Luques Curtis didn’t know how sick Berklee professor Ralph Peterson was while recording with him in December at Peterson’s studio in North Dartmouth. The acclaimed drummer, composer, and bandleader had continued performing and recording throughout his six-year battle with cancer. So their work on the project — Peterson’s album “Raise Up Off Me,” recorded with Curtis and his pianist brother, Zaccai Curtis, and out Friday — could easily have been mistaken, initially, for business as usual.
“I had an idea something was up when we played ‘Tears I Cannot Hide,’ which is his song that Jazzmeia [Horn] put lyrics to,” says the bassist by phone from his home in New Jersey. “After we played that we’re listening back, and it was real quiet after the song ended. And he looks over at us, he’s like, ‘I want you guys to play this when I go.’
“At first I was like, ‘Wait, did I hear that correctly?’ We were telling him, ‘Don’t talk about that.’ We kind of brushed it off. Then we got a text message, maybe a couple of weeks later, he was like, ‘I’m not doing well.’ We didn’t know it was that intense. And not even that — we didn’t know it was going to be so fast.”
Peterson died March 1, after documenting much of his cancer ordeal with upbeat Facebook posts showing him working out or receiving chemotherapy, often concluding with the signature phrase “Onward & Upward” (also the title of his 2020 album with The Messenger Legacy). He would have turned 59 on Thursday.
To celebrate the birthday and album release, two overlapping streaming events are scheduled for Thursday night, a measure of the high esteem in which Peterson was held as a friend, colleague, and mentor. Live music will stream from Wally’s Jazz Cafe between 7 and 9 p.m. on the club’s Facebook page, an event organized by Peterson’s former student Craig Jackson and featuring Peterson’s Berklee colleague Tia Fuller on sax. Beginning at 8 p.m., on a Zoom link available via Peterson’s Facebook page, Orrin Evans, the Curtis brothers, Horn, Josh Evans, Sean Jones, and other guests will discuss the new album in what’s being billed as a virtual listening party.
The Curtis brothers have been working with Peterson in various contexts for years, going back to their student days in Boston. Luques, 37, was invited to Peterson’s office shortly after arriving at Berklee where the two played duo — Peterson starting things off by playing “Birdlike” on trumpet before switching to drums. Soon Curtis found himself schlepping his bass to and from Atlantic City by bus to play one song, “Mack the Knife,” in a Peterson-led quartet that was performing before a speech.
Zaccai, 39, was studying at New England Conservatory at the time, and soon he too was working with Peterson. Their first gig as a Peterson-led trio was at the Museum of Fine Arts. Peterson wasn’t above returning the favor when the Curtis brothers formed a quintet that included elder masters Peterson, alto saxophonist Donald Harrison, and trumpeter Brian Lynch.
Peterson returned to the trio format for most of the new album, with Horn guesting on two tracks (and a third bonus track) and Peterson’s Berklee percussion department colleague Eguie Castrillo on another. The title “Raise Up Off Me,” borrowed from the Hampton Hawes memoir, references several issues of special concern to Peterson: addiction (a struggle Peterson and Hawes both overcame), mental health, the impermanence of life, and most visibly, as illustrated on the back of the album’s CD packaging, the social issues giving rise to the Black Lives Matter movement.
As Peterson explains in a statement: “In this era where we still feel the foot on our necks, the pepper spray and mace that burns our eyes and face, the bullets and the batons, I find it necessary to remind you that Black Lives Matter . . . and for my life to matter, you have to raise up off me.”
The music on the album consists of a mix of Peterson originals, a couple of them repurposed from earlier recordings, and pieces by others with whom he has ties, including a beautiful ballad by Zaccai Curtis titled “I Want to Be There for You.” The title song, versions of which open and close the album, was something unusual for the trio: a group improvisation.
“Ralph came to us with a concept,” recalls Luques Curtis. “He was like, ‘I want it to be open, but over this vibe.’ He played us a song. ‘This is the vibe I want.’ Then we just started playing open, and he recorded it.”
Asked to name a few tunes on the new album that stood out to him, Zaccai Curtis, speaking by phone from Williamstown, begins with “Bouncing With Bud,” a Bud Powell classic that the Curtis brothers played with Peterson at that first MFA gig.
“That was an arrangement that me and Luques came up with, and we’ve been playing it forever but we’ve never recorded it. And just randomly Ralph goes, ‘Let’s do “Bouncing With Bud.” ' I was shocked. We play the same tune, same arrangement, with our own group, but in an Afro-Cuban jazz way. With Ralph we played it swing. But Ralph was like that. We have no idea what he’s going to do. He can do it an Afro-Cuban way as well. But yeah, we didn’t rehearse that one, so that one stands out.”
Naming other favorites, “Of course, the ‘Raise Up Off Me’ bookend,” Zaccai continues. “I’ve never played anything like that with Ralph before. That’s a new sound for the trio. And the stuff with Jazzmeia’s fantastic. Ralph absolutely loved the lyrics on ‘Tears.’ And then ‘Blue Hughes.’ That’s his first composition that he ever wrote. I actually love, love that tune.”
Peterson’s new album will not be the last he appears on. In December, Luques Curtis and Peterson were also recording a quintet album that Peterson was producing for 15-year-old piano phenom Brandon Goldberg. That album, titled “In Good Time,” is due to be released Sept. 17.
According to Luques, Peterson had also hoped to reassemble members of the quintet he was leading when the Curtis brothers met him, but the timing didn’t pan out. “I hope they end of up doing something for Ralph, with Jimmy [Greene], Jeremy [Pelt], Orrin [Evans], [Eric] Revis. I don’t know who they’d get on drums, but Ralph wanted to record that band before the new year.
“That was another kind of sign, I guess,” he adds. “It’s like he wanted to document all his bands in December. But they never actually agreed on a date, so they weren’t able to do that, unfortunately.”
“Even in his last texts to us,” says Zaccai, “some of the last words he said were, ‘We have work to do.’ We have work to do. And I know what he means by that. But yeah, that’s his mindset, all the way till he had to let go.”
Bill Beuttler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.