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Album Review

Ralph Peterson & the Messenger Legacy: Onward & Upward


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Ralph Peterson & the Messenger Legacy: Onward & Upward
Generally speaking, legacy bands are created to preserve the music of an artist. They feature innovative interpretations of an artist's compositions or past performances to share with future generations of listeners. In the case of drummer Ralph Peterson, his ambitious efforts to honor the continuum of his mentor Art Blakey are forward thinking, about a collective gathering of resources that stress creative thought and individuality. Just as the true legacy of the Jazz Messengers portends, contributors are charged with replenishing the repertoire, expected to write and arrange the band's next generation of tunes.

Blakey's attention to new ideas and personal development is his true legacy. Peterson's Messenger Legacy is about that sense of casting creativity forward, and doing so in the hard bop tradition. Onward & Upward (Onyx, 2020), Peterson's 25th release as a leader, adds a new chapter in the Messenger songbook. Performed in the classic sextet format, seventeen musicians contribute, fourteen of whom are former Jazz Messengers. The tunes bear the classic array of Blakey trademarks, from blues and soul, to polyrhythms and solid harmonies. They open a vast amount of space for a cadre of great jazz improvisers. "He wouldn't have had us stick to playing 'One by One,' and 'Blues March,' and 'Children of the NIght,'" says Peterson. "It's great to play and honor those tunes. But to write a new page in the Jazz Messengers songbook, that's what Art expected of us."

Peterson's title track is a swinging hard bop tune that reminds us that this music was once almost exclusively played for dancers, its driving rhythm spurring on the spot innovation from the front line of tenor giant Billy Pierce, trumpeter Phillip Harper, and trombonist Steve Davis. Peterson is right in that pocket where his mentor liked to sit and move the music in whatever direction he may choose. With Essiet Essiet hanging on to the groove, pianist Zaccai Curtis lays down an articulate harmonic canvas for his mates to tread upon. Curtis, one of three "Legacy Messengers," came through the Blakey tradition under the tutelage of Jackie McLean, and has spent much time performing and recording with Peterson.

Trombonist Robin Eubanks' "Red, Black and Green Blues" is a swinging shuffle in the Messengers tradition. Pierce joins on tenor, along with trumpeter Brian Lynch, Curtis, and bassist Lonnie Plaxico. The ever imaginative Lynch draws from a deep fountain of ideas, another gem in the Messengers trumpet tradition that includes Lee Morgan, Freddie Hubbard, Woody Shaw and Terence Blanchard. The interweaving harmonies, and stellar soloing are constants here, and on every tune on this album. Curtis' "Un Poco Haina" conjures up images from the past, those of Pierce for one, who still brings it as he did some forty years ago with Blakey. Curtis' solo brings a modern, post-bop edge to the session, nailed down by bassist Essiet and Peterson's dynamic drum solo.

Pierce's "Sudan Blue" is the only tune on the record previously recorded and performed by Art Blakey. The choice to include the tune on the album was made out of respect for Pierce as the Senior Messenger in the group. Guitarist Kevin Eubanks makes his only appearance, laying down a scintillating solo with chordal clusters and cascading single notes. Pierce's playing and influence on this record cannot be overstated.

Lynch's "El Grito" adds a Latin touch to the proceedings. Lynch's career has been blessed not only with the mentorship of Blakey, but that of pianist/bandleader Eddie Palmieri as well. Peterson gains a partner in the rhythm section with percussionist Reinaldo DeJesus. Lynch's lush arrangement enables brilliant soloing within Latin rhythms executed with a hard bop mindset.

This recording will of course, be attractive to fans of the great legacy that the master Blakey left us upon his passing. That however, is not reason in itself to be curious. This is a marvelous effort, featuring sparkling new compositions performed by some of the best modern jazz has to offer. It swings like mad from the outset to its dynamic finish. The fact that it is attached to a great legacy makes it that much more intriguing.

Track Listing

Forth and Back; Sonora; Onward & Upward; Waltz For Etienne and Ebony; Red Black and Green Blues; Un Poco Haina; Sudan Blue; Portrait of Lord Willis; Tricks of the Trade; El Grito; Along Came Benny.


Album information

Title: Onward & Upward | Year Released: 2020 | Record Label: Onyx Music Label

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