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Terri Lyne Carrington: Sophisticated Lady

With an all-female lineup, a master drummer makes the album of her life

Terri Lyne Carrington
Tony WIlliams, Terri Lyne Carrington, Roy Haynes
Terri Lyne Carrington

There is more to a mosaic than appears on its surface. An overarching concept is necessary, to be sure, as is the attention to detail that recognizes the complementary facets of otherwise diverse components. That said, an underlying foundation is required, or the finished work will never cohere.

Terri Lyne Carrington—drummer, composer, vocalist, producer, educator—is such a bedrock. The proof can be found on the recently released The Mosaic Project (Concord Jazz), with its all-female cast and program ranging from funky vocals to cutting-edge instrumentals. It could also be heard live over Labor Day weekend at the Detroit and Tanglewood Jazz Festivals, where Carrington served as musical director for the Sing the Truth! assemblage of Angélique Kidjo, Dianne Reeves and Lizz Wright.

Carrington herself found the appropriate metaphor during a conversation a few weeks earlier as she described another recent gig, this one involving a lifelong idol. “I just opened for Prince in L.A.,” she said, “in a band with Esperanza Spalding, Joe Lovano, Jef Lee Johnson and me. I was sort of the glue between worlds.”

Reeves and Geri Allen, two longtime friends and colleagues who participated in both The Mosaic Project and Sing the Truth!, place more emphasis on Carrington’s vision. “She’s the bridge,” Reeves notes. “She’s steeped in the jazz tradition but is also connected to the newer music. I learn from just hearing her talk about how she listens.” Allen calls Carrington “a bridge-builder on the scene. The different generations that Terri involved in Mosaic showed me how many emerging artists there are, instrumentalists and vocalists. Participating was very empowering for me.”

The challenge inherent in the album is clear from its program and cast. Dee Dee Bridegwater, Nona Hendryx, Carmen Lundy, Gretchen Parlato, Reeves, Shea Rose, Cassandra Wilson and Carrington herself take vocal turns, supported by a horn section including Anat Cohen, Ingrid Jensen and Tineke Postma and a rhythm section where Carrington is joined by Spalding and, in various combinations, keyboard players Allen, Patrice Rushen and Helen Sung. The program includes song contributions from Hendryx, Allen, Spalding and Lundy, plus five of Carrington’s own and covers of Irving Berlin, the Beatles, Al Green and Bernice Johnson Reagon. Thanks to the Carrington thread, it all hangs together. “She’s one of the most prepared producers I’ve ever worked with,” Allen emphasizes, “and she took the same approach to Sing the Truth!, finding the right setting for each singer, with the right accompaniment; challenging everyone while also making sure that everyone has a good time.”

“Terri has her own sound,” Reeves says, “but for her, as with all of the great producers, it’s about the sound of the artist. What she did with [Joni Mitchell’s] ‘Both Sides Now’ on the Sing the Truth! tour, giving a different feeling to each chorus as Angélique, Lizz and I were featured in turn, is a great example, and she applied the same approach to every track on Mosaic. She knows how I sound and what I like, and it was all there in the arrangement she sent me for my track, ‘Echo.’ Recording with her is like sitting in an easy chair, and I’ve never seen anyone like her when it comes to mixing and editing. She has all the tools.”

Carrington is quick to point out that The Mosaic Project is not a political statement. “The idea of a ‘female project’ resonated with me for the first time when I started playing with Esperanza, which kind of completed a circle. Bass and drums are so connected, and our work together made me realize how many great female musicians I had played with over the years. People still love to hear women playing with that kind of strength, and I doubt that anyone in a blindfold test would be able to figure out that all of the players are women. Bringing the singers in was important, too, because I love the direct connection that vocal music creates. The album is a great way to document this stage of my career, and while I could have done it with all guys, the same excitement wouldn’t surround it.”

That Carrington and Spalding would connect so effortlessly seems inevitable. Both were hailed as prodigies on instruments not traditionally associated with women, and both matriculated at the Berklee College of Music before teaching there. “That’s part of our kinship,” Carrington concurs. “Esperanza’s like my little sister, and I try to share everything that I went through.”

