Jazz Album of the Week: Ralph Peterson's Inspired Closing Statement, 'Raise Up Off Me'
May 24, 2021. Drummer Ralph Peterson, the Art Blakey acolyte and former Jazz Messenger with a large-and-in-charge physical and musical presence on the bandstand and an outsize personality to match, died earlier this year, months shy of his 59th birthday; he’d been fighting cancer for the last six years. But you would've never know it.
In fact, some of his closest musical colleagues, like the brothers Curtis—longtime protégés Luques and Zaccai— didn’t know quite how dire his health situation was until the very end, like the very, very end. “Even in his last texts to us,” Zaccai Curtis recently told the Boston Globe, “some of the last words he said were, ‘We have work to do.’”
“Onward and upward” became Peterson’s mantra, his signature sign-off to e-mails and daily, uplifting Facebook posts, and the title of his penultimate release as a leader in 2020, an album featuring Zaccai and a band of Blakey alums.
In a world of performative workaholism, of meme-driven “rise and grind” culture, Peterson’s prodigiousness was no fashion pose; the man had the track record to prove it. He spent formative years with Blakey and the Messengers. And he earned recognition and cache as one of the Young Lions of the 1980s, who heralded the resurgence of acoustic hard bop and, depending on the bent of the jazz critic, arguably saved classic-sounding, melodically accessible jazz from being swallowed by fusion and the avant-garde.
But Peterson didn’t have time to be consumed by political machinations and posturing; he just knew what and how he liked to play, and he made sure to do a lot of it. Despite or perhaps because of his diagnosis, Peterson had been remarkably productive over the past several years, releasing multiple albums with both his Gen-Next Big Band—comprising his most talented students from Berklee College of Music, where Peterson was a longtime faculty member—and The Messenger Legacy, the Blakey alumni band he led.
The Pleasantville, N.J. native played on records led by generation after generation of jazz’s biggest and best—albums by Blakey, the Marsalises, the Curtises, and so many of those Young Lions. And more often than not, they returned the favor; Peterson released 25 recordings as a leader during his life.
His final recording as a leader, his 26th—and the 28th album produced by Onyx Productions, the label he founded in 2010—was released posthumously, on May 21, a day after what would’ve been Peterson’s 59th birthday. But Raise Up Off Me is really much more about Peterson’s life and how, through seemingly sheer force of will (friends and colleagues called him a force of nature), he resolved to cast off—or at least keep at bay— the myriad burdens that could have derailed him: drug addiction and struggles with mental health, cancer, and most recently—and most ardently— the social issues giving rise to the Black Lives Matter movement.
“In this era where we still feel the foot on our necks, the pepper spray and mace that burns our eyes and face, the bullets and the batons,” said Peterson in the album’s press release, “I find it necessary to remind you that Black Lives Matter… and for my life to matter, you have to raise up off me.”
Peterson was known to talk a lot of good-natured smack— something to which good friend and frequent collaborator Orrin Evans humorously and poignantly attests in the album’s liner notes. But the big man’s all business as he, joined by the Curtis Brothers, opens the record with the first of two bookending iterations of the title track. Still, don’t confuse “all business” with “business as usual.”
If you’ve listened to Peterson’s big band albums, you know he’s got a thing for precision and tight orchestrations. But here, with his most trusted bandmates, he’s opted for something uncharacteristic, an approach from the trio that’s largely improvisational.
“Ralph came to us with a concept,” Luques Curtis told the Globe for the same story, “He was like, ‘I want it to be open, but over this vibe. This is the vibe I want.’”
The Peterson-constructed vibe over which the trio improvises is strong willed but not uncompromising, propulsive and urgent, yet cool. The freeform nature of this particular pair of tunes—“Raise Up Off Me” and its companion, “Raise Up Off Me, Too!,” the closer—isn’t what the Young Lions movement was known for, but it squares the circle of Ralph Peterson: the large man in a suit, ascot, and shades—the personification of cool—who brought forth controlled fury, and just the right amount of finesse, from the back of the bandstand.
Zaccai and Luques shine on a version of James Williams’ “Four Play,” where Zaccai channels Monk with the kind of preternatural ease that induces much awestruck head shaking. Meanwhile, little brother takes the baton from Zaccai about mid-way through, paving the way for a Peterson solo that culminates upon the triumphant reprise of the Monk-like theme.
Zaccai’s “I Want to be There for You” and a reinvented version of Peterson’s “Tears I Cannot Hide” are ballads that prove that when friends call Peterson a “force of nature,” they could just as easily be referring to a sunset as to a hurricane. Even though we hear Peterson playing on the tune, it’s hard to envision the former as anything but a loving, sentimental, and, under the circumstances, heart-shattering tribute from Zaccai to his mentor.
It’s the latter, though, that hit Peterson’s emotional core hardest. Jazzmeia Horn sings the original lyrics she wrote for the occasion, totally transforming a tune that originally appeared on Peterson’s Subliminal Seduction (2002). Horn’s lyrics capture the spirit of the orchestration perfectly, and as Horn sings about going “on a journey through space and time,” you begin to understand how and why Peterson made a remark during recording that, at the time, shocked everyone, according to the recent story in the Globe. “I want you guys to play this when I go.”
Don’t confuse yourself, however. Raise Up Off Me is far from a reboot of The Way We Were’s soundtrack, even if the nostalgia factor of several of the selections is undeniable. As it is on “Bouncing with Bud,” a tune the Curtis brothers have played with Peterson since their college days. But the nostalgia comes with a twist here; this arrangement, a Curtis brothers creation, is a staple of the brothers’ repertoire, but they’ve never recorded it—and they’d never played this particular iteration with Peterson. It’s a bit of a role reversal then, an inversion of the mentor-protégé relationship, students becoming teachers and vice-versa. The symbolism’s there if you’ve got a nose for it, but if literary-style abstractions aren’t your thing, simply use your ears to treasure Peterson as a master craftsman here.
He begins on brushes, then goes to sticks. But when Luques (bass) solos and Zaccai (piano) comps, Peterson returns to brushes, and it’s as though he and Zaccai become a single instrument in service of Luques. And then there’s what Luques is doing. Sometimes when a bass player plays out front he can make it sound like a deeply personal conversation between he and the listener. It’s rare, but that’s exactly what Luques accomplishes here.
But, as I was about to say before being waylaid by brushes and Bud Powell, this album’s more than a heartwarming passing of the torch and Peterson would scoff at any idea of a victory lap; as far as he was concerned, there was always more work to be done. And in that spirit, there’s plenty of Peterson’s characteristic drum thunder here if you know where to look.
Start with “Blue Hughes,” a tune Peterson originally wrote in 1985 for the self-titled debut of a Blue Note super sextet called Out of the Blue. That group featured two saxophones (Ralph Bowen and Kenny Garrett) and a trumpet (Michael Mossman), and was arranged accordingly. Here, with the Curtis Brothers and the addition of Peterson’s Berklee faculty-mate, percussionist Eguie Castrillo, a high-energy Latin treatment was a no-brainer. Listening to Peterson work with a second percussionist is worth the price of the CD, the download, the vinyl, etc.
The thing about Peterson is that he brought it until the very, very end. And nowhere is that more evident from a raw power standpoint than on “Shorties Portion.” It’s Peterson as force of nature; to think that he remained capable of playing with this kind of muscle and precision while battling late-stage cancer is perhaps a testament to improving protocols of palliative care, but mostly you get the sense that it’s Peterson imploring, exhorting, beseeching that horrible disease to raise up off him, for just a few more minutes, so he could do his thing for us just once more.
Inspired and inspiring work from a native son of South Jersey. Rest easy, Maestro.