Terri Lyne Carrington: The Long Road

R.J. DeLuke By

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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] Sir 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
About Terri Lyne Carrington
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