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Chronology: Ralph Peterson and Geri Allen in the Late ’80s

Ethan Iverson listens to three albums featuring the drummer and pianist

Ralph Peterson, Knitting Factory, New York City 1989. (Photo: Enid Farber)
Ralph Peterson, Knitting Factory, New York City 1989. (Photo: Enid Farber)

In the wake of the stunning commercial success of Wynton and Branford Marsalis, record companies rushed to put out more hip and swinging product from a generation of ferocious Black talent. They were marketed as “The Young Lions.” If some of those late-’80s and early-’90s CDs haven’t stood the test of time, it’s simply because these very young musicians were mining a somewhat conservative vein without yet knowing the wisdom of the masters.

Many of the best “Young Lion” albums featured a powerhouse drummer, someone like Jeff “Tain” Watts or Marvin “Smitty” Smith, musicians willing to embrace not just Art Blakey and Tony Williams but also the here and the now. The late Ralph Peterson Jr. had a deep pocket, an orientation toward Afro-Caribbean undulation, and a decidedly take-no-prisoners approach. In a DownBeat interview with Ted Panken, he explained, “An element of the ultra-conservative approach was too pristine for me. It didn’t have the energy of the motherland and the fire and fury of what we’ve survived as people in the Middle Passage. On the other hand, while I appreciated having no-holds-barred, I was also taught the importance of being able to express that level of freedom within the harmonic construct. I was looking for something that would be a little bit of both.” 

Another notably unfettered spirit of the era was pianist Geri Allen. At that time Allen was really in the avant-garde camp, recording with slightly older experimentalists like James Newton, Andrew Cyrille, or Oliver Lake; her youthful peers included players connected to Steve Coleman and the M-Base rubric. She was the right age, but nobody thought of her as a “Young Lion” in the manner of Kenny Kirkland, Mulgrew Miller, or Donald Brown.

Three Peterson dates featuring Allen remain stunningly fresh. Two quintet sessions, V (recorded in April 1988) and Volition (February 1989), bookend the trio set Triangular (August 1988). All three were a product of Hitoshi Namekata’s Somethin’ Else label and licensed internationally to Blue Note. In the liner notes to V, Peterson gives credit to Allen: “…She was the most important element. Geri’s approach to my music was both in and out enough at the same time (in other words, perfect). Strength, sensitivity and humor were always present … She was the ‘X’-factor on the date.”

V kicks off with “Enemy Within,” a furious barrage of angular beauty, absolutely a classic of modern jazz. Within the head, Allen gets a short statement. One of her heroes was Eric Dolphy, and her jagged work with this quintet cuts through in the same way Dolphy did with Oliver Nelson. Throughout the track, Allen and Peterson are wailing, barely held together by Phil Bowler, an underrated bassist who is interactive and hot in the mix. In the notes, Peterson compares Bowler to Charles Mingus, and the album is dedicated to Mingus’ drummer Dannie Richmond, who passed away three days before the session. Harmonically and structurally, “Enemy Within” shares some qualities with the music Wynton Marsalis wrote for the 1985 masterpiece Black Codes (From the Underground), but now that aesthetic is married to a kind of surreal looseness descended from Mingus. It’s a beautiful thing.

Trumpeter Terence Blanchard and saxophonist Steve Wilson play well—Blanchard’s fleet chromaticism is a highlight on “Monief” and Wilson threads the needle perfectly on “Bebopskerony”—but V is a truly a showcase for the rhythm section. The quintet follow-up, Volition, is good too, but the most overwhelming statement of intent was made without horns.

On Triangular, Peterson and Allen are joined by stellar bassist Essiet Okon Essiet, although a fabulous, off-kilter “Just You, Just Me” with Bowler was recorded during the V sessions four months earlier. Denzil Best’s “Move” and the Monk/Best collaboration “Bemsha Swing” also feature on the set list. Best’s parents were from Barbados, and Peterson took pride in how his grandmother was born in Trinidad and raised in Barbados. It’s all connected. In the liner notes, Amiri Baraka says that “Just You, Just Me” is “another of the Monk trio classics …That’s the album that ‘busts’ Monk for his Dukishness. Just as this album ‘busts’ Peterson for his ‘Bestness’ and Geri Allen for her Monkish finery. But these are all ‘busts,’ like in stature or statue you diggggg?”

When Monk recorded “Just You, Just Me” in 1956, few guessed how influential his style would become. When Triangular was released in 1989, Allen’s concept might have seemed similarly stubborn and obscure, but these days, high-profile pianists like Jason Moran, Vijay Iyer, Craig Taborn, David Virelles, Kris Davis, and Matt Mitchell are obviously descended from her. Try the title track of Triangular, jointly composed by Allen, Essiet, and Peterson, where atonal piano cascades swirl above an odd-meter vamp. It sounds like something recorded last week, rather than over 30 years ago. 

Further Listening

Donald Brown: Early Bird (Sunnyside, 1988)—Peterson covers Donald Brown’s “The Early Bird Gets the Short End of the Stick” on V. Brown [the subject of an Overdue Ovation feature in JT’s January/February 2021 issueEd.] is an excellent composer (as well as pianist), and his own recording of “Early Bird” is another classic of the era. Jeff “Tain” Watts’ fury is endlessly charismatic.

Marvin “Smitty” Smith: Keeper of the Drums (Concord Jazz, 1987)—Smitty began by playing tastefully with the masters, but by the time of his debut as a leader he’d taken his place next to Tain and Peterson as one of the loudest and fiercest. All three could be a bit much live—especially circa 1990—but in the studio, they were perfect. The first track, “Just Have Fun,” has an astounding welter of toms and cymbals, but the swing remains undeniable.


Ethan Iverson

Ethan Iverson

Ethan Iverson has been writing about jazz for 15 years, mostly on his blog Do the Math. While he was the founding pianist of the Bad Plus, these days Iverson performs in a duo with Mark Turner and in Billy Hart’s quartet, has a longstanding relationship with Mark Morris, and teaches at the New England Conservatory of Music.