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Terri Lyne Carrington: The Long Road


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"Better Git It in Your Soul," a perspicacious jazz man once communicated in a song title more than half a century ago. Drummer Terri Lyne Carrington wasn't even born yet, but she sure did have it in her soul upon arrival. Long before she was even aware of bassist Charles Mingus, the author of those words, she had "it." It was rhythm and she exuded it and fostered it at a very early age.

She played a show with trumpeter Clark Terry when she was 10. By the time she was 11 she had a Berklee scholarship. Having Jack DeJohnette as a mentor is monstrous, but in order to get to that position, the great drummer had to have seen something special.

For years now, she's been an in-demand drummer playing with all kinds of musicians, including pianist Herbie Hancock and saxophonist Wayne Shorter. In more recent years, she's coming more into her own, developing strong recordings and getting high marks for producing as well; her 2011 Mosaic Project (Concord) won the Grammy for Best Jazz Vocal Album.

Carrington is one of the finest drummers on the scene, full of fire and invention, with the flexibility to fit just about any situation. It appears she was born to do it.

"There are a lot of really strong young players now," she says, looking back to her beginnings. "My father always kids me, 'It's a good thing you came along when you did,' meaning there are so many young players that are great at a young age. But the thing that I say back is, 'If I came along now I would be better.' Better at 10 now than I was at 10 then. Because there's so much more information. Times have changed and people are assimilating things a lot faster. It's the way society's moving. Just the invention of the internet, everything is faster. People learn faster."

She's pursued music her whole life, with formal education and the inevitable lessons acquired from other musicians, many of them masters. She's in an important place where she not only instills something special into other people's bands and other recording projects when she chooses to do so, but stands on her own as a serious artist—not just drummer—who has a lot to say.

"My whole life, I haven't really done anything else [but music] and I have no desire to do anything else," Carrington says. "What's interesting to me is sometimes it takes that kind of lifelong dedication to something. Which most strong musicians have. It takes that lifelong dedication and perseverance to come into your own and for things to come into fruition. It's what I felt like with The Mosaic Project and Money Jungle (Concord, 2013). Finally, all the things that I've done are coming together. I'm able to make sense of it all in some way."

Terri Lyne Carrington—Money Jungle Provocative in BlueThe latter reference is her album released this year, Money Jungle: Provocative in Blue. It's a superlative record that revisits the renowned album made 50 years ago, Money Jungle (United Artists, 1963), when the beyond-category pianist Duke Ellington joined Mingus and drummer Max Roach, younger men who were playing bop and beyond, for a trio recording laced with blues and inherent swing. She chose, for her project, the indomitable Christian McBride on bass and the artistic and adroit Gerald Clayton on piano. Other artists appear here and there, but it's essentially a reinterpretation of many of the songs from the 1963 record. Not an imitation. More like inspiration.

Carrington first came upon the Ellington-Mingus-Roach record about 12 years ago in a record bin. She had never heard of it, even though it was among hundreds and hundreds of record her father had in his collection. "It was one that slipped past me," she notes. "Something about it. There was some magic about it that compelled me from the first time I heard it."

Some of the songs struck her as interesting enough to play, and she would incorporate the title track into set lists from time to time. Then, "One day I decided I wanted to cover this record. I don't know why, other than there was something magical and mystical that jumped out of that recording for me. I started hearing arrangements and things that I felt I could do with it." That included the feeling of the blues it exuded.

"To me, the blues thread is a big thread throughout all of that record, except maybe a couple songs. I'm talking about the newer songs. The ones [Ellington] recorded for that date, not 'Caravan' or 'Warm Valley.' I felt like that theme was important. I felt like [Ellington] was speaking to the people. The blues form is always a way to relay messages, traditionally. I won't say grassroots-based, but to me it was a record for the people. Max and Mingus were definitely radical guys. Guys that had no problem talking about what was going on during those times. To me, it was making a statement reflective of the times."

