Ralph Peterson emerged in the mid-'80s as co-leader of the high visibility ensemble OTB and as a member of the Harrison- Blanchard Group. Peterson's decade-old Fo'tet is the platform by which he expresses deeply held musical principles.
"I believe I was predestined to be a drummer." Raised in a musical family, he first hit the traps at 3. "My early playing was a basement experience. I played with records by James Brown, Earth Wind & Fire and Parliament- Funkadelics, where the beat was powerful and primal. I'd wanted to play since I saw Sonny Payne with the Count Basie Orchestra when I was 13. But my interpretation of Jazz didn't venture very far beyond Maynard Ferguson's Primal Scream until I was out of high school. I'm not a jazz baby. I'm a funk baby who came through the Fusion realm of George Duke and Stanley Clarke.
"My life condition will be apparent in my music always." His music is marked by the focus and indomitable energy of a spirit in balance. "Like a wood nickel, I keep coming back. I'm in the game for the long haul now, and I've figured out that the key to winning the game is staying in the game."
Peterson began his studies at Rutgers in Brass before moving to Percussion.
"At the percussion audition I didn't know rudiments; I had never really studied the instrument. I learned how to read what little bit of rhythms I could from my trumpet studies, which began in fourth grade.
"I've always loved soprano saxophone, and if they'd used it in my high school marching band, I probably wouldn't have played trumpet. Sopranos don't project as well as trumpets, but they occupy the same timbral area.
"Once Michael Carvin at Rutgers finally believed that I was a drummer and let me study with him, I began to learn about Art Blakey and Philly Joe Jones and Max Roach and Elvin Jones and Tony Williams, who I had heard of but didn't know why. One reason I started playing trumpet is because the horn lines were becoming more interesting in the '70s than the drum beats! After you cop, what's next? Here was drumming that I couldn't imitate after hearing it once. Discovering these guys, who were playing stuff I couldn't do, reawakened the searching spirit, and it's been awake ever since."
While in college, Peterson began an ongoing gig in pianist Walter Davis, Jr.'s trio, and worked in Blakey's two-drummer big band; proximity with the mentors evolved to enduring friendship. "Art became my idol not only as a drummer, but as a bandleader and a molder of men. Walter taught me the tradition of Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk, and how to play trio in a triangular manner, not that bass and drums lay down a carpet, but always three-way conversation, with input and dialogue and conversation from all the components in the ensemble. That's how the music was when he was 17 playing in Bird's band, and I perpetuate that tradition."
"It's dangerous when you start trying to downplay the role of drums in music. I play with a lot of intensity and energy, but someone who says I play loud isn't listening to me. I don't play any one way all the time; each rhythmic approach is designed to awaken the spirit differently.
"I'm starting to connect with John Coltrane's influence spiritually. His life changed, and towards the end of his life, his focus of expression changed; similarly, my life has taken a turn where spiritual concerns outweigh material concerns and prestige and notoriety. Believe me, I've got an ego like everybody else's. But being a musician used to be what I was, now it's simply what I do. What I am is a father and a son and a brother and a sponsor. The press and records could stop, but those things will go on. And they connect me with the power given me, the gift to play music - it closes a circle."