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Artist’s Choice: Terri Lyne Carrington on “Vocalists Who Influenced My Drumming”

Ella, Joni, Mahalia and more

Shirley Horn
Shirley Horn
Mahalia Jackson
Ella Fitzgerald in 1946
Terri Lyne Carrington (photo by Tracy Love)
Terri Lyne Carrington (photo by Tracy Love)

I try to be melodic and lyrical on the drum set, and have always had a strong connection to vocalists. Here are some examples of great singers who have inspired me or informed my playing.

Shirley Horn

“Here’s to Life”
Here’s to Life (Verve, 1992)

Shirley’s vocal on this song is about tone and patience. For me, tone is the most important element on any instrument. As for patience, it is quite difficult to exercise that on the drum kit because we are generally responsible for keeping time. What a challenge it is to try to keep time while maintaining fluid, open sonics. Shirley teaches that time can be malleable and elastic.

Joni Mitchell

“Both Sides Now”
Both Sides Now (Reprise, 2000)

Wisdom and interpretation are what this vocal means to me. This version is from a later period in Joni’s life, and you can hear her entire life up to that point in every note. It is highly emotional storytelling at its finest. I have always felt that if I could write a lyric like Joni there would be nothing left for me to accomplish: I would feel the grandest sense of satisfaction; I would have peaked. Trying to interpret a rhythm or phrase on the drums with the inspiration of her wise storytelling is yet another goal to keep my head spinning.

Ella Fitzgerald

“Stompin’ at the Savoy”
At the Opera House (Verve, 1958)

Once when I was a kid, I was hanging out with Ella Fitzgerald after her gig and I told her how I saw her on the Grammys with three other singers. When she started scatting, I said, she “dusted” the others. She replied, “Oh, no, they are real singers. I’m just a rhythm singer.” I never understood that comment until more recently. Listening to her on “Stompin’ at the Savoy,” I find her time impeccable. There is no faltering or wavering in her clarity of note, pitch or rhythm; her articulation is great. Also, her experience singing beside the best horn players helped her ability to sing like them and showed that women can stand and be counted in a very male-dominated genre. She had to be just as respected as one of the “cats.”

Marvin Gaye

“Soon I’ll Be Loving You Again”
I Want You (Tamla, 1976)

On “Soon I’ll Be Loving You,” Marvin employs a sweetly seductive vocal with an undercurrent of aggression; I try to play drums in a similar way. With overdubbing the voice can sound like an orchestra, so if you take out the rest of the music here, all the vocals would make a great track on their own. I often remove the rest of the instruments to see how my drum track stands alone, and listen for orchestration and musicality.

Rufus Featuring Chaka Khan

“Everlasting Love”
Ask Rufus (ABC, 1977)

Terri Lyne Carrington

(Khan, vocals)

“I’m a Fool to Want You”

The Mosaic Project: Love and Soul (Concord, 2015)

I had to pick two songs by Chaka. On “Everlasting Love” she tells the story amazingly, with a gradual, simmering build on all three verses: the first in her lower register, the second still in the lower register-but very different texturally and with alternate melody notes-and the third an octave higher. This vocal is very seductive, and by the time you get to the third verse you really understand the power of restraint. The chorus vamp at the end is tribally repetitive, perfectly driving the point home. This track inspires me to be seductive and utilize restraint on the drum kit while trying to tell a story as well. Then, on my current release she sings the Frank Sinatra/Lady Day classic “I’m a Fool to Want You.” What I took away from her vocal on this is how to end a phrase. She gives you more drama and accent at the end of each phrase, either with a volume swell or slight turn or textural change. Nothing too overt, but it made me realize how important the ends of phrases are-they’re the last thing that lingers in the ear.

Mahalia Jackson

“How I Got Over”
The Essential Mahalia Jackson (Columbia/Legacy, 2004; rec. 1961)

It is my greatest goal to play one stroke on a drum with the intent and power and depth of sound I feel when Mahalia Jackson sings-especially on “How I Got Over.” It has such a direct connection, to everything: oneself, the listener, God, the universe. It is spirit in sound magnified, personified, glorified. Goals are important.

Terri Lyne Carrington is a Grammy-winning drummer, composer and bandleader whose new album is The Mosaic Project: Love and Soul (Concord).

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Originally Published