Few jazz drummers in the history of the music have carved a niche as leaders. Obviously, Art Blakey set the precedent with the many different ensembles that he fostered over the years. For a brief period in the ‘80s, it was Tony Williams who broke new ground not only in terms of the guidance he provided to his ensemble, but also the strides he made as a gifted composer who was able to craft his musical ideas with specific musicians in mind. Although his first efforts ran somewhat concurrent with Williams’ advances, drummer Ralph Peterson has very much come into his own these days as a true musical leader and composer of substantial merit. While his excellent Blue Note sides are long out of print and his other projects have been for a variety of small and hard to find labels, he’s gaining a high-flying profile once again via a new series of recordings for Criss Cross.
Coming on the heels of The Art of War, Peterson’s sophomore effort for Criss Cross, Subliminal Seduction, features the youngsters once again, with saxophonist Jimmy Greene and trumpeter Jeremy Pelt on the front line. Old pal Orrin Evans and bassist Eric Revis lock in tight with Peterson to form a particularly responsive rhythm section and the entire presentation is more about a collective spirit than the type of pyrotechnical displays that you might associate with a drummer’s record. In fact, Peterson’s solo moments are doled out sparingly, save for two brief numbers (“The Fifth Insight” and “The Seventh Insight”) that are exclusively drum tone poems.
The overall feel is definitely in the area of Miles Davis circa 1966. “Essence of the Wizard” brings forth shades of Miles Smiles with its open-ended structure and harmonies. Pelt, who in the past has strongly recalled Davis in style, plays with more of a Hubbard bravado, speaking with an elastic sense of time that belies his youth. Greene sounds better than ever throughout the set and there’s a yearning character to his tenor ‘cry’ that reminds one of Tim Warfield. In fact, his succulent ballad feature on “I Only Miss Her When She’s Gone” is one of the highlights of the disc.
One gets the sense that Peterson has tried to vary his compositions in a way that conjures the kind of ebb and flow of a good club set. “The Vicious Cycle” struts its thing with a boogaloo groove that is not unlike some of Nicholas Payton’s lines. Pianist Evans, who can sometimes be too busy and chaotic for his own good, gets down with a funky gem of a solo that can’t help but testify to his versatility. “But I Never Left” is one of Peterson’s signature tunes, a lovely bossa with harmonic movement based on Earth, Wind & Fire’s “In the Stone.” Greene’s soprano work is opulent here and the double time vamp at the end allows Peterson and Evans to engage in multifarious dialogue.
At this point it might be a good idea to focus on Peterson’s efforts as a drummer. The best place to sample his brilliance just might be on “Social Response,” where his rock solid sense of time allows him to skate in and out of the piece’s structure with fills that spill over bar lines and resolve in anything but the most customary way. Sure you could say that his style is ‘busy’ in a sense, but that would belie the fact that his accompaniment is always complimentary and about coaxing the most from each soloist.
Aside from three numbers that clock in around the six to ten minute range, all of the tunes are relatively brief and succinct. It’s about getting in, having your say, and getting out, which is not in any way a bad thing. As it were, it takes more skill to say a great deal in a short period of time and when it comes to that expertise, Peterson and crew have mastered the art.
Personnel: Ralph Peterson (drums), Jeremy Pelt (trumpet), Jimmy Greene (tenor and
soprano sax), Orrin Evans (piano), Eric Revis (bass)