Jazz will continue to thrive for years because of all the educational opportunities for talented young players. Evidence abounds but one needs to look no further than the exciting projects taking place at Boston’s esteemed Berklee School of Music. For Listen Up!, the sophomore release from Ralph Peterson’s Gen-Next Big Band, and their first studio album, we have this young group of Berklee players celebrating the music that is near and dear to drummer Peterson – the music of the legendary Art Blakey. Yet, even though most compositions are written by fellow Blakey alumni like Wayne Shorter, Booby Watson, Curtis Fuller, Freddie Hubbard, and Peterson; all arrangements but two were done by the Berklee students.
The Gen-Next Big Band is comprised of 22 members augmented by vocalist Chole Brisson on the one standard, “Skylark,” and on Shorter’s ‘Sweet n’ Sour.” Peterson who plays muted cornet on “Arabia,” unmuted cornet on “In Case You Missed It,” and drums on three tracks including on his two compositions, “Acceptance” and “The Art of War.” Fellow Blakey alumnus trombonist Kuumba Frank Lacy solos on Freddie Hubbard’s “Down Under” and on Watson’s “In Case You Missed It.” The liner notes emphasize that just like in Blakey’s most recent units prior to his passing, all songs are played by two drummers simultaneously, excepting the two Peterson compositions. Peterson was the second drummer in those Blakey configurations and seems proud to bring that same dynamic to this setting.
Like any project involving Peterson, the music is spirited, soulful, and animated. Most tunes feature between five and seven soloists. Talent abounds; you’ll think you’re hearing veteran players if you didn’t know this was a collegiate group of musicians. Roger Brown, President of Berklee College of Music says this in the liners, “Ralph Peterson and his Gen-Next Big Band are lighting it up. Ralph teaches jazz the way he and many of the greatest players learned their craft – from making music with a torchbearer committed to passing on the knowledge. …The commitment the students make is remarkable, and Ralph expects nothing less. They sacrificed their personal time to put in extra rehearsals and even organized sectional rehearsals on their own. This kind of work ethic is motivated by Professor Peterson, but these students took it far beyond the call of duty…Ralph and his students play with intensity, concentration, the seriousness of purpose, and some of the hardest swinging grooves in the music. The level of work on this recording demands the attention of the listeners – hence the title of the record is Listen Up! Enough said.”
The proceedings ignite with a spirited arrangement of the Curtis Fuller composition “Arabia”, which debuted on 1961’s Mosaic. From the first downbeat, one notices the precision of the ensemble. As the piece unfolds, the stunning interplay and impressive dynamic capabilities of the group become apparent; and at once, you’re transported back to Blakey’s classic sound. Peterson takes his muted cornet solo at the end. “Acceptance,” one of the two Peterson compositions is glorious post-bop featuring transcendent solos by trumpeter Robert Vega Dowda, flutist Joe Melnicove and Peterson. The band is in full swing on Bobby Watson’s “In Case You Missed It”, trading incendiary solos across the bandstand. The track features a beautiful lyrical solo by former Messenger Kuumba Frank Lacy and also features Peterson abandoning his drum set for the cornet, trading with trumpeter John Michael Bradford. The album concludes with another Peterson original entitled “The Art of War,” another driving post-bop piece, this time arranged by Todd Bayshore with spirited drum solo trades between Peterson and student Christian Napoleon.
In case you need a little more background on Peterson, his resume is as impressive as any. His recording career began in 1985 with Blue Note, with whose house band, OTB (Out of the Blue) he performed as a drummer. He released six Blue Note albums as a leader of different combos, including the “Fo’tet,” a quartet whose members have at various times included clarinetist Don Byron, saxophonist Steve Wilson, bassist Belden Bullock and vibraphonist Bryan Carrott. To date, Peterson has released over 20 albums as a leader. He now leads the Messenger Legacy Band, whose album Legacy Alive Volume 6 at the Side Door, released this past June was one of this year’s best straight-ahead post-bop albums.
Peterson has led bands with such names as pianists Walter Davis Jr., Geri Allen and Stanley Cowell; trumpeters Terence Blanchard, Tom Harrell, Jon Faddis and Roy Hargrove; saxophonists Michael Brecker, David Murray, Branford Marsalis and Charles Lloyd and vocalist Betty Carter. He’s been a bandleader and educator for over 30 years, having played a significant role in launching the careers of Sean Jones, Tia Fuller, Justin Faulkner, and Orrin Evans, among many others. Since 2002, he has taught drums and ensembles at Berklee College of Music.
When you think of Blakey, you likely think of smaller ensembles rather than a big band. Don’t let that be a barrier. As we noted, Blakey’s classic sound is here in all its glory, even bigger and brighter.