Ralph Peterson’s challenge on Onward & Upward was how to honor—as he’s done on several previous releases—his mentor Art Blakey, without simply mimicking the Jazz Messengers’ sound and style. Peterson was a core member of the Blakey ensemble in the ’80s, serving as second drummer alongside the master, and he’s often returned to that formative experience.
Here he rounds up no fewer than 13 former Blakey alumni, along with three other players schooled in the Messengers’ tradition. But rather than simply remake catalog tunes, Peterson opts for new band-written compositions. Only one number here, tenor saxophonist Bill Pierce’s “Sudan Blue,” was ever performed by Blakey. The Peterson take on it is largely faithful to that original, while allowing Pierce to reframe his own solo, but it also focuses squarely on Kevin Eubanks’ sublime guitar, giving the number a whole other flavor.
Most of the tracks are performed by differently configured sextets (with one quintet and one septet performance), featuring such stalwarts as bassists Essiet Essiet, Lonnie Plaxico, and Peter Washington; pianist Joanne Brackeen; trumpeter Brian Lynch; alto saxist Craig Handy; and trombonists Steve Davis and Robin Eubanks. The format serves the compositions—led off by three of Peterson’s—well, although at times one might wish for something more expansive. The lone seven-piece, employed on Lynch’s “El Grito,” widens the scope considerably, and burns especially hot when Robin Eubanks and pianist Zaccai Curtis (one of the non-Blakey alumni) step into the spotlight.
But Peterson is savvy enough to ensure that the proceedings never get dull, and he changes things up often enough throughout the program’s course to keep reminding the listener of Blakey’s influence while staying firmly rooted in the present. The retro label remains at arm’s length.