The approach she took to making her record was similar—for today, not a regurgitation. And it's successful. It has fresh sounds, intriguing interpretations. Bluesy and soulful and expertly carried out. Some tunes, like "Very Special," have a similar vibe to the original, though the individuality of the players carries the day. But Ellington's "Backward Country Boy Blues," introduced in 1963 by Mingus' resounding bass before Duke's heavy block chords, is a rumbling blues. On Provocative in Blue, Nir Felder's acoustic guitar and Lizz Wright's exotic voice open it with a backyard country feel before it moves into a contemporary, funky groove, where the voice serenely floats over a gorgeous pocket formed by Clayton, McBride and Carrington. There are also a couple Carrington originals, like the blues and sophisticated funk of "Grass Roots," and one from Clayton's pen.

Interspersed here and there are voice-over snippets of people like Martin Luther King, Bill Clinton and others commenting on the role of money in society—basically how there are still too many have-nots and not much is being done about it. But it is a subtle part of the record. The outstanding music is what it's all about.

Carrington says that kind of money-struggle theme "goes through every time period. It's as relevant now as it was then. It will be as relevant another 50 years from now. I wasn't trying to belabor a point. I think in general the people, that are listening to Money Jungle, are people that feel that way. I didn't want to feel preachy, or preaching to the choir. It's really just a statement of things the way they are and what we all probably know and believe anyway."

Listeners will also believe in what is being put down by this outstanding band. "Christian [McBride] was always the person that popped in my head when I thought about doing it," says the drummer. "To me, he has that sound and delivery that works. He's also a contemporary musician. Interestingly too, he really enjoyed doing the date and the variety of music that is on there. He doesn't like to be in a box, thought about as just one kind of musician. He grew up playing all styles and has demonstrated that over the course of his career."

"Gerald Clayton, to me, is a young pianist that is so steeped in tradition. I don't know who else, young or old, could have played 'Switch Blade' like Gerald, paying tribute to the original and how Duke played it, but putting his own thing in there and quoting some of the lines Duke played. It's really an amazing performance. I don't know anyone who could have done that any better, as well as playing a more contemporary sounding thing. He's very modern and at the same time steeped in tradition."

They all met the goal of keeping it fresh and being themselves. "That's how I hear things," says Carrington. "I don't see the real point in trying to do something like it was done [in the past], To me, it's not a challenge, it's the way I naturally do it. The challenge is taking something that Duke Ellington wrote, putting your spin on it and feeling OK about it."

As a follow-up to a Grammy, it's a strong statement from a musician entering her prime years, as a player, composer and producer. (She's currently producing a new recording for singer Dianne Reeves). She is proud of the Grammy, but her eyes and ears are pointed forward. "Over the course of my career it was nice to feel recognized in some way," she says of the award. "It helped me to feel validated, in a sense, as far as feeling like, 'OK. My ideas are good.' And just trying to make good art. It's encouraging."

Born in Medford, Mass., she played the drums for about two years before starting to take lessons at about age 9. Around the house, her father was playing blues and jazz like Jimmy Smith and Jack McDuff organ trios, saxophonist Gene Ammons, and James Brown, Aretha Franklin and other rhythm and blues singers. When she got the Berklee scholarship at age 11, she continued going to regular school, but once a week would go to classes at Berklee until she graduated high school.

But it wasn't all study. Her father, a saxophonist whose credits included playing with pianist Fats Waller, knew some of the musicians on the scene over the years, among them Clark Terry. The trumpeter heard the young girl play drums and invited her to play with him at an event in Kansas. "It was the Wichita Jazz Festival. He brought me and Dianne Reeves. That's where I met her. He brought us there as special guests with his band. He had a band with Louie Bellson [drums], George Duvivier [bass], Jimmy Rowles [piano], Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis [saxophone] and Al Cohn [saxophone]. We were special guests. It was great. That was really helpful to my career."

After high school, Carrington went off to Berklee full time, then moved to New York City and started right in playing with Terry, who also appears briefly on the new Money Jungle recording, doing his Mumbles act, wordless vocalizing, on "Fleurette Africain." Adds Carrington, "He was the highlight for me [on the album]. It kind of brought my career full circle. My first professional gig was with Clark when I was 10. My first touring was with Clark when I was 18. For him to be on this CD was very special for me."

