Ralph Peterson & Aggregate Prime
Now, as our seemingly unending conversation about race is reenergized by a plague police shootings of unarmed black citizens and the accompanying lack of accountability for those actions, Ralph Peterson Jr., percussionist, trumpeter, composer, bandleader and educator, has called upon Hughes’ iconic poem to give both title and theme to Dream Deferred, his 20th album as a leader and his sixth to be released on his independent label, Onyx, which began six years ago with the release of Peterson’s Outer Reaches.
Dream Deferred is also the first to feature his new quintet, Aggregate Prime, comprising the powerful, all-star tandem of bassist Kenny Davis, guitarist Mark Whitfield, saxophonist-flutist Gary Thomas and pianist Vijay Iyer.
“The album," Peterson says, “speaks to the question of that final question Langston Hughes asks in ‘Harlem’ and whether we as a society are close to answering it. The answer is already there in that if we don’t do the right thing, all of our hopes and dreams will explode." The first rehearsal for the album, Peterson says, in October of 2015 as pre-trial hearings were underway for three Baltimore police officers accused of murder in the death of Freddie Gray while he was in their custody. (Charges were dropped later.)
As with the whole album bearing its name, “Dream Deferred" tries, in Peterson’s words, “to capture some of the angst and hope that gave the sixties so much energy and excitement." Peterson says he wanted to blend the instruments in his ensemble in a way as to match the roiling furor surrounding the Gray case and similar ones occurring throughout America over the past few years while ending with the same tone of pointed, yet “elegant" inquiry culminating Hughes’ poem. “I wanted to highlight Gary’s flute, thinking back to Eric Dolphy and how his flute playing could be heard back in the sixties when music also reflected social change. Only," he adds, “the sound Gary brings belongs only to him."
The months since the Freddie Gray decision have only seen more incidents and more protests. “What’s really at stake is whether black men will survive at all. It used to be that high cholesterol and blood pressure could kill us over time. Now all you got to do is get behind the wheel of a car."
The issue has special poignancy for Peterson, the son of a former police chief and mayor of his native Peterson, New Jersey who once played drums professionally in nightclubs throughout the South Jersey area. Ralph, Sr. died two years ago and his son can’t help but contemplate how his dad would have reacted to this rash of excessive force.
“He’d have been appalled," Peterson says. “He was a boxer and he was of the old-school belief that things could be worked out with your hands. He was against deadly force as a first or even second resort. It’s part of a whole bent of depending on guns that my dad wouldn’t have recognized today. And I wonder myself why it is that guns have become the only way to deal with conflict. People are into self-defense training. But nobody boxes in the streets any more. It’s all about who has the most weaponry and that’s become a deeply fatal flaw in our society today."
The death of his father was one of many personal and physical travails Peterson underwent in the past few years. He has undergone surgeries for spinal fusion, hip replacement and a reconstructed ankle. “I am Iron Man," he says with a self-deprecatory humor that permeates the ensemble’s performance of Dolphy’s “Iron Man."
A more serious, yet just as stoic approach to both Peterson’s physical struggles – and to the struggles both he and the rest of society have had to endure over the last couple years – is reflected in his composition, “Strongest Sword/Hottest Fire." An avid student of martial arts, Peterson says he was inspired by a documentary about the Japanese samurai discipline of bushido, to whose most gifted practitioners goes a sword forged to meticulous and harshly-regimented cycles of extreme heat and cold.
Ultimately, Peterson says, “the ability of the sword to cut cleanly comes what seems to be abusive extremes and that’s how we’re all tested by life. When life is heating up on you, your own tensile strength becomes more resilient until things cool down for a while before getting hot again. It’s these extremes that are ideal for stress test in strengthening metal…and your own mettle as well."
Given his father’s pre-police vocation, plus the fact that four of his uncles and his grandfather all had musical backgrounds, Peterson was all but pre-ordained to pick up the drums at age three. “We always had drums in the house," he recalls. “I started playing them by ear. Everybody in the family was into music. My three sisters formed an a capella doo-wop group. By fourth grade, I started to learn the trumpet, which I played in the marching band when I was in seventh grade. Learning the trumpet helped me learn how to read the rhythms I was feeling my way through on drums." Thinking back to those years makes Peterson wistful towards a time when music instruction in public schools was far more encouraged than now. “I believe there’s a direct correlation, a very clear solid line between the decline of arts education and the increase of violence in the public schools. I was very lucky to have come up in the time that I did.
He spent part of his teens playing jazz-funk in bands with names like Cosmic Nirvana or Black Spirit. Did he collect his first professional credentials in these groups? “Yeah, if you call prom gigs professional?" He hadn’t yet established intimate acquaintance with the jazz repertoire. “My father had walls with racks and racks of music that I wasn’t interested in. That came after I graduated high school (in 1980)."
He was accepted into Rutgers University’s prestigious Jazz Studies program, even though, as he recalls, “I failed the percussion audition because I didn’t know the rudiments, the alphabet and language of playing drums, even though I knew major and minor scales. So I was accepted as a trumpeter." He credits drummer Michael Carvin and trumpeter Bill Fielder, among a faculty that included pianist Kenny Barron and saxophonist Paul Jeffrey, for sharpening his ability to be as good a listener as he is a player. “Fielder said he wanted me to hold onto the fire, the intensity, the energy of music."
He carried those values with him to his fateful encounter with Art Blakey, who in 1983, while Peterson was still a student, asked him play in his two-percussionist band at the Boston Globe Jazz Festival. Peterson continued his association with Blakey’s storied Jazz Messengers till Blakey’s death in 1990. He proudly carries the Messenger spirit with him in his present calling as a faculty member at Boston’s Berklee College of Music, where one of his ensemble classes is entirely devoted to the Jazz Messenger repertoire.
Peterson’s prolific recording career began in 1985 with the fabled Blue Note label, 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. (The latest edition of the Fo’Tet includes three of his former Berklee students.) He has also released albums under the Evidence and Criss Cross labels and began releasing recordings under his own label, Onyx, in 2010, with Outer Reaches. (“I started the label," he says, “because I wanted to do my trumpet album.")
His glittering curriculum vitae includes 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 justly proud of being a teacher for 28 years during which time, he says, “I’ve been giving back the experience that I was really fortunate enough to love."
Peterson is also proud of the manner in which he has prevailed over physical and personal difficulties. Along with the aforementioned surgeries, he has completed his second decade of being “drink and drug-free." He has survived colon cancer and
Bell’s Palsy in addition to the fore mentioned orthopedic challenges.
“The strongest sword," he says, “goes through the hottest fire."
Ralph Peterson & Aggregate Prime