jazz Messenger alumni, in this case pianist Mulgrew Miller, with whom Ralph recorded on his first two sessions (Prof’s aforementioned album and Discernment by the Terence Blanchard/Donald Harrison group) as well as a wonderful (but sadly out of print) James Spaulding record back in the 1980s and a more recent album by trumpeter (and fellow Prof disciple) Sean Jones.
9 ) “Vortex” from Vortex by Wayne Escoffery (recorded 2017)
I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to hear Ralph play in my old friend Wayne Escoffery’s quartet (with Dave Kikoski and Ugonna Okegwo) and there are numerous recorded examples of their work together. I could have picked any number of examples of the group’s synergy, and ultimately picked this one because the list didn’t yet contain an example of Ralph playing an up-tempo swing tune and tearing the roof off. And boy does he here, both with the band and on a ferocious, creative drum solo.
10 ) “Sonora” from Onward and Upward by Ralph Peterson and the Messenger Legacy (recorded 2020)
This record from the Messenger Legacy group, recorded just before the pandemic began, puts aside music from the Blakey band and instead features music from the wide-ranging group of musicians on the record, including contributing composers Zaccai Curtis, Jean Toussaint, Robin Eubanks, Bill Pierce, and Steve Davis. This sweet, Latin-infused song by Ralph is a portrait of his daughter that he first recorded back in 1992 – this grooving performance features Handy again as well as a remarkable bass solo by Sonora’s mom, Melissa Slocum.