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.) Following that article is the pre-edit proceedings of a Blindfold Test that we did for Downbeat in 2015.
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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.”
Terri Lyne Carrington Blindfold Test (Raw):
Ali Jackson, “Ali Got Rhythm” (Amalgamations, Sunnyside, 2013) (Jackson, drums; Aaron Goldberg, piano; Carlos Henriquez, bass)
It’s swinging hard, though I don’t like to use that word—it feels so ’80s. Something in the ride cymbal pattern reminds me of Ali Jackson. The track was good; his performance was great. I love his forward motion on the beat. It doesn’t feel rushed, but it’s real edgy. I tend to play a bit more behind the beat than that, but I appreciate when somebody does it well. I appreciate drummers, or musicians generally, who preserve a style from another time period, though that isn’t necessarily where I live. In most cases, I’d rather listen to something that was done when the style was fresh, cutting edge, pushing a boundary. 3½ stars overall; 4½ for Ali, because I could pick up his ride cymbal.
Kendrick Scott, “Never Catch Me” (We Are The Drum, Blue Note, 2015) (Scott, drums; John Ellis, tenor saxophone and bass clarinet; Mike Moreno, guitar; Taylor Eigsti, Fender Rhodes; Joe Sanders, bass)
The way the toms and snare is being played sounds like Kendrick Scott, but the bass drum sounds heavier than Kendrick. Some things remind me of Eric Harland, and one beat I’ve heard Jamire Williams play—there’s a school of drumming that is being pulled from the same sources. I enjoyed the writing, the counterpoint between the two melodies. I like the piano sound. Obviously the drums are featured, but they’re not overwhelming. It’s nice to hear something in 4, because so much music these days is not played in 4. I like playing in odd time signatures, too, but you have to balance it. I would buy this track for sure. 4 stars. [after] There’s an organic quality to Kendrick’s playing that I appreciate. His playing has grown. The articulation, his ideas, everything feels more intentional.
Jeff Watts, “Brilliant Corners” (Blu, Vol. 1, Dark Key, 2015) (Watts, drums; Troy Roberts, tenor saxophone; David Budway, piano; Neal Caine, bass)
I’m sure it’s Jeff Watts. I went to school with him, so I’ve known his playing for a while. From the first beat. Jeff has a distinctive way he plays that swing-funk thing,. His triplet is very distinct. With the metric modulations, the tune sounds either like something he arranged of Monk’s or trying to write something in Monk’s style as a tribute. I’m not crazy about the sound of the recording. I know he now has his own studio, in a church or something. There’s a certain raw nature to that sound that I like, and it makes it sound older, in a sense, like everybody in a room playing. At one point, he started playing a hi-hat, and it was overwhelming. I don’t know who the tenor player is, but he sounded great. The piano solo was great. 4 stars. The playing is strong enough that I can get past the sound.
Antonio Sanchez, “Fall” (Three Times Three, CamJazz, 2014) (Sanchez, drums; John Scofield, guitar; Christian McBride, bass)
You can’t mess this song up. It plays itself. That’s Antonio. That little sound, the little bell. [bass solo] Earlier on, during the ostinato, I couldn’t tell it was Christian, but some things in the solo tell me. It sounds amazing. I’m used to hearing Sco play more lines, but this is a pastoral sound. Antonio is playing very cinematic and textural. I just love the sound of the recording and how his drums sound, full and powerful, so balanced. 5 stars. The song already sucks you in, it isn’t over-arranged, and it’s the right combination of players. The guitar-bass-drum combination is my favorite; it allows the drums to be present in a different way than with a piano. Antonio masterfully took up the right amount of space without overplaying. He made it sound big and full without playing too much. What he did play was tasty, but also meaningful.
Lewis Nash, “Y Todavia La Queiro” (The Highest Mountain, Cellar Live, 2012) (Nash, drums; Jimmy Greene, tenor saxophone; Jeremy Pelt, trumpet; Renee Rosnes, piano; Peter Washington, bass)
That song took me back. It’s Lewis Nash. At first I wasn’t sure, with the fingers on the drums, though I’ve seen him do that, but I knew it was him when he picked up the sticks. He plays with a certain forward motion. He’s steeped in the bebop tradition, and has a way of playing it that sounds modern and has an excitement factor. It’s the ferocity he puts on the tempo, undeniable, like a train. The track is really a drum feature, and it’s done live, and it’s so well-executed…just great drumming. He’s a master at what he does. 4½ stars.
