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Overdue Ovation: Ralph Peterson

Life in the third quarter

Ralph Peterson
Ralph Peterson at 2010 Cape May Jazz Festival (photo: Ken Franckling)
Ravi Coltrane, Christian McBride, Ralph Peterson, Jazz for Obama concert, NYC, 10-12

Great jazz drummers are marked by taste, but that doesn’t usually include culinary taste. “They have the best cold noodles with sesame sauce,” says Ralph Peterson at the door of Empire Szechuan Village, a Chinese restaurant across the street from the Village Vanguard. (He’s right: The noodles are zesty and delicious.)

This restaurant is a treat for Peterson. He resides in Boston, teaching percussion at Berklee College of Music. He’s in New York for performances supporting his 18th CD, Alive at Firehouse 12, Vol. 2, at nearby Smalls. The gig, like the disc, features Peterson’s Fo’tet along with guest saxophonist Steve Wilson, a three-decade friend and colleague, who makes the band “Fo’ n Mo’.” Save for Wilson, Peterson, 52, is very much the elder of the group. “Steve coined a phrase,” he remarks, “and I’m running with it: ‘Life in the third quarter.”‘

The third quarter, that is, of an eventful game. Peterson hit the scene at 21, one of the many “Young Lions” who flooded jazz in the early ’80s. He joined Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers (one of only two second drummers Blakey ever recruited) while still in college; after graduation came a succession of high-profile gigs, including David Murray and the Terence Blanchard/Donald Harrison Quintet. By the time he released his first album as a bandleader (1989’s V, on Blue Note), Peterson had become one of the premier drummers of the 1980s bop resurgence, in good company with Jeff “Tain” Watts and Marvin “Smitty” Smith. His hard swing and punctilious, Latin-tinged cross-rhythms, along with the distinctive hiss of his ride cymbal, gave him a highly recognizable sound.

But time and circumstance-including drug addiction, medical problems and a full-time teaching career-greatly decreased his visibility. “I found it interesting when I was teaching drummers that most of them had never heard of Ralph Peterson,” says pianist George Colligan, who has worked with him off and on since the ’90s. “He’s not as well known as some of the younger guys, though it’s kind of ironic because so many of the really good younger guys are very influenced by him.”

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Originally Published