In an e-mail, Spalding reflects on Carrington’s profound and indelible influence. “Terri doesn’t shy away from any musical challenge or adventure,” she writes. “And she puts her all into all that she does. … I couldn’t even begin to list the things I’ve learned from her. When I think of her energy as a person, her playing, her writing, her knowledge-when I think of any of these things it brings me to a higher relationship with my music.”

But Carrington is also absorbing information and inspiration. “Esperanza’s so smart,” she says, “and we’re 20 years apart, so I learn, too. We both believe that the music has to have ties to the past in order to move forward.”

A command of the tradition is second nature to the Medford, Mass., native, who seemed fated to be a musician from the day she was born in 1965. “Matt Carrington, my grandfather, was a drummer who played with Gene Ammons, Duke Ellington and Fats Waller,” she explains. “He died six months before I was born. But my dad, Sonny, who plays tenor sax, also plays some drums and kept my grandfather’s drum set assembled in our house. I started playing tenor sax at 5, after my dad took me to hear Illinois Jacquet and Rahsaan Roland Kirk; but then, when I was 7, my teeth fell out and I switched to drums. I immediately felt a spiritual connection to my grandfather, and I still play one of his cymbals.”

Father Sonny and mother Judith Carrington had many friends in the music community, and word of the percussion tyro spread quickly. Terri Lyne began sitting in with the masters well before her teens, and quickly built a musical network that continues to expand. “I met her at a festival in Wichita, Kan., in 1976, when she was 10,” Reeves recalls. “Clark Terry, who has always supported young talent, told me he had someone he wanted me to meet, and there was Terri, playing with Clark, Lockjaw Davis, Mundell Lowe and I think it was George Duvivier on bass. I could barely see her over the drums.”

Carrington, who had already begun taking lessons at Berklee, became a scholarship student the following year, after school founder Larry Berk and his wife, Alma, heard the youngster sit in with Oscar Peterson. She also got to play with an array of masters while still a teenager, and cut her first recording, the little-known TLC and Friends, with George Coleman, Kenny Barron and Buster Williams when she was 16. “I had supportive parents,” she reflects, “but I tell my students that if you don’t, you just have to find mentors. And I’ve found that most musicians are extremely supportive of young women musicians, and young musicians generally, if the young musician can play.”

In Allen’s opinion, “Terri had three things going for her. She has an amazing support system in her family, with her mom and dad always there for her. So many musicians loved her, because they saw her as a bright spark for the future. And she was never willing to rest on her status as a prodigy.”

“I never embraced that term,” Carrington emphasizes. “To me, prodigy is about technical prowess. With me, it was always more about time feel, which is inexplicable.”

After graduating from high school a year early, Carrington spent a year and a half at Berklee. But by the age of 18 she had moved to New York and begun touring with Clark Terry. While many prestigious jazz gigs followed, including lengthy collaborations with Reeves, Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock, Carrington also embraced other sounds, from the M-Base Collective—”I was on the outskirts, but close enough to let it shape a little bit of me, especially the odd time signatures”—to Prince. “I remember playing ‘Purple Rain’ for Frank Foster while I was with Clark Terry, after which Frank nicknamed me Princess,” she laughs.

By 1989, when Carrington released Real Life Story for Verve Forecast, she was also singing. The album was a crossover effort featuring musicians like Grover Washington Jr. and Carlos Santana as well as jazz players such as Shorter, Greg Osby and John Scofield. In 2009, Carrington followed the album up with More to Say… (Real Life Story: Next Gen), an even smoother project with a large cast including George Duke, Christian McBride, Kirk Whalum, Danilo Pérez and more.

Real Life Story earned a Grammy nomination, though it wasn’t exactly what her straight-ahead father expected. “My dad didn’t like Real Life Story at first,” Carrington says, “but the great thing about him is that he grows with me. I love him for that, and for giving me the strongest foundation I could ever have—the music of people like Gene Ammons and Jack McDuff.”

