Drummer/Bandleader Ralph Peterson Expands The Messenger Legacy On Ambitious ‘Onward & Upward’ (ALBUM REVIEW)

Last year, Ralph Peterson and the Messenger Legacy released their recording Legacy: Alive Volume 6 at the Side Door, reviewed on these pages. With Bill Pierce, Brian Lynch, Bobby Watson, Geoffrey Keezer, Essiet, and Peterson at the drums. Legacy went on to receive worldwide acclaim and was regarded as one of the top releases of the year and one of this writer’s favorites. Most of that unit also performed at the 2019 Newport Jazz Festival to an enthusiastic reception, including that of yours truly.  Onward & Upward, Peterson’s latest offering, while continuing to honor the legacy of his mentor, Art Blakey, is a more forward sounding, less of a throwback than its predecessor. This is Peterson’s 25th album as a leader.

Here Peterson brings together 14 former Jazz Messengers and three Legacy Messengers to advance the cause. The expansive lineup includes pianists Joanne Brackeen, guitarist Kevin Eubanks, trombonists Robin Eubanks and Steve Davis, bassists Essiet, Lonnie Plaxico, Peter Washington and Melissa Slocum, saxophonists Craig Handy, Bill Pierce and Jean Toussaint, trumpeters Philip Harper and Brian Lynch;  and, in the spirit of mentorship, rising pianists Zaccai Curtis and Anthony Wonsey and percussionist Reinaldo DeJesus. Notably, both Robin Eubanks and Curtis were part of the Newport Ensemble along with Essiet, Pierce, and Lynch.

Despite the large aggregation, this is not a big band album. (Peterson also did one of those in the past year – last November’s Ralph Peterson’s Gen-Next Big Band, also covered on these pages). The choice to include seventeen musicians on this project was deliberate. While most of the tracks are performed by a sextet (excepting one quintet and one septet), the total number of seventeen harkens back to Blakey’s first foray into leading a working band: a circa-1947 large ensemble called the Seventeen Messengers. Even as Peterson and the band extend the tradition, they also bring it full circle. That, too, is the Messenger Legacy. “I feel so fortunate to have been able to gather these amazing musicians for this project. Our relationships span close to four decades. I am eternally grateful for the high level of musicianship and professionalism demonstrated by these artists,” says Peterson. 

Fundamental to the forward-sounding approach here is that this album features all-new material written by the band members. As writer Michael J. West says in his liner notes, Blakey’s tutelage was about martial creative resources and asserting individuality. Peterson penned three, all rendered by sextets; tenor saxophonist Jean Toussaint, trombonist Robin Eubanks, pianist Curtis, tenor saxophonist Pierce, trombonist Davis, pianist Brackeen, and trumpeter Lynch authored the others. Peterson says this about Blakey, “He wouldn’t have had us stick to playing ‘One by One’ and ‘Blues March’ and ‘Children of the Night!’ “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.” Fully aware that modern history was being made, Peterson had the foresight to ensure that the entire two-day recording session (which took place right before the COVID-19 lockdown in early March) was recorded and filmed. Leading up to the September street date, Onyx Productions will be releasing exclusive, on-site interviews with the participants as well as two full-length videos. 

NEA Jazz Master Joanne Brackeen’s distinctive, angular piano playing is always a draw and she’s at the keys for Peterson’s opening “Forth and Back,” Davis’ “Portrait of Lord Willis,’ and her own “Tricks of the Trade.” The three Peterson originals are the first three, mostly ensemble pieces for the front line of horns, with potent economical solos from Toussaint on the opener along with Harper’s trumpet and Handy’s alto. Davis leads the soloists on “Sonora” along with Slocum, Handy, Harper, and Wonsey on the ivories. Peterson gets his licks in too.  The title track is a burner as well, featuring, Davis, Harper, Peterson, with Harper and Davis in dialogue at the close with Curtis on piano.

Toussaint’s “Waltz for Etienne and Ebony” brings a slightly different texture with Wonsey on Rhodes and lyrical statements from Lynch, the composer, and Davis on the front line. Robin Eubanks’ “Red Black and Green Blues” puts the growling trombonist in the spotlight with Lynch blistering per usual, and Plaxico stepping forward. With Pierce and Curtis at the piano, the lineup resembles that of Newport Jazz except for Plaxico on bass instead of Essiet. The tricky syncopated rhythms of Curtis’ “Un Poco Halna” follows with stirring turns from Pierce, the composer, and bandleader. Pierce composed the lone quintet piece, “Sudan Blue” for the only appearance of guitarist Eubanks who takes his bluesy licks as does Pierce. Wonsey, Essiet and Peterson comprise the rhythm section for this swinger.

Davis and Brackeen shine on the former’s “Portrait of Lord Willis,’ a ballad. Brackeen and the sextet then take flight with her own “Tricks of the Trade,’ featuring a front line of Lynch, Toussaint, and Davis. Lynch excels again along with Handy, trombonist Eubanks, and Curtis on his own Afro-Cuban styled “El Grito” which also brings in percussionist DeJesus. Curtis takes the Rhodes for the closer, Plaxico’s “Along Came Benny,” featuring more stunning tight ensemble playing and soloing, this time from Lynch, Handy (on tenor), and Eubanks. Peterson drives the sextet to an abrupt ending when it seemed to be building toward a thunderous climax.

This new chapter is the modern-day sound of The Messengers including the variety of colors, the polyrhythms, the harmonies, the vast reservoirs of blues and soul, and the importance of continuity and telling a story. “There was no piece of music that didn’t fit what the record was saying,” Peterson says. “As each new piece came in, it was apparent that cats were looking at what had already been presented, and looking to fill stylistic, idiomatic or compositional gaps in the arc of the record.” All hail Art Blakey. His music lives on through the efforts of Peterson.


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