Jazz Album of the Week: Ralph Peterson's GenNext Big Band's Homage to Art Blakey

Jan 28, 2019

January 28, 2019. Ralph Peterson, Jr. has played protégé to a couple of seriously fine mentors—first his dad, then Art Blakey. With the debut album from Peterson’s GenNext Big Band, titled I Remember Bu, Peterson shows that even when paying homage to an old master, he’s all about paying it forward to mentor the next generation of great jazzers.

Peterson’s father, Ralph Sr., wasn’t just Pleasantville’s first black chief of police and mayor, he’d also played drums behind legends like Arthur Prysock at Club Harlem, Atlantic City’s version of the Cotton Club, on Kentucky Avenue.

And, as if that family tree weren’t impressive enough, he’d soon occupy a branch on the most illustrious family tree in jazz. Art Blakey tapped Peterson, fresh out of Rutgers’ highly regarded jazz program, in 1983, to join his two-drummer Big Band for a gig at Berklee College of Music, where Peterson now teaches and whose current students now comprise Peterson’s own two-drummer big band, the aforementioned GenNext. 

So you see, it was basically written in the jazz cosmos that the GenNext Big Band’s debut offering would be a tribute to Blakey, or “Bu,” a diminutive of Blakey’s Muslim name, Abdullah Ibn Buhaina.

You’ll notice on first listen that “Bu” is most definitely remembered here, as are several of his most well-known disciples. Recorded live at Sculler’s Jazz Club in Boston, I Remember Bu, features tunes composed by several former Jazz Messengers, including big band arrangements of Wayne Shorter’s “Free for all,” Bobby Watson’s “Ms. Bc,” Charles Fambrough’s “Little Man,” and Donald Harrison’s “New York.”

Harrison, himself, appears on five tracks, including his own composition, delivering an alto sax solo there that’s athletic and forceful and expertly controlled. The take on Shorter’s “Free for All” is similarly high-energy, if slightly less cinematic, with another hard-driving Harrison solo that explores the outer reaches of the musician’s—and the instrument’s—considerable range.

But since it’s a Ralph Peterson album—and a tribute to Art Blakey, at that—prepare to hear some well-trained timekeepers hit the skins. The 18-piece band employs two drummers on each track, and a total of four, including Peterson (when he’s not conducting or playing cornet), get their due behind the kit.

For drumming most redolent of the Jazz Messengers’ signature bop sound, check out I Remember Bu’s bookends, the first cut, “Uranus,” and the closer, Bobby Watson’s fast-paced, bop-centered “Ms. BC.”