For Allen, that foundation is most evident in Carrington’s drumming. “She lights a fire,” the pianist emphasizes, “bringing all of the knowledge from Papa Jo Jones and the other master drummers up to what’s happening in our music today. And not just in our music, because Terri has a worldwide sense of drumming, both in terms of cultural force and chronological development. She’s a virtuoso with a modern approach whose whole perspective is innovative and a great example for any young drummer.”

Carrington’s horizons were expanded further when she decided to relocate to Los Angeles. “I visited L.A. a lot when I started playing with Wayne,” she recalls. “Dianne Reeves, my oldest friend, was living there, and I had also become close with Patrice Rushen, so all three of them influenced the move, which I decided to make in December of 1988. It was while I was back in New York packing up that I got the call to audition for Arsenio Hall’s show. When I was growing up, Diana Ross was my idea of the embodiment of a superstar, and a TV gig was the closest I thought that I’d ever come to that. It was a charge to play for millions of people every night, and to play in so many styles. And while it meant that I would play other gigs so much less, when I did it meant so much more.”

Her tenure on the Hall program lasted only four months, but Carrington remained in California for 15 years. She saw her status as first-call drummer grow, yet her career as a leader entered a strange limbo. “I wanted to do more records, but got a lot of resistance,” she explains. “You quickly become yesterday’s news to the record companies. But I still can’t understand how I could sell 100,000 copies of Real Life Story and not get another deal.”

Stateside major-label indifference ultimately led her to record two CDs for the European ACT label, re-entering the American record industry with More to Say, released on eOne. Carrington co-produced the project, and considers it an essential prelude to her new disc. “That album taught me that, when you put that much energy into something, the universe gives it back,” she explains. “I spent two years on More to Say. But doing it showed me that I could create Mosaic in two months, that I could conserve energy and still make a timeless record.”

The need to conserve energy also followed from Carrington’s growing profile as an educator, and from the responsibilities that followed when she and her partner Tracy had a son, Dorian. “Everything that informs your life informs your music,” she stresses. “Parenting informs you so differently, giving you much less time but making you work harder with the time that you have. And I’m a musician who teaches, not a teacher who plays, so teaching is always challenging. But teaching also keeps you around fresh energy, which is the reason that Art Blakey and Betty Carter always kept young musicians around them. You have to balance being burnt out and being inspired, and teaching definitely keeps you excited.”

Teaching, and her Berklee connection, also allowed Carrington and her family to return to the Boston area, while also inspiring some changes at the school. “Lee Berk [Larry Berk’s son and Berklee’s second president] wanted to give me an honorary degree before he retired in 2003,” she says, “so the school lowered the age from 40 to 38. Then I met with Lee’s successor, Roger Brown, who wanted to get me back. My parents and grandmother were getting older, and I wanted to spend more time with them, so I agreed to come back initially for just one year. After a single semester I saw that I could do it, but there were no faculty positions open. So Roger created a ‘bridge fund’ to allow two musicians to teach while awaiting open positions.”

Carrington has continued to thrive back in Boston, where her knack for multi-tasking has only been enhanced. She is now responsible for both the Berklee Summer Music Festival and the school’s BeanTown Jazz Festival, which takes place each September, and she recently served as musical director for a fundraiser supporting a charter school opened by the Little Black Pearl Art & Design Center on the South Side of Chicago. Her affinity for production has also expanded with the founding of Heber-Carrington Media. “Dianne says that the music business is like the wild, wild West,” Carrington says, “so it’s a great time to get involved on the business side and expand the paradigm. You have to have skills beyond your basic talent or you won’t make it, and all of my activities feed my soul. I just have to remember what drummer Candy Johnson once told me, that your only competition is yourself, and you can only do one gig at a time.”

With luck, more and more of those gigs will involve the music from her new album. “What I’m aware of more than ever is connection, with your instrument, other musicians and the listeners. What I call ‘seductive aggressiveness’ is a balance that all great musicians have, and that makes the female musicians on Mosaic so great. I plan to do the album live in smaller versions, with one or two singers covering all of the material. And I’m not going to use women just to use women. Men can celebrate women, too.” Originally Published