Waiting Game, the debut album from Terri Lyne Carrington’s new trio Social Science, is a most unusual package. The first disc finds the drummer/leader and her two bandmates—pianist Aaron Parks and guitarist Matthew Stevens—joining hip-hop MCs and R&B singers on songs that address various examples of American injustice. The second disc, by contrast, is a continuous 42-minute free improvisation. It’s as if Carrington were trying to unite the two ends of the contemporary jazz spectrum—fusion with contemporary black pop music on the right and unfettered experimentation on the left—in one project.
“We want someone who hears the first record to be totally surprised by the second record—and vice versa,” Carrington declares. “We like R&B and we like avant-garde jazz. My dream gig would be playing drums for the Rolling Stones, but I also love that I got to play with Steve Coleman early in my career.”
“It was an act of protest to pair those two things,” Stevens continues. “Jazz musicians often feel as if they’ve been pegged as doing one thing well and told they should stick to that. That’s something we’re constantly railing against, because we’re interested in different kinds of music.”
“Disc one is all these carefully crafted pieces that talk about all the things standing in the way of freedom,” Parks adds. “Disc two demonstrates freedom and democracy in action.”
The three musicians are hunkered over drinks at a corner table in the dim light at Dutch Fred’s, a bar a block from the Broadway theater district in midtown Manhattan. Wearing a black parka, black-frame glasses and a silver necklace, Carrington leans forward on her elbows to make a point.
“After the 2016 election,” she says, “I was having a lot of conversations with a lot of people about what was happening to our country. Among those people were these two, and the fact that I could have those conversations with two white guys gave me a sense of hope. It’s easy to fall into a divisive frame of mind, but it doesn’t have to be that way. He,” she says, nodding at Stevens, “is from Canada, and he,” nodding at Parks, “is from the West Coast, which is almost like being from Canada. And yet they understand not only this music but also its social context.”
Parks and Stevens had played together with Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah and had each toured with Carrington at different times. The latter three played a Shanghai gig together on Carrington’s 2014 Money Jungle tour. As musicians often do, they had dreamed of collaborating on a project, and the drummer pushed to make it a reality in the wake of Trump’s election. Why not? They were on the same page musically and politically, and they actually liked each other.
“It started with music,” recalls Parks, 36, wearing a brown stocking cap and round glasses. “It evolved because of the conversations we were having. It’s easy to go into denial or to be consumed by white guilt, but neither of those responses is very useful. Better to ask what you can do about it.”
“As the oldest person on this record,” says the 54-year-old Carrington, “I feel I have to be open to new players and new ideas to stay relevant. You have to put yourself into an environment you’re not used to.”
“People too often rope off what they’re doing within their own generation,” agrees Stevens, 37, wearing a blue hoodie and a trim brown beard. “It’s hard to think of many bands with as wide an age span as this one. Morgan Guerin, who played reeds and bass, was only 21 when we did the sessions. This is a band that’s diverse not only in race and gender but also in generations.”
Carrington has earned her reputation for harnessing music to political and moral themes—particularly better treatment of the marginalized. Her two influential Mosaic Project albums in 2011 and 2015 assembled an all-female roster of vocalists and instrumentalists to tackle mostly female-written songs. The 2013 Money Jungle album dealt with social-justice topics by adding vocals and funk flavors to eight Duke Ellington compositions and two by Carrington herself.
Those three albums were so compelling—and Carrington’s interviews in support of them so pointed—that she became a leading voice on the treatment of women and people of color, both within the jazz community and in the wider world. Berklee College of Music hired her to found and direct its Institute of Jazz and Gender Justice in 2018. Carrington also serves on the boards of community organizations in Detroit and Chicago.
At the same time, her music was so impressive that she received a $275,000 Artist Award from the Doris Duke Foundation in 2019. It may surprise some people that a drummer, usually relegated to the back of the stage and the back of the magazine, could become such a high-profile leader—in both the musical and political sense. But it doesn’t surprise Carrington, who draws inspiration from such role models as Max Roach and Jack DeJohnette.
“Drummers are natural leaders,” she claims. “Maybe it’s the responsibility we have for organizing the music and making it feel good. A band only sounds as good as its drummer, because we control the dynamics and direct the musical traffic by setting up the direction of each section in a song. We create the bed for the soloist to lie in.”
The Mosaic and Money Jungle albums were a response to the dilemma of the “woke” musician in any genre. Instrumental music can imply feelings about freedom and injustice, but often the listener needs words to really grasp the message. But once you add words, the music’s focus shifts to the singer, perhaps cramping or overshadowing the players. How can the instrumentalist find maximum creative expression within a vocal number? That’s the challenge that Carrington, Parks, and Stevens wrestle with on Waiting Game.
“Instrumental music allows more room for imagination,” Carrington muses, “while vocal music allows for a more direct storytelling experience; it hits the heart of the matter and can strike the listener’s emotional chords more quickly. That combination of poetry and melody impacts the listener in two different artistic receptacles at once. By contrast, highly creative instrumental music requires patience and sometimes more knowledge or experience to fully get it. As we can see by ticket sales, album sales, and general popularity, less of that is going on. I try to stay out of the binary and incorporate both in my projects.”
“Because we are jazz musicians,” Parks adds, “we hold the music to a high standard; that’s what we bring to the table. We can say yes to hip-hop, yes to electronica, yes to rock and R&B, yes to classical music, because we’re confident in who we are as jazz musicians.”