Jazz Performance/CD Review: The Ralph Peterson Fo-tet

Ralph Peterson is interested in furthering a complex, post-bop legacy. His music can be hard to count: it’s also rip-roaring fun.

The Ralph Peterson Fo-tet. At Scullers,  September 18. The Duality Perspective by Ralph Peterson, Fo-tet and Sextet, Onyx, 2012.

By Michael Ullman

Now 50 years old, a grandfather, and, as he proudly announced, 62 pounds lighter than last year, drummer and sometime trumpeter Ralph Peterson brought the group he calls his Fo’tet to Scullers last night. The musicians were celebrating the release of The Duality Perspective, Peterson’s 16th disc as a leader, his second on his own label, Onyx.

The disc features the quartet, as those of us who are what Peterson called “ebonically challenged” would call it, and a separate group (a sextet) with no overlapping personnel. On disc, the quartet, featuring two seniors at Berklee, where Peterson teaches, and a recent graduate, is subtle, proffering a unique texture. Its lead players are vibist Joseph Doubleday and clarinetist and bass clarinetist Felix Peikli.

Live, the group was ripping, energized by Peterson’s compulsively enthused drumming: he uses all of the kit relentlessly. He’s often compared to Art Blakey, and Peterson is equally dedicated to cultivating new talent. But perhaps the most vital connection to his predecessor is in the power, the almost brutal insistence, of Peterson’s drumming. (He shares certain techniques with Blakey, as when he puts his elbow down on his snare and changes the pitch through a nuanced application of pressure.)

Multi-instrumentalist Ralph Peterson

As with the Blakey band, Peterson’s players have to play out. They did, and with a panache and poise that belied their seeming inexperience, especially during Peterson’s imaginative rethinking of Thelonious Monk’s “4 in 1” as a faux Latin number, exploring the complicated form (in 15/4) of a piece that earned the drummer the nickname Morse (after Morse Code). When bassist Alexander Toth laughed at this revelation, Peterson teasingly warned, “You’ll have your shoes off trying to count it.”

The band played three numbers from a 12-movement piece that refers to what Peterson described as his “recovery.” “Surrender” was followed by “Acceptance” and then “Just for a Day.” The musician describes himself as a “funk baby” who became interested in music by listening to James Brown and Parliament-Funkadelic. The turnaround to jazz came in high school when he heard a succession of what he calls “game changers”: organist Larry Young’s Unity; Joe Henderson’s The Kicker, Art Blakey’s Free for All, and Ornette Coleman’s The Shape of Jazz to Come, records that combined kicking beats and extended, or at least unusual, forms. Peterson is dedicated to furthering a complex, post-bop legacy. His music can be hard to count: it’s also rip-roaring fun.

Peterson is set to perform at the Berklee BeanTown Jazz Festival in Boston on Saturday, September 29 at 4:45 p.m. on the Subaru of New England Stage. The drummer will perform with his Sextet for the festival, which features alto saxophonist Tia Fuller, tenor saxophonist Eddie Bayard, trumpeter Darren Barrett, pianist Zaccai Curtis, and bassist Luques Curtis.

Michael Ullman studied classical clarinet and was educated at Harvard, the University of Chicago, and the U. of Michigan, from which he received a PhD in English. The author or co-author of two books on jazz, he has written on jazz and classical music for The Atlantic Monthly, The New Republic, High Fidelity, Stereophile, The Boston Phoenix, The Boston Globe, and other venues. His articles on Dickens, Joyce, Kipling, and others have appeared in academic journals. For over 20 years, he has written a bi-monthly jazz column for Fanfare Magazine, for which he also reviews classical music. At Tufts University, he teaches mostly modernist writers in the English Department and jazz and blues history in the Music Department. He plays piano badly.

Leave a Comment

Recent Posts