To acknowledge the birthday of the estimable drummer-producer Teri Lyne Carrington, a force on the scene since her late teens, here’s a feature article that I was given the opportunity to write about her for Jazziz magazine in 2011. (Her inclusivity and incisive taste come through in this excellent Jazz Times “Before and After” with Larry Applebaum.)
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When Terri Lyne Carrington was 17, about to matriculate at Berklee School of Music as a full-time student, her fellow Bostonian, House Speaker Tip O’Neill, intoned the now-famous aphorism, “all politics is local.” Without implying any direct influence, one might say that Carrington—now a 45-year-old tenured Berklee professor, long-standing master drummer, and respected producer—operates by the imperative that “all music is social.”
That principle applies to Carrington’s new release, The Mosaic Project, her fifth as a leader, and fourth on which she coalesces, as she states on a promotional video on her website, “a lot of different textures and colors and pieces to make a whole picture.” There are 13 genre-spanning selections, including her arrangements of songs by Irving Berlin, Al Green, Bernice Johnson Reagon, Nona Hendryx, and the Beatles, and originals that refract the Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock and M-Base schools of hardcore jazz and fusion. To perform them, Carrington assembled nine singers whom she’s either worked with or produced (Dee Dee Bridgewater, Carrington, Hendryx, Carmen Lundy, Gretchen Parlato, Dianne Reeves, Patricia Romania, Esperanza Spalding, and Cassandra Wilson), and an ace ensemble including, in various configurations, Geri Allen, Patrice Rushen, and Helen Sung on piano and keyboards, Spalding on bass, Ingrid Jensen on trumpet, Tineke Postma on alto saxophone, Anat Cohen on clarinets, and Sheila E. on percussion. She propels the proceedings with a global array of beats, navigating each flavor with idiomatic authority and a point of view, unfolding an intricate metric web in whatever direction the music suggests.
With so many moving parts in play, the outcome could well have been disjointed, or by-the-numbers stiff. Instead, Carrington creates a cohesive suite—the flow is relaxed and kinetic, the soloing is intense and probing, the ensemble breathes as one. “Terri has a broad, clear voice, and knows how to state her intentions so people understand,” says Reeves, who met Carrington when the drummer was a 10-year-old prodigy. “If she’d painted this picture with somebody else on drums, it would still be uniquely Terri Lyne Carrington’s music.”
“Terri is a connector,” Allen says of the way Carrington’s calm demeanor inspired the tight-yet-loose chemistry. “She knows how to pull together the right combination of people and energies and give them a sense of freedom within the context of her projects. This setting felt like home, a family thing where nobody’s sitting with their arms folded, waiting for you to prove you deserve to be here.”
Notions of family, both biological and musical, deeply inform Mosaic Project and two prior Carrington recordings from the aughts. On 2001’s all-instrumental Jazz is A Spirit [ACT], she convened several first-call peers, as well as Herbie Hancock, her frequent employer, and the voice of drum icon Jo Jones circa 1984, with a year to live, telling Carrington, “As long as I’m here, you run into any problems, call me—because of your grandfather, because of your father, and because of you.” She explicitly acknowledged bloodlines on the 2008 session More To Say (Real Life Story: Next Gen), a creative take on the funky side of smooth jazz (with brief blasts of Afro-Carribean and hip-hop). On that album she plays the contemporary grooves with an attitude that recalls the function that her grandfather, drummer Matt Carrington, fulfilled when jazz was swing, and swing was dance music. He died a few months before her birth, and his drums became her first kit.
On the aforementioned projects, Carrington, like many prominent sister musicians accustomed to being the only woman on the bandstand, recruited almost exclusively male associates to convey her vision. But on Mosaic Project, Carrington makes a firm statement on what it means to be a female jazz musician in the 21st century.
“People always tried to put me in situations with women, but it never felt comfortable or natural,” Carrington said. Influenced by recent engagements with Spalding (she performs on her 2010 release Chamber Music Society), and with Allen (they’ve shared numerous bandstands since the ‘80s, most recently in Postma’s quartet), her feelings shifted. “For me, Esperanza completed a circle,” she continued. “Nothing against other female bass players, but I felt like-minded with her, as I do with Tineke and other female horn players I’ve met recently. I won’t think twice about accepting a gig with them or calling them for a gig, because I like the way they play.”
