06.12.14Discography as a Leader / News

In a varied and prodigious career whose span now encompasses three decades, percussionist-composer Ralph Peterson Jr. has never stopped expanding horizons for the hard-bop idiom he helped revive. Nor has he shirked from intensifying his formidable artistic resources to connect, urgently and emotionally, with the energies of the present day . He takes yet another bold step with his 20th album, as a leader, Dream Deferred (Onyx), which is also the first to feature his new quintet, Aggregate Prime, comprising the powerful, all-star tandem of bassist Kenny Davis, guitarist Mark Whitfield, saxophonist-flutist Gary Thomas and pianist Vijay Iyer.

Born May 20, 1962, Ralph Peterson Jr. had music, especially percussion, embedded in his family history. His father, Ralph, Sr. played drums and piano played in clubs throughout New Jersey. After his son was born – the fourth child after three daughters -- he joined the police force, rose through the ranks to become deputy chief and then served four terms as mayor of Peterson’s suburban hometown of Pleasantville, N.J. , six miles from Atlantic City.

The album’s title, drawn from the timeless Langston Hughes poem “Harlem", announces Peterson’s intention to address, through his compositions, our seemingly unending national dialogue on race, re-energized by the plague of police shootings of unarmed black citizens and the accompanying lack of accountability for those actions. It is in that context that Peterson imagines how his father, who died two years ago, would have reacted to those events.

“He’d have been appalled," Peterson says. “He was a boxer and he was of the old-school belief that things could be worked out with your hands. He was against deadly force as a first or even second resort. It’s part of a whole bent of depending on guns that my dad wouldn’t have recognized today. And I wonder myself why it is that guns have become the only way to deal with conflict. People are into self-defense training. But nobody boxes in the streets any more. It’s all about who has the most weaponry and that’s become a deeply fatal flaw in our society today."

Given his father’s pre-police vocation, plus the fact that four of his uncles and his grandfather all had musical backgrounds, Peterson was all but pre-ordained to pick up the drums at age three. “We always had drums in the house," he recalls. “I started playing them by ear. Everybody in the family was into music. My three sisters formed an
a capella doo-wop group. By fourth grade, I started to learn the trumpet, which I played in the marching band when I was in seventh grade. Learning the trumpet helped me learn how to read the rhythms I was feeling my way through on drums." Thinking back to those years makes Peterson wistful towards a time when music instruction in public schools was far more encouraged than now. “I believe there’s a direct correlation, a very clear solid line between the decline of arts education and the increase of violence in the public schools. I was very lucky to have come up in the time that I did."

He spent part of his teens playing funk in bands with names like Cosmic Nirvana and Black Spirit. Did he collect his first professional credentials in these groups? “Yeah, if you call prom gigs professional?" He hadn’t yet established intimate acquaintance with the jazz repertoire. “My father had walls with racks and racks of music that I wasn’t interested in. That came after I graduated high school (in 1980)."

He was accepted into Rutgers University’s prestigious Jazz Studies program, even though, as he recalls, “I failed the percussion audition because I didn’t know the rudiments, the alphabet and language of playing drums, even though I knew major and minor scales. So I was accepted as a trumpeter." He credits drummer Michael Carvin and trumpeter Bill Fielder, among a faculty that included pianist Kenny Barron and saxophonist Paul Jeffrey, for sharpening his ability to be as good a listener as he is a player. “Fielder said he wanted me to hold onto the fire, the intensity, the energy of music."

He carried those values with him to his fateful encounter with Art Blakey, who in 1983, while Peterson was still a student, asked him play in his two-percussionist band at the Boston Globe Jazz Festival. Peterson continued his association with Blakey’s storied Jazz Messengers till Blakey’s death in 1990. He proudly carries the Messenger spirit with him in his present calling as a faculty member at Boston’s Berklee College of Music, where one of his ensemble classes is entirely devoted to the Jazz Messenger repertoire.

Peterson’s prolific recording career began in 1985 with the fabled Blue Note label, with whose house band, OTB (Out of the Blue) he performed as a drummer. He released six Blue Note albums as a leader of different combos, including the “Fo’tet," a quartet whose members have at various times included clarinetist Don Byron, saxophonist Steve Wilson, bassist Belden Bullock and vibraphonist Bryan Carrott. (The latest edition of the Fo’Tet includes three of his former Berklee students.) He has also released albums under the Evidence and Criss Cross labels and began releasing recordings under his own label, Onyx, in 2010, with Outer Reaches. (“I started the label," he says, “because I wanted to do my trumpet album.")

His glittering curriculum vitae includes such names as pianists Walter Davis Jr., Geri Allen and Stanley Cowell; trumpeters Terence Blanchard, Tom Harrell, Jon Faddis and Roy Hargrove; saxophonists Michael Brecker, David Murray, Branford Marsalis and Charles Lloyd and vocalist Betty Carter.

He’s justly proud of being a teacher for 28 years during which time, he says, “I’ve been giving back the experience that I was really fortunate enough to have."

Peterson is also proud of the manner in which he has prevailed over physical and personal difficulties. He has completed his second decade of being “drink and drug-free." He has survived colon cancer, Bell’s Palsy and has had spinal surgery and a hip replacement.
“The strongest sword," he says, “goes through the hottest fire."

RP's body of work as a leader stands for itself as a consistent beacon of excellence.

As a Leader / Co-Leader
Dream Deferred - Aggregate Prime
Triangular III - Ralph Peterson Trio
ALIVE @ Firehouse 12 Vol 2: The Fo'tet - Fo' n Mo'
ALIVE @ Firehouse 12 Vol 1: The Unity Project
Ralph Peterson Fo'tet / Sextet

Ralph Peterson's Unity Project
OUTER REACHES; Onyx Music Label

OTB; Blue Note Records
Out of the Blue; Blue Note
Inside Track; Blue Note
Live at Mt Fuji; Blue Note

Ralph Peterson Quintet
V; Blue Note
Volition ; Blue Note
Art; Blue Note
Art of War; Criss Cross Records
Subliminal Seduction; Criss Cross
Test of Time; Criss Cross

Ralph Peterson Fo'tet
Presents The Fo'tet; Blue Note
Ornetteology; Blue Note
The Reclamation Project; Evidence Records
Fo'tet plays Monk; Evidence
Back To Stay; Sirocco Records
The Fo'tet Augmented; Criss Cross

Ralph Peterson Trio
Tri-Angular; Blue Note
Tri-Angular2; Sirocco