Myra Melford, “First Protest” (Snowy Egret, Enja-Yellowbird, 2015) (Melford, piano; Tyshawn Sorey, drums; Ron Miles, trumpet; Liberty Ellman, guitar; Stomu Takeishi, bass guitar)
The drummer likes Jack DeJohnette. The sound of the snare is making me think of Brian Blade, though it’s a little more on top, and the ride cymbal is brighter. I gravitate to this kind of drumming, because it doesn’t feel lick-oriented. It feels organic, like you’re playing off what you’re hearing, as opposed to things in your repertoire. The piece felt organic, very open. When it started, the piano soloing with the drums, I thought it was going to stay in the vein of contemporary classical musicians who also improvise, but then it entered an area where I was hearing M-BASE inflections—someone who might have gone through that camp or been influenced by it. I like the loosey-goosey effect in this player’s groove as opposed to some others from that school. I really liked the guitar player, and I like the piece. 4 stars.
Brad Mehldau-Mark Giuliana, “Luxe” (Mehliana, Nonesuch, 2014) (Mehldau, synths, keyboards; Giuliana, drums, electronics)
I like it before the drums even start! I like this record by Brad and Mark. I’d never heard Brad play electronic instruments, and I’d never know it was him if I didn’t know the record. There are elements that remind me of Weather Report, a little Joe Zawinul creeping in. Mark Giuliana is a strong, well-rounded drummer. I like the minimalism of the groove, that I only heard the toms a few times in the whole piece, and that he REALLY held my interest with just the kick-snare and a hi-hat in the pattern, that he kept a relentless feeling to the groove while improvising inside of it. His choices never took away from the thing that’s making me dance to the track. I like the kind of ’70s lope that pops into the beat.4 stars.
Billy Hart, “Yard” (One Is The Other, ECM, 2014) (Hart, drums, Mark Turner, tenor saxophone; Ethan Iverson, piano; Ben Street, bass)
I wish they had mixed the drums a little louder. The ride pattern, and the way the drummer is breaking up the beat is very familiar to me, like out of the Billy Higgins-Ed Blackwell school—the double-stroke triplets from the snare to the cymbal, and the snare and the tom. This person isn’t trying to prove anything. The drumming is musical, almost compositional—it fits the piece. It’s nice to hear the space and feel you don’t need any more to be satisfied. The swagger of the time also makes you feel satisfied. The tenor player and the pianist sound great. I love that when the tenor started, it sounded like an alto. It felt like the horn player’s record. 4 stars for the drumming; 3½ for the track because I couldn’t hear the drums as much as I wanted. [after] Billy normally drops some bombs, hits a kind of crescendo; his playing was more restrained than normal.
Peter Erskine, “Lost Page” (Dr. Um, Fuzzy Music, 2015) (Erskine, drums; John Beasley, keyboards; Janek Gwizdala, electric bass; Bob Sheppard, tenor saxophone)
I really like this except for the ending. They could have just faded! But I would have this on heavy rotation because of the feeling it evokes. The groove is great. The bass line almost sounds like something would Meshell would do or produce. I love the high-pitched kick-drum, the tastiness of the drums. It sounds like a seasoned professional who doesn’t have to prove himself, who puts just the right thing in the right place. It hits me on an emotional level and makes me want to move my body, but it’s still intelligent, soulful playing. 4½ stars. It has a West Coast flavor, though I’m not actually sure what that means. I lived on the West Coast, and I don’t think my records sounded West Coast when I lived there. The drums sounded East Coast, but the production and the smoothness of it sounded West Coast. Now, it was quite funky, so I don’t mean smooth like in Smooth Jazz. It’s that thing you get when you have to ride on the freeway for 45 minutes to go any place versus the thing you get when you have to ride the subway. [after] I don’t remember hearing Peter’s bass drum tuned that high, and I would have thought Peter’s fills would be more intricate, less meat-and-potatoes than I heard.
Irene Schweizer-Han Bennink, “Verflixt” (Welcome Back, Intakt, 2015) (Schweizer, piano; Bennink, drums)
The spirit and the energy spoke to me. It was constant sound, without any real breaths, which is cool. But in this free context, I can’t hear phrases the way I’m accustomed to hearing them, which would help me to figure out who the drummer is. I loved the piano as well. They have a marriage. I’m assuming this style is what these people who do. Every time I have to do something in that vein I feel like I’m not quite there. I haven’t checked enough of it out to feel like I can put my vocabulary inside it where it makes sense.