Jazz Album of the Week: Ralph Peterson and Next-Gen Big Band's Listen Up!

Dec 1, 2019

December 2, 2019. Art Blakey pased away nearly 30 years, but his old Jazz Messengers are still busy, perhaps none more so than drummer and Pleasantville, NJ native Ralph Peterson. Peterson, much like his legendary mentor, has shown a knack for getting the most out of young talent, a truth revealed on last year’s I Remember Bu and, now once again, on the latest from Peterson and his Gen-Next Big Band, Listen Up!

Both albums source their personnel from a pool of Peterson’s immensely talented pupils at Boston’s Berklee College of Music. And both pay tribute not only to Blakey himself, in this, the year celebrating the hard bop master’s centennial, but to the specific role Peterson played in Messengers history: Peterson was the last drummer chosen to play beside Art Blakey in the Jazz Messengers’ two-drummer big band.

So it’s no accident that two-thirds of Listen Up’s arrangements call for two drummers playing simultaneously. Nor is it coincidence that on “Down Under” and “The Art of War,” each of the ensemble’s drummers plays simultaneously with Peterson, just as Peterson used to do with Blakey, whom Peterson still reverentially calls “Mr. Blakey.”

The music to which Listen Up! commands attention consists of big-band arrangements of tunes composed almost entirely by former Jazz Messengers and arranged almost entirely by Peterson’s students, whom Peterson lauds for demonstrating “maturity, finesse and exuberance as arrangers.”

That may be an understatement.

The percussive and incredibly precise intro to “Arabia,” Listen Up’s first cut, sounds like something that might’ve come from a collaboration between Blakey and Leonard Bernstein; it fuses elements of the overtures to West Side Story and Blakey’s similarly epic “Drum Thunder Suite” before settling into a wonderfully layered arrangement of the tune Curtis Fuller penned for 1961’s Mosaic.

The woodwinds, comprising two tenors, two altos, a baritone sax and flute are rich and formidable here on the album’s opener, playing in unison, like an august stand of redwoods. Meanwhile, solos from Joe Melnicove (flute) and Will Mallard (trumpet) soar above forest canopy, while never becoming untethered from their earth-bound colleagues. And Peterson, known to play trumpet and cornet, takes a muted trumpet solo, memorably quoting “Old Devil Moon” amidst an improvisational flurry.

“In Case You Missed It” is a composition by Messenger-alum and saxophonist Bobby Watson, one of two on Listen Up! It’s also among the tunes played by Peterson’s Messenger Legacy Band, who, this past summer, released a double CD in celebration of Blakey’s centennial and have been touring almost non-stop since then, including last month’s stop at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Center.

As for the tune itself, it’s one that lives up to its name; it will not allow itself to be missed. A series of traded sax solos from Solomon Alber (tenor) and Eric Nakanishi (alto) constructs a dialogue of escalating intensity, backed by the cool-headed comping of the trumpet section. But Peterson can’t drop the subject, reviving the conversation that got the sax players all hot and bothered by taking to the horn once again (cornet this time) to dialogue with trumpeter John Michael Bradford.

You might be thinking: I thought Ralph Peterson was a drummer! Well, he still does that, too.

“The Art of War,” Listen Up’s closer and one of two Peterson originals here, is a 10-and-a-half-minute epic, spotlighting virtually every member of the big band, including one of only two piano solos on the album (by Ido Hammovich in both instances), punctuated by Peterson and Christian Napoleon trading drum solos for the better part of the song’s last three minutes before bringing things full circle, reprising the tune’s head with renewed vitality, as though playing it for the first time.

Two tracks feature vocalist Chloe Brisson, the aforementioned “Skylark” and Wayne Shorter’s “Sweet n’ Sour,” a mischievous waltz with a memorable guest-spot on trombone by former Jazz Messenger Kuumba Frank Lacy.

Brisson’s vocals are more foregrounded in “Skylark,” where she’s given room to showcase a smoky yet rangy alto. Arranger Morgan Faw doesn’t neglect his alto either; he’s written in a pair of very gentle and melodic solos for himself that punctuate the ballad artfully.

Art Blakey wasn’t just a willing mentor, a kindly teacher; mentorship was central to his musical philosophy. It’s how the Jazz Messengers persisted, in their myriad permutations, until Blakey’s death in 1990. Blakey once told an audience, “I’m gonna stay with the youngsters, but when these get too old, I’ll get some other ones.”

And he did; Blakey kept reloading with the very best young musicians until the very end, and they kept coming because they knew there wasn’t a better apprenticeship.

Ralph Peterson’s program at Berklee isn’t the Jazz Messengers. There will probably never be anything to match the innovation, quality and longevity, not to mention the instant industry credibility, that were the hallmarks of Blakey’s groups.

But the last couple Gen-Next albums are proof positive that Ralph Peterson, drawing on lessons from the old master, has started building something special of his own.