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Ralph Peterson is a fighter. In September, the drummer, bandleader and educator — who since the 1990s has overcome cocaine addiction, diabetes, morbid obesity, Bell’s palsy and two bouts of cancer — learned that he needed some supplemental chemotherapy for his most recent cancer battle. His response to the news that morning was to hit the gym for an hour, then swim a mile.
“I want to focus on living, man!” Peterson says, speaking by phone from his home in Boston. “I’m not gonna let fear keep me from doing this work.”
“This work” refers, of course, to music. In October, Peterson released two albums, I Remember Bu: Alive Volume 4 at Scullers and Inward Venture: Alive Volume 5 at the Side Door, both on Peterson’s own Onyx Productions label. They are his first recordings since his 2017 liver cancer diagnosis. (He’s not technically in remission — hence the need for further treatment — but there are no active tumors since surgeons removed half his liver earlier this year.)
I Remember Bu, a tribute to Peterson’s mentor, drummer Art Blakey, features his GenNext Big Band: 20 of his students at Berklee School of Music, including two drummers (a nod to Peterson’s stint as second drummer in Blakey’s legendary Jazz Messengers band). Peterson played on two tracks, but primarily conducted the band, members of whom wrote nearly all the arrangements of Blakey staples. “These kids put in work,” he stresses. “Fifty extra hours of rehearsal, to make it good enough.”
Inward Venture is the second recording by Peterson’s quintet Aggregate Prime, with tenor saxophonist/flutist Gary Thomas, guitarist Mark Whitfield, pianist Davis Whitfield and bassist Curtis Lundy. Like their first album, 2016’s Dream Deferred, it’s a post-bop meditation on social and racial injustice that also features an avant-garde take on Eric Dolphy’s “Gazzelloni.” “This music is edgy, explosive and colorful,” Peterson says. “I’m really excited about it.”
The two releases are only the beginning of Peterson’s musical agenda. In October, his Messenger Legacy Band celebrated Blakey’s 99th birthday at the Side Door in Old Lyme, Connecticut; Peterson recorded it for a forthcoming Alive Volume 6. That band will tour extensively for Blakey’s 2019 centennial, which the GenNext Big Band will also mark next October at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola in New York City. Aggregate Prime, meanwhile, is slated for Manhattan’s Winter Jazz Fest in January. Peterson is firing on all cylinders, chemotherapy be damned.
“Even if the treatment knocks me down to 70 percent, I’m confident that 70 percent of Ralph Peterson is equivalent to 150 percent of most people,” he says. “That’s not me patting myself on the back. It’s just the truth, and it’ll be the truth till I ain’t here no more. But I’m not worrying about that. The music is my path to immortality.” —Michael J. West
[caption id="attachment_14468" align="alignnone" width="1240"] Photos by Dave Green.[/caption]