CELEBRATING
50 YEARS

Social Science Becomes Social Art for Terri Lyne Carrington’s New Band

The drummer's new band is all about protest—and surprise

Terri Lyne Carrington & Social Science
Terri Lyne Carrington & Social Science (photo: Delphine Diallo)

When Trump won the 2016 election (in the Electoral College at least), Carrington felt it required a response more specific than instrumental music could supply. She got together with Parks in Harlem and started playing through some scraps of music. Parks had an electric-piano motif that resembled church bells before morphing into a tritone figure that echoed a siren. Carrington immediately thought of the events that begin with a police stop and end with a church funeral.

On the finished track, “Bells (Ring Loudly),” Debo Ray sings the words that Carrington wrote: “You took my love away from me. I want to know, how did it feel to watch him tremble and bleed? Tell me, what gives you the right to kill so senselessly? When you’re alone, do you ever think of him, or pray for his peace?” Her vocal has the feel of a slow hymn, a sensibility reinforced by Carrington’s processional drumming, Parks’ chiming chords, Stevens’ pealing guitars, Derrick Hodge’s moaning bass, Kassa Overall’s turntable scratching, and actor Malcolm-Jamal Warner’s somber rap breaks.

“At the time I had recently seen the Philando Castile shooting on the Internet,” Carrington remembers, “so I knew this song would be a statement from the perspective of the victim’s loved ones attending an unnecessary funeral due to police violence. I ended up writing all the singing words on the album. Each rapper wrote his or her words, because that’s part of their culture.”

Six of the 11 tracks on the album’s first disc feature hip-hop MCs. They aren’t the biggest names in rap; instead they were chosen for their command of pitch and rhythm, so they could truly collaborate with the jazz musicians behind them. For example, Kassa Overall, who contributes both rapping and DJing, is also a drummer and has toured with Theo Croker’s band, so he was comfortable with jazz settings. Kokayi proved he could rap in different time signatures, so Carrington asked him to work on a song about indigenous peoples, “Purple Mountains,” composed by Stevens.

“On this new project,” Carrington says, “all these different elements are woven together in a way that everyone gets to play in a very similar way to how they would play if it were just an instrumental project. In fact, one of the rappers, Kokayi, is so rhythmic that he gives me as much to play off of as an instrumentalist could. None of us feel as if we’re not playing, just because it’s a vocal number. We’re just as engaged. The goal is to create music, and when we do that, we’re not thinking about our solos; we’re thinking about how the song connects to humanity.”

“‘Purple Mountains’ has this wild melody with wide intervals,” Stevens says, “and Kokayi sang it in a full chest voice that reminded me of Andre 2000 on my favorite Outkast albums. On another piece, Terri sent me some Q-Tip tracks, and I immediately pulled out my iPhone and played a phrase on a flattop guitar. That recording is still on the track ‘If Not Now.’”

That song deals with the frustratingly slow pace of change, as does “Waiting Game,” sung once by Take 6’s Mark Kibble and then again by Debo Ray. Carrington deliberately set out to address a variety of subjects on Waiting Game; the album includes songs about mass incarceration (“Trapped in the American Dream”), homophobia (“Pray the Gay Away”), and misogyny (“The Anthem”). As an antidote to these troubling pictures of contemporary culture, Carrington added the album’s only standard: Joni Mitchell’s “Love.”

Geoffrey Himes

Geoffrey Himes has written about jazz and other genres of music on a regular basis for the Washington Post since 1977 and has also written for JazzTimes, Paste, Rolling Stone, New York Times, Smithsonian Magazine, National Public Radio, and others. His book on Bruce Springsteen, Born in the U.S.A., was published by Continuum Books in 2005 and he’s currently working on a major book for the Country Music Hall of Fame. He has been honored for Music Feature Writing by the Deems Taylor/ASCAP Awards (2003, 2005, 2014 and 2015), the New Orleans Press Awards, the Abell Foundation Awards and the Music Journalism Awards.