On a December afternoon in 2017, I gathered eight prominent musicians around a dining-room table in Harlem to discuss the idea of creating jazz in Donald Trump’s America. (An edited version of that discussion appeared in this magazine’s Summer 2018 issue.) “I don’t have a lot to say about Donald Trump,” drummer Terri Lyne Carrington told us when the conversation turned her way. On the subject of living and working as an artist in Trump’s America, however, Carrington had plenty to say. “I’m kind of guilty of living a bit in the bubble and then one day waking up mad as hell,” she began. “But then one day you come out of your bubble because you spend so much time practicing and working on music and you realize that, a long time ago, only privileged people could study and work in the arts. I’m fascinated by how we all talk about the things that affect us, and how we, as people and as privileged artists, voice concerns and make change happen.”
Carrington spoke pointedly about racism and sexism that day. “Dealing with racism has been part of my whole life,” she said. “But as a woman in the jazz field, I pushed away that part of my identity. Racism was always the first conversation, always the priority. I’m not able to prioritize that more so than sexism anymore.”
Through the years I’ve learned that Carrington, both on and off the bandstand, turns ideas into action. Six months after delivering the comments above, she helped initiate WeHaveVoice, a collective of musicians fighting gender bias and patriarchy in the music community and working toward “a culture of equity.” And in October 2018, Berklee College of Music announced that Carrington — who had attended Berklee on a full scholarship decades ago and was the first woman to win a Grammy Award for the Best Jazz Instrumental Album — had accepted an offer to become the founding artistic director of its new Institute of Jazz and Gender Justice.
At that Harlem home in 2017, Carrington had told us, “I started this new musical project called Social Science. All the themes are related to something that I’m concerned about or other band members are concerned about. Stay tuned.” Cut to a warm September evening in 2019. In the third-floor studio of a nondescript building on Manhattan’s West Side, Carrington’s record label, Motéma, had organized a pre-release preview of Waiting Game
, the two-disc debut of Carrington’s Social Science project. The audience — mostly press, music-business insiders and fellow musicians — sat on couches and armchairs. Carrington sat at her drum kit, surrounded by a quintet, at the front of the room. The mood felt somewhere between that of a house concert and of a nascent political underground meeting.
“This album took two years to make,” Carrington said. “We took our time for practical reasons, but also to make sure that we communicated these ideas properly.” The process began, she said, through conversations with her two main collaborators on the project, pianist Aaron Parks and guitarist Matthew Stevens. “We’re taking on the issues that bother us.”
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Matthew Stevens: "[Teri] wanted us to bring in material, and all she really told us was, ‘I want the songs to talk about this particular moment in time, and I want to frame our issues in ways we can feel good about. … Musically, all we adhered to was a level of performance and production. Lyrically, all she thought about was truth.” Photo: Delphine Diallo.[/caption]That evening, Carrington played some of the new songs with Morgan Guerin alternately playing electric bass and tenor saxophone, and vocalist Debo Ray either singing or speaking in chant-like tones. (On the album, these musicians are complemented by an impressive cast of instrumentalists, singers and rappers.) Yet even stripped down, the music’s power was palpable. “Waiting Game,” which appears in two versions on the album, began as an anthem and ended more like a ballad; Ray’s voice lent stinging force to Carrington’s lyrics — “How much can we endure? … Complacency has its price.” “I wrote that one right after the 2016 election,” Carrington said afterward. “But it’s interesting how relevant the words are right now.”
Some of the songs evolved from existing pieces. “Bells” was composed by Parks and recorded as an instrumental on his last release. On Waiting Game
it’s reimagined as a statement about police brutality against African-Americans, blending Carrington’s lyrics with Malcolm Jamal-Warner’s rapping. “I wrote that one after seeing that horrifying video of Philando Castile getting shot in front of his girlfriend and her 4-year-old daughter. I wanted to tell the story from the perspective of the family members who have to live with this horror and loss.”
Another Parks composition, originally written for trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire’s band, became the riveting protest song that opens the album, “Trapped in the American Dream,” which is about the American prison system, as articulated through music that builds in intensity and the urgent rapping of Kassa Overall. The music of “Purple Mountain,” over which rapper Kokayi addresses the genocide of Native Americans, began as an untitled interlude that guitarist Stevens composed for his own trio. “Like our political lives, our artistic lives are organic,” Stevens said. “Things change over time, especially in terms of your connections with other people. Instrumental music is a manifestation of our thoughts and feelings. So, there, Terri ended up making my own song clearer to me.”
Carrington had worked with both Parks and Stevens in different contexts. “And one day, right after the election,” Parks said, “she just called up and said, ‘It’s time to start a band.” Stevens, who received a similar call, says, “She wanted us to bring in material, and all she really told us was, ‘I want the songs to talk about this particular moment in time, and I want to frame our issues in ways we can feel good about. There was no talk of genre or sound. Musically, all we adhered to was a level of performance and production. Lyrically, all she thought about was truth.”
Throughout her career Carrington has gracefully blended jazz and pop impulses, acoustic and electric elements. Her drumming moves easily from understated to fierce, and always sounds authoritative. She’s just as skilled as a producer. The latter quality is best evidenced by “No Justice (for Political Prisoners),” a slowly unfolding ballad that includes in its richly layered mix spoken-word and sung sections by Meshell Ndegeocello and samples of commentary by, among others, Angela Davis and Mumia Abu-Jamal.
The album’s first disc is, by turns, hard-hitting and tender. The second disc was drawn from one 42-minute improvised session for which Carrington gathered Parks, Stevens and bassist Esperanza Spalding (and to which Edgar Colón later added orchestration). After a full disc of songs about activism and liberation, these improvisations sound fully committed, political in their own way, and, well, free. - Larry Blumenfeld
Featured photo by Delphine Diallo.