I saw Ralph Penland twice in high school, with the Freddie Hubbard quintet (Don Braden, Benny Green, Jeff Chambers) in Minneapolis and the Don Menza quartet (Cedar Walton, Tony Dumas) in New Orleans. I already had a big record collection, and was impressed that there were such great players out there that were veterans but not yet a familiar name.
Penland was a West Coast musician, and therefore was automatically comfortable with all kinds of genres. Unlike many musicians with similar careers and interests, though, Penland was truly convincing when dealing out serious swing with the masters. Previously on DTM, I commented on Penland's playing on videos with Eric Lewis and Kenny Kirkland:
My favorite of the links is Eric’s stellar rendition of “Pinocchio," which has some great Ralph Penland; the snare commentary in particular is outrageous. In the ‘90s I saw Penland play with Freddie Hubbard and Cedar Walton and also have him in my library with George Cables and other groups recorded on the West Coast. Penland is undoubtedly underrated, especially out East. It’s a good move to have an older cat playing with some post-Marcus and Tain types: Penland warms the beat right up, making it instantly more like old-school jazz.
“Pinocchio” reminded me to look again at this tiny Kenny Kirkland clip with Penland, which is about as good as this style ever got.
There are 100 Penland sessions in the Lord discography, including dates with Hubbard, Hubert Laws, Joe Henderson, Eddie Harris, Nancy Wilson, Chet Baker, Dianne Reeves, Kirk Whalum, Stanley Clarke, Etta James, and many others. I'd like to hear some of the West Coast jazz dates led by players like Bob Cooper, Conte Candoli, Andy Simpkins, and James Leary, I'm sure they all benefit from having Penland behind the kit.
Penland was on Charlie Rouse's last live album, Epistrophy, and on Bunky Green's gentle Feelin' the Pain. But the Penland I know best are several piano trio albums: The discs with George Cables are solid top to bottom. (DTM: Interview with George Cables.) Two records with Marc Copland and Dieter Ilg have a playful and experimental sound, with Penland playing out more than usual. And a couple of tracks on Buddy Montgomery's So Why Not? with Ron Carter are among Buddy's very best recordings on piano.