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While they’re often overlooked, Terri Lyne Carrington keeps the focus on women who’ve contributed to the jazz songbook. New STANDARDS Vol. 1 (Candid) is Terri Lyne Carrington’s latest representation of an abiding predisposition to frame her individualism in an environment of collective expression and gender equity. To be specific, the 57-year-old drummer/educator/producer’s 10th leader album comprises 11 works by 11 female composers culled from New Standards: 101 Lead Sheets by Women Composers (Berklee Press). That pathbreaking text contains lead sheets of 101 songs by 101 women, spanning 1922 (“Perdido Street Blues” by Lil Hardin Armstrong) to recent works by up-and-comers who’ve attended Berklee School of Music’s Institute of Jazz and Gender Justice, which Carrington founded and leads.
The project gestated in August 2018, when Carrington asked the student band she’d assembled to perform at the Institute’s opening event to play songs written by women. “All they could find in the Real Book was ‘Willow Weep for Me’ by Ann Ronell,” Carrington said via Zoom from her Boston-area home a few hours before her first class of the 2022-23 academic year. “So immediately, our first initiative was to create a collection of songs by women. Some songs might feel like bop or medium swing. There are Afro-Caribbean, Afro-Cuban, Brazilian and South American songs. There’s groove-oriented fusion and more avant-garde or contemporary compositions. There are songs by vocalists that can be translated to an instrumental song. There’s blues that people just starting to play can read, and really complex compositions that will challenge any musician on any level.”
To interpret the repertoire, Carrington convened an upper-echelon core quintet of Berklee-related associates — pianist Kris Davis and bassist Linda May Han Oh, both on the IJGJ faculty; trumpeter Nicholas Payton, who’s done residencies, master clinics and classes at Berklee since the late 1990s; and guitarist Matthew Stevens, a Berklee alum and bandmate in Carrington’s Social Science project, who joined the faculty this year. Then she applied her considerable production mojo to recruit apropos guest instrumentalists and singers, while creating arrangements that reflected her tonal personality and aesthetic perspective. In the process, Carrington assigned herself — as the band’s drummer — a gauntlet of different challenges in the realms of groove and timbre that highlight her immense orchestrative skills and whirling, virtuosic chops, which she deploys with understatement and nuance, suggesting pathways while never overshadowing the flow.
Yet again, Carrington has demonstrated the truth of an observation by her dear friend, the late pianist Geri Allen, which Allen expressed when I last wrote about Carrington for JAZZIZ in 2011. “Terri is a connector,” said Allen, who described the Carrington effect as analogous to “home — a family thing where nobody’s sitting with their arms folded, waiting for you to prove you deserve to be here. She knows how to pull together the right combination of people and energies and give them a sense of freedom within the context of her projects.”
As an example of the sensibility that underpins Carrington’s matchmaking skills, consider her pairing of Somi and Melanie Charles on Abbey Lincoln’s “Throw It Away,” perhaps the closest thing on new STANDARDS to a standard as such. “Abbey’s songs work well with more than one vocalist,” says Carrington, who has produced various Lincoln tributes over the years. “Melanie and Somi have very different sounds, but they’re also friends. I like the textures of their voices and I thought the contrasting interpretations would work.”
More circumstantial and less strategic was Carrington’s pairing of Dianne Reeves with Eliane Elias’ “Moments,” a 1980s composition. “Towards the end of the process, Dianne, who is one of my closest friends, said, ‘You didn’t ask me to be on the record; I want to sing on something.’ I was out of songs at this point. I looked at ‘Moments,’ which was instrumental, and then I emailed Eliane and asked if she had a lyric. She said yes.”
Another production was to designate rising star Michael Mayo — the lone male singer on new STANDARDS — to interpret Gretchen Parlato’s “Circling,” which debuted in 2012. “We’re used to hearing a woman’s voice on it, and I thought it would be great to contrast that with Michael’s voice, which I love,” Carrington says. “I worked quite a bit on trying to do it differently than Gretchen did it. That one probably has more of my stamp on it among the arrangements.”
What is the Terri Lyne Carrington stamp?
There’s no stamp. I mean, it’s the one that has my personality most on the arrangement. It’s organic. Basically how I arrange songs, I hear the melody, and then start to hear things in my head around that melody — alternative harmony, alternative grooves or bass lines, melodic parts. Probably the first thing that came to mind for “Circling” is the introduction, the bass line. After I decided that the bass should play it, it went from there.
I talked to Esperanza Spalding for the piece I wrote about you for JAZZIZ in 2011, around The Mosaic Project, and she said that you play drums orchestratively, “like a piano.” During the process you describe, are you also hearing the drum part and the drum orchestration? Or does that come later?
I program drum stuff, but not in a way that’s dictating how I’m going to play. Sometimes it’s simple because I just need to hear something. Sometimes, I’ll hear something specific, and I’ll actually program. But if I use a loop, for instance, that’s just to hear time and a little groove as I’m writing the arrangement. I definitely try my best to orchestrate on the drums. But I’m also hearing in my head all this other music happening around me. So the drums are actually the least element that I think about, even while playing.