Carrington provided detailed charts, each catering to the idiosyncracies of the vocal and instrumental soloists. She conveyed the nuances not only through in-studio instructions, but by sending to each participant an MP3 demo containing horn parts, basslines, chord changes, harmonic voicings, even her own interpretation of the lyrics in the style of each singer. “I composed every note you hear, other than the solos,” Carrington says, noting that she wrote nightly last spring after putting her three-year-old son to bed.
Sometimes, Carrington loosened the reins, instructing the players to do “something more personal” by focusing on the chords and not the written voicings. That flexible perspective and attitude of trust was crucial in actualizing her “jazz means no-category” aesthetic. “Terri doesn’t play drums like a groove machine that I need to lock into with a bass part,” Spalding said. “To me, she plays drums sort of like a piano. Each register and drum of the kit is like its own instrument that you could say she’s orchestrating, as though each drum has a voice. Playing bass, I have to be solid keeping the time in a specific place, but stay on my toes and be ready to dance with this orchestrated, multi-faceted momentum she’s creating. She’s so diverse—in her playing, you hear all the styles of music she’s mastered.”
In Allen’s view, Carrington’s encyclopedic knowledge of drum history bedrocks her cool boldness. “Terri has the foundation together, and she’s always felt confident to push ahead and mix, in a seamless way, the root with the future,” she says. “She understands drumming from the perspective of different world musics. She understands technology. She understands the pulse of what’s happening today.”
“I’m a jazz musician who is influenced by many other things,” Carrington said. “I try to mesh them together in my presentation, but jazz is still going to come out.” In this regard, she mentioned her father, Sonny Carrington, a professional saxophonist who went 9-to-5 to raise his family. “When I was doing TV shows in the ‘90s (she was house drummer on the Arsenio Hall Show and Vibe, hosted by Sinbad), I was playing very little jazz jazz, and I told my father I didn’t want to put the word ‘jazz’ in front of my name, like ‘jazz drummer’ or ‘jazz musician.’ He said, ‘You can’t run away from who you are.’ It stuck.
“I grew up listening to his music, jazz-based stuff that felt good—Gene Ammons, Sonny Stitt, Cannonball, Hank Crawford. That swing conception is my root. Then I allow all my experiences as a child, teenager, young adult, and now adult, to seep in. Obviously, classic jazz is not of our generation—though I’m not putting down people who live more in the past, because they’re keeping that alive. It goes back to art for art’s sake or art for social consciousness. If you want to be socially aware through your art and tell people how you feel about life in general, what you’re doing has to reflect who you are, and current music is important. With instrumental music, it’s challenging for the listener to really know your intent. That’s why vocal music has always been so important to me—the message gets out to the listener.”
Carrington remarked that she predicates her musical affiliations on “who I can connect with without thinking too hard,” and that playing with women “doesn’t feel particularly different” than with men.” Indeed, as she states in the publicity materials, the whole point of The Mosaic Project is that “you don’t hear gender.”
Reeves concurred, stating that she felt only “the vibration of creativity.” Yet she also states that on her album, That Day, a Carrington-supervised opus from 1997, “it was exciting to have a woman’s voice” in the producer’s chair. “As an artist, you want the producer to respect you for what you do—your ideas, your ability,” Reeves said. “I’ve known Terri so long, I knew I was in capable hands; she allowed me to feel I could be vulnerable—that I could stretch. She hears everything, she has strong opinions, and she came up with specific ideas that she knew would appeal to me. She knows how to do that with other people, too.”
Spalding opined that gender plays a subtle role in musical production, parsing the Mosaic Project experience through a music-mirrors-life approach. “Working with all these women, for the first time I experienced what most men always experience,” she stated. She noted that women are raised by similar codes, encounter similar “social stigmas and social habits,” and that, since music “is an extension of our identities and personalities,” these affinities “can’t help but seep into the way we choose to interact with music as it passes by us in real time—maybe we’re communicating a little closer to the same language. Sometimes I feel it in a subtle, sort of unconscious way, but as soon as I try to identify something, it’s gone.”
For Carrington, that “something” is the female predisposition to be “a little more in tune from a compassionate perspective, a serving perspective, a ‘let me make this bed for you’ perspective, whereas a guy more naturally just steps in. I like both things, and both are happening in most women. The best male players have it, too. But a woman’s nature, I think, is to hold back for a second, assess the situation quickly, and be supportive. That nurturing quality—without trying to—makes the music feel more beautiful. Sometimes I have to work at not doing that too much, so everything doesn’t sound too polite.”
