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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)

The second disc was everything the first wasn’t: entirely instrumental and improvised. It was meant to be a trio performance, but bassist Esperanza Spalding was staying at Carrington’s house in Massachusetts and couldn’t leave because of a snowstorm, so she came to the studio for the session. Carrington’s only direction was for the musicians to create an hour-long, continuous improvisation. They made it to 42 minutes, and she decided that was good enough. She titled it “Dreams and Desperate Measures.”

“Because I knew we were shooting for an hour,” Stevens recalls, “I tried to pace myself and let things unfold in that space over time. What separates the Joes from the pros in improvisation is remembering what you’ve already played, to let that go and move on.”

“When some people improvise,” Carrington adds, “I don’t hear a melody or a song. What I like to hear are people who think compositionally when they improvise. Aaron and Matt played certain chord sequences that you could take home and develop into songs. They were composing on the spot, and that’s hard to do. On the other hand, if something was going on too long, if we’d exhausted an idea, I’d change things up to force us to move on to another idea. Esperanza and I play together so naturally that if one of us changes, the other is right on it.”

“If you’re thinking compositionally when you improvise,” Parks says, “you’re thinking about the whole. If not, you’re thinking only about yourself.”

“To get people to think like that is really something,” Carrington concludes. “When I improvise with students, I usually hear things they’ve been practicing. I don’t hear them letting go in the moment.”

For most of the piece, there’s an open-ended sense of exploration, reflected in the relaxed tempo, tangential melodic spurs, and constant shifting of tonality. Spalding bows and plucks her bass; Parks jumps from acoustic to electric keyboards and back again; and Stevens puts aside his electric guitar for a spell to try a resonator guitar (also known as a dobro) for the first time in his life. After 37 minutes of what Carrington calls “all these shifting sands,” she introduces a firmer pulse, immediately reinforced by Spalding, that gives the final five minutes a forceful momentum.


“When you’re with musicians you really trust,” Stevens says, “you’re willing to take a risk and swing for the fences. It’s rare to be in a situation like this, where you can be vulnerable. If I fuck up and play something stupid, it’s not going to affect anyone’s opinion of me.”

“In this music,” Carrington points out, “women aren’t always in a position where they feel the trust to just be themselves, where they can establish eye contact with a male musician without it being misinterpreted as a come-on, where they don’t feel they have to fit into a male aesthetic of fast, hard, and loud. It takes a lot of strength to practice restraint—I think you can hear that on this long piece. I can play a whole lot more drums than that, but with this band, I don’t have to do that just to prove myself.”

When she listened back to the improvisation, she sensed it still needed something more. It reminded her of “Paprika Plains,” the 16-minute song on Joni Mitchell’s Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter album. That tune was extended by the singer’s piano improvisations, and Mitchell applied some retroactive structure to it by having jazz arranger Michael Gibbs add an orchestral overlay.


Carrington asked Edmar Colón, who has arranged for Spalding and Wayne Shorter, to do the same on “Dreams and Desperate Measures.” Using winds and strings with admirable restraint, Colón creates the illusion that the improvising quartet and the chamber septet had been working together from the start. It’s an astonishing effect, this meshing of the planned and unplanned into a unified whole.

And listening to the album’s two discs one after the other, the meticulously assembled songs followed by the anything-goes four-way improv, creates a vision of an even larger whole: a jazz that can accommodate both political raps and spontaneous composition on a dobro, both repeating riffs and riffs that will never be played the same way again.

“It’s an exciting time in jazz right now,” declares Carrington, “because the genre boundaries are bending. The people in this music who weren’t creating the music have gotten out of the way, because they’re no longer making money. As a result, independent artists can be more independent. We can make an album as unusual as this one.”


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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.