It was with the encouragement DeJohnette that she moved to New York in 1983. In the ensuing years, she worked with the likes of saxophonist James Moody and trumpeter Lester Bowie, among others. "He was my mentor," she says of the iconic drummer. "I started going to visit with him around 17. I would drive four hours from Boston and hang out there. When I moved to New York, I would still continue to go visit with him and his family. It was like a home away from home. He didn't really ever sit down and show me something on the drums. But he'd hear me play and give me pointers. He opened me up musically to a lot of things. A lot of times, we would play together. He would play piano and I would play drums. People would come by the house and we'd jam sometimes."

In the Big Apple, "I was playing around town. I started playing with the New York Jazz Quartet, [pianist] Roland Hanna, [saxophonist] Frank Wess. [Saxophonist] Pharoah Sanders sometimes. A little bit with Lester Bowie. And my peers, a little bit older than me, like [saxophonist] Greg Osby, [pianist] Geri Allen, people like that. [Saxophonists] Steve Coleman and Gary Thomas, [trombonist] Robin Eubanks, [singer] Cassandra Wilson. We were all cutting our teeth in New York at the same time. Just gigging," she recalls. "The big change happened when I auditioned for Wayne Shorter. I got that job when I was 21. That was a pretty major change for me. It was great. It changed my life ... he's still a pioneer."

Herbie Hancock is another major influence. She first met him by going back stage after seeing him in concert. "Then sometime around 18 or 19, somebody called me and told me to call him. He said, '[trumpeter] Eddie Henderson told me you're bad.' We were talking a little bit. Nothing ever really came out of that other than he was aware of me and it was nice. Then, when I was with Wayne, I met him again and played with him a few times on odd gigs with Wayne," says Carrington.

The drummer played a fundraiser with Hancock, Shorter and [bassist] Stanley Clarke. Someone who heard the band booked them for a date in St. Lucia, "that felt like the biggest gig of my life," she said with a laugh. Around then, her Real Life Story album (Polygram, 1989) had come out and would be Grammy-nominated. She had also done a short stint with the house band on television's Arsenio Hall Show.

"So things were very good at the time," she says. "From there, I just started playing with Herbie.

Just prior to her job with Hancock, she was playing with saxophonist Stan Getz. A summer tour was planned, but Getz died. Carrington had turned down Natalie Cole's Unforgettable tour for that summer to play with the sax legend, and now found herself without work for the summer months. "Then Herbie asked if I could recommend any drummers for the summer. He was doing his hip-hop stuff. The budget wasn't very big at all. He's like, 'I have to take 12 people out and I'm still getting paid as if it was a trio.' He said, 'I don't want to ask you to do it, but if you know any young people, somebody that wants to do it that isn't expensive.' I was like, 'Man, I'm not working.'"

She did the gig anticipating it could grow into something more, which it did. After that, "We did Gershwin's World (Verve, 1998), which was a Grammy winner. Things were different. That started my longer association with him. I've played with him off and on for the better part of 10 years."

Of her tenure on Arsenio, she says, "It was great. It gave me national exposure. I was only on the show for four months, but most people think it was a lot longer. It was really a good thing for me. The thing is, you have to really like all styles. I played with Whitney Houston and Little Richard. People like that. New Kids on the Block; they were hot at the time. I enjoyed all that. When I did The Vibe TV show, a Quincy Jones production, I played with James Brown, Rick James, a lot of people I grew up listening to and loving their music. For me, all of those experiences were great. I don't look at them the same as playing with Herbie or Wayne, of course. It's just different. Stylistically different. I enjoy it. I love those styles too. I'm not looking at it as the most creative experience in the world."

She says, "I'm 47 years young, so I'm looking to have more experiences. It's interesting for me. It's great to play with someone like Esperanza [Spalding], the next generation. I'm on her last two CDs. Those are important ventures for me as well. I like to stay current and I like to encourage younger artists and be a part of it. It helps me to grow."

