Ralph Peterson
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Ralph Peterson

New York City, New York, United States | INDIE

New York City, New York, United States | INDIE
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The story of American jazz in the 1980s was the perceived split between roots and branches, the shoring up of tradition and the hunger for new languages. What happened in the ’90s? Things that sound less dramatic: study, refinement, rapprochement, careful diversification.

And some great working bands. One of them was Ralph Peterson’s Fo’tet. The idea was Mr. Peterson, an excitable, heavy-gauge drummer — a clear descendant of both Art Blakey and Elvin Jones — leading a quartet with airier instruments on top. The first lineup had Don Byron on clarinet, Bryan Carrott on vibraphone, and Melissa Slocum on bass; a later version swapped out Mr. Byron for Steve Wilson on soprano saxophone. The swing was heavy; the timbres were light; and Mr. Peterson kept transcending his own type, assaulting the drums, then playing with great sensitivity at sudden turns.

The band was graceful in ballads, scrappy and intense in collective improvisations, deft with uneven phrases, smart about repertory. It can be hard to remember all that, because a lot of the band’s work, including “Presents the Fo’tet” and “Ornettology” (both 1991) and “The Fo’tet Plays Monk” (1995) have gone out of print.

Mr. Peterson, now 50, has split his new album, “The Duality Perspective,” between two groups. One is a sextet including the trumpeter Sean Jones, the saxophonists Walter Smith III and Tia Fuller, and the brothers Luques and Zaccai Curtis on bass and piano. The other is a new Fo’tet, with the vibraphonist Joseph Doubleday, the clarinetist Felix Peikli and the bassist Alexander L. J. Toth — all new to me and all musicians who have studied with Mr. Peterson at Berklee College of Music.

The sextet has its moments, but it deals in more weighed-down and conventional moods and doesn’t have as recognizable a group sound. It’s the new Fo’tet you want to focus on, in Peterson tunes like “One False Move” and “Bamboo Bends in a Storm,” and its seven-beat reordering of Thelonious Monk’s “Four in One.” Mr. Doubleday is calm and curious and full of cool rumblings; Mr. Toth holds down the rhythm with resonance and concision; and Mr. Peikli sounds forthright and flexible, eager and full-toned — a star, basically.

Does it sound like the early ’90s? A little, but not in an out-of-date way: mostly in the profound extravagance of Mr. Peterson’s performance, which you don’t hear so much anymore as jazz has become more streamlined, and the way he feels rhythm, which is funky but pre-hip-hop. The Fo’tet is a strategy about group dynamics as much as any particular set of players, and the new version has the balance, crispness and excitement of a promising new band. BEN RATLIFF - The New York Times




Drummer Ralph Peterson was one of Art Blakey’s last protégés, and he seems to have drawn a lot from his mentor: a gregarious comfort in the leader’s position; a flaying mastery that drives his bands without flagging, even if that sometimes means privileging fire over precision; and a knack for rearing precocious talents.
On The Duality Perspective , Peterson’s 16th release as a leader, all of those inheritances show themselves, but he’s most concerned with the last. He assembled two groups for the album. The New Fo’Tet, which performs the record’s first five tunes, is an updated incarnation of the drums-vibes-clarinet-bass combo that Peterson, 50, has led since the early 1990s. This current version features three of his strongest students at Berklee College of Music, most notably the punchy and soaring clarinetist Felix Peikli. The record’s last five tracks are played by a sextet made up of figures with higher profiles, all from the generation that divides the prof and his current pupils: steamy, show-stealing trumpeter Sean Jones; alto saxophonist Tia Fuller; tenor saxophonist Walter Smith III; and the brothers Luques and Zaccai Curtis on bass and piano, respectively. Peterson worked with all of them before they ascended.

Peterson is determined to carry Blakey’s mantle of relentless mentorship, and he seems to believe in the drums as a jazz ensemble’s strongest stimulator, the instrument with the greatest potential to uplift. Surely, Peterson’s drumming sits at the center of the record, and it’s the main reason why the New Fo’Tet sounds almost as emphatically believable as the sextet. He leans heavily on Elvin Jones’ whirling locomotion and Tony Williams’ joggling hi-hat, but
- Jazz Times


Discography

2004 Fo'tet Augmented Criss Cross
2010 Outer Reaches Audio & Video Labs, Inc.
2012 Duality Perspective CD Baby

For discography from 1988 - 2003 see http://bit.ly/RAmYYH

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Bio

Ralph Peterson emerged in the mid-'80s as co-leader of the high visibility ensemble OTB and as a member of the Harrison- Blanchard Group. Peterson's decade-old Fo'tet is the platform by which he expresses deeply held musical principles.

"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. I played with records by James Brown, Earth Wind & Fire and Parliament- Funkadelics, 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."

"My life condition will be apparent in my music always." His music is marked by the focus and indomitable energy of a spirit in balance. "Like a wood nickel, I keep coming back. 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."

Peterson began his studies at Rutgers in Brass before moving to Percussion.

"At the percussion audition 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.

"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. Sopranos don't project as well as trumpets, but they occupy the same timbral area.

"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. 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."

"It's dangerous when you start trying to downplay the role of drums in music. 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."