She observes such reticence among the young women who study with her at Berklee. “I think it’s less natural for women to hit things,” she said. “Even though we’re making music, it’s still a somewhat aggressive action that a lot of women—not all—don’t gravitate to. The majority are still a bit apologetic. When kids play catch, say, a girl’s instinct is to throw or pass the ball. A guy’s instinct is to grab the ball and hold onto it.”
It was hard to imagine that this had ever been an issue for a musician who spent consequential time on bandstands with Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, and Danilo Perez, following postgraduate New York associations in the ‘80s with such high-pedigree jazzmen as Clark Terry, Frank Foster, James Moody, Pharaoh Sanders, Kenny Barron, Lester Bowie, Stan Getz, and Mulgrew Miller, not to mention M-Base innovators like Greg Osby and Gary Thomas.
“No, I think it has been,” Carrington responded, recalling past engagements at the Village Vanguard when she “wanted to put my best foot forward” before her drummer peers in the crowd, “to show off and say, ‘Yeah, I’m bad; I can play.’” Often, she added, “I couldn’t get past a hurdle to do that ownership thing. I wanted to stand out more, but I couldn’t make myself do it if it didn’t come naturally at that moment.”
It seemed that this response might pertain more to the demands of apprenticeship than some inherently female characteristic. “That’s true,” she said. “But I felt a lot of the younger drummers were more willing to step all over the music. To me, that’s a male quality. Some people perceived that as overplaying or being inappropriate, whereas many people felt I was always appropriate, didn’t overplay. As I got older and more seasoned, and played with peers or younger people, I became more confident and comfortable with myself. I know that I’m naturally about serving the music and fitting in, so I don’t mind saying, if necessary, ‘We’re going over here for a minute, and we’re doing this.’ I’m always going to be appropriate. But now I see being appropriate differently.
“My father told me, ‘You never give anybody a show.’ He felt I could. But that’s not what I do. I like playing through everybody’s solos, and bringing something to it. I’ve started realizing that this can be captivating in itself. People tell me they couldn’t take their eyes off me, and I hadn’t taken a drum solo. So I allow myself to be featured without featuring myself. I know that when I get deep inside the music, it can be a force, a magnetism, that draws people in.”
Few drummers could conjure as much contextually appropriate dazzle as did Carrington in November with Danilo Perez and John Patitucci during a Philadelphia concert exploring the repertoire of Perez’ landmark 1996 date, Panamonk, on which she and Jeff Watts split drum duties. Earlier in the month, after several gigs in Spain with Perez and Patitucci in the Wayne Shorter Quartet—she recommended them to Shorter at the end of the ‘90s—as a sub for Brian Blade, Shorter told Carrington it was as though she “had never really left the group—I was like the fifth member all that time.” He backed the words by asking her to join the group in Brazil in June.
Still, Carrington’s 2011 itinerary includes numerous encounters with women, including various Mosaic Project offshoots, tours with Spalding’s trio, a collaborative Carrington-Allen-Spalding trio, and hoped-for follow-ups to a program of young girls’ songs that debuted at the Kennedy Center last October on which Allen and Rushen played Steinway Grands. Over the summer, she’ll play drums and serve as music director for a tour called “Sing the Truth,” on which Reeves, Angelique Kidjo, and Lizz Wright will interpret songs written by African-American women from Bessie Smith to Lauryn Hill.
“I might want to do a Joni Mitchell song, even though she’s not African-American, because she’s such a strong songwriter,” Carrington says of the latter endeavor. “It doesn’t have to be just writers either—it could be a Mahalia Jackson song.” She expounds on her ecumenical tastes, referencing Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, neo-soul, “organic rock with a blues orientation” a la the Allman Brothers, and drummers “who aren’t mechanical” like Mitch Mitchell and John Bonham. “From TV, I developed respect for all the genres, because I had to sound as close as possible to people who specialize without imitating them. You focus, come on strong and make the point, because you have less than a minute. There’s no room for error.
“I’ve always put my heart into whatever I do,” she continues. “One of my favorite gigs ever was with Bill Withers when he came out of retirement to do a party. If I was just about playing the drums, then playing with Wayne or Herbie would be much more satisfying than playing with Bill Withers. For me it’s about making music and being creative.”