And she is still growing as a drummer, influenced by everything around her. "Jack [DeJohnette] was definitely my biggest influence," she says of her approach to her instrument. "All the masters. All of them. But the one I keep returning to now, especially now that I'm teaching, is Roy Haynes. To me, he really changed things. Without Roy, there would be no Tony Williams and Jack DeJohnette, who are people that also changed things. He's still out there. He's just a modern, modern, modern thinker. I still want to think like Roy Haynes. When I try to analyze what he's doing, he's really encompassed everything in his style. Analyzing him is a great teaching tool."

Carrington is at a point where she's always being called upon for her drumming abilities. But also, she has done production and songwriting collaborations with artists such as singers Gino Vannelli, Peabo Bryson, Reeves and others, including the song commissioned by the Atlanta Committee for the 1996 Olympic Games, "Always Reach for Your Dreams," that featured Bryson. This past April 19, she was musical director for a benefit concert at the Howard Theater in Washington, D.C., honoring Chaka Khan, Dionne Warwick and Valerie Simpson.

"The way I do it is kind of crazy," she said about wearing the hat of producer. "I'm in that world with Dianne [Reeves] right now. It's a different kind of record for her. I love it. It's like directing. Creating a vision that you share with the artist, and making all the right calls to try to make it happen. I think drummers make good producers. At least it seems like they have. Narada Michael Walden, Phil Collins, Lenny White. Different drummers have produced a lot of great music over the years. I think we have a natural instinct for it, somehow. You're controlling the arc and the shape of a band and a song. A song and a band are only as good as the drummer, in most cases. We're used to being in the driver's seat."

Carrington is in the driver's seat for a career that involves improvised music and segues into other styles that she enjoys. As for jazz, she says it's a music "that is ever evolving. I like all the different elements people are blending with it. When I go back and listen to [trumpeter] Miles Davis' classic quintet, to me, that style of music is never going to get better than that. I don't feel the need to do it, or listen to some of the young people trying to do that. I appreciate it when people do pay homage to the past like that. But I think it's beautiful how musicians have grown and evolved and developed with the influences of other styles. There's good and bad in everything. You just choose what you like. There's a lot more to choose from. I'm not stuck on any particular way it should or shouldn't be."

A life in music is a road that's always changing. It's a road that is not without its quick turns, accidents and maybe a bridge that might be temporarily impassable. Carrington continues to meet the challenges.

"It's funny, because I'm a teacher," she reflects. "My students, in their 20s, don't quite understand. I see it in some of them. But I want to look at them and say, 'It's a long road. You have at least another 20 years before you may even know who you are. Everybody's not like that, but a lot of us are."

Selected Discography

Terri Lyne Carrington, Money Jungle: Provocative in Blue (Concord Music Group, 2013)

Esperanza Spalding, Radio Music Society (Heads Up International, 2012)

Terri Lyne Carrington, The Mosaic Project (Concord Music Group, 2011)

Terri Lyne Carrington, More to Say (Real Life Story: Next Gen) (Koch Records, 2009)

Grace Kelly, Mood Changes (PAZZ Productions, 2009)

George Duke, In A Mellow Tone (Bizarre Planet Entertainment, 2006)

John Patitucci, Sketchbook (GRP, 2006)

Tineke Postma, For the Rhythm (215 Record, 2005)

Terri Lyne Carrington, Structure (ACT Music, 2004)

Terri Lyne Carrington, Jazz is a Spirit (ACT Music, 2004)

Wayne Shorter, Alegria (Verve, 2003)

Cassandra Wilson, Glamoured (Blue Note, 2003)

Greg Osby, Invisible Hand (Blue Note, 2000)

Michele Rosewoman, Quintessence (Enja, 2000)

Herbie Hancock, Gershwin's World (Verve, 1998)

Danilo Perez, Panamonk (GRP, 1996)

Dianne Reeves, Quiet After the Storm, (Blue Note, 1995)

James Moody, Moody's Party (Telarc, 1995)

Robin Eubanks, Different Perspectives (Polygram 1991)

John Scofield, Flat Out (Gramavision, 1989)

Terri Lyne Carrington, Real Life Story (Polygram, 1989)

Wayne Shorter, Joy Ryder (Columbia, 1988)

Photo Credit

All Photos: Courtesy of Terri Lyne Carrington

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