Is that because you’re so familiar with the drums? Is it sort of second nature?
Well, maybe a little second nature. But I think, honestly, it’s because I don’t love the instrument that much. Meaning, I don’t love it so much that I have to inflict it on everything. You can hear when somebody just LOVES playing the drums — they’ve practiced all these things; they worked this stuff out. For me, I love the way the drums function in a group setting. But the drums themselves, as an entity, I don’t love any more than any other instrument. That’s just what I happen to play.
There’s a lot of drums and rhythm in the arrangement for Shamie Royston’s “Uplifted Heart,” one of several pieces with explicit African diaspora influence.
It’s a beautiful song. I came up with a groove and thought: Let’s make a nice, long open ostinato that’s fun to play on that’s also tribal, in a sense — repetitive. I was trying to involve a couple of my students. Julian Miltenberger is a fine drummer, who’s played some with Yosvany Terry and is now in the Global Jazz Institute’s master’s program. I asked him for ideas. What he contributed is adding a bar or half bar here and there to create more pauses in the melody, which I like to do as well. I looked at that opening ostinato as an interlude. I was playing around with different approaches and digging these two grooves; I decided to use both, one at the beginning and one at the end of the song.
Val Jeanty’s electronics are very subtle.
It is subtle, but it adds a texture. On the Social Science record [2019’s Waiting Game] and some other records, I used electronics more like a texture — like a percussionist.
You described Dianne Reeves’ performance on “Moments,” which you chose for her. Did you arrange it with her voice in mind?
No. I had already arranged it instrumentally; I changed it from Eliane’s version. I arranged a guitar arpeggio and made it an intro into the song’s melody at the beginning. There’s no piano on it. I like the arrangement a lot. I think it works either instrumentally or with voice. When you mess with somebody else’s song, you hope you’re doing it justice — and at some point, you have to commit to what you feel about it. Deep down, of course, we all want the composer to like our arrangement of their piece.
Well, one thing that composers like Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock and Joe Henderson have to accept when their songs transition to “standard” status is that they cede possession of the song to some degree.
Exactly. The word “standard” for me has a double meaning. We’re trying to set new standards, in general, in the culture. I’m just offering a collection of alternatives to what has been considered the jazz standard canon. It’s yet to be determined which, if any, of these songs will be standards in the end. What is a standard? A standard is when a group and community of people repeatedly play this music, record it or play it live at gigs. I definitely curated the album with that in mind. There’s some hard ones that I don’t think will be repetitively played, but some can be. Even in the Real Book, there’s obscure songs. And who curated that? Obviously people were playing certain songs. But at some point, somebody put this collection together.
Everybody wants to play their own music these days. I think there’s something to be said for playing other people’s music.
The first time I listened to “Continental Cliff” by Patricia Zarate Perez, I thought I heard multiple percussion, but it was just you on drum set.
It’s based on an Indian rhythm; it’s an earworm both melodically and rhythmically. I kept hearing “one” in a different place — I looked at the music to see where she intended it to be ... but I was hearing it someplace else. Songs like that intrigue me because they feel circular. You’re not hearing something in a box. You’re hearing possibilities, even within the rhythm or the melody. Depending on what was needed for the book and the stage I was at in putting it together, I might have asked some people for several songs to choose from. Some were real direct and sent me one song because they knew that’s what they wanted in the book. Patricia sent that one song, so I was glad that I loved it!
How did you match Samara Joy to your lyric for “Two Hearts (Lawns)” by Carla Bley?
I heard the gospel and R&B inflection in her voice, and felt there’s more there than just singing older songs. Of course, why wouldn’t there be? She’s heard a lot of music over the years. The song is a little different than what I’d heard her sing, and I felt she’d bring it alive. It’s definitely a standout for me on the record, if I do say so myself. I tried to write that lyric from a youth perspective all the way to a later-in-life perspective. It’s a love song, but it’s the beginning of the connection early on, and then it goes through to a long relationship. With any of the vocal songs, I demo them first, so I get to live inside the song a bit, and that helps me decide who I think would sing it great. I’m actually singing it, not just doing it from my head, so I embody it myself to a degree, and that definitely helps me get to the right place.
Nicholas Payton and Matt Stevens solo together on Marta Sanchez’s “Unchanged,” as does Linda May Han Oh.
Sometimes it doesn’t work when people play together, but they’re sensitive musicians and feed off each other. I like the song. Marta represents more of a contemporary composer. This song, “Rounds” by Marilyn Crispell, and also “Continental Cliff,” help provide the diversity I was trying to represent on the album. They point to something very different from what has been considered standards.
“Ima” opens with the lovely vignette by Julian Lage. Anat Cohen recorded it on Luminosa (2015).
Julian was in one of my ensembles at Berklee when he was a student; he played on a record of mine back then that never got released. I was happy to reunite with him. “Ima” means mother in Hebrew, and it feels like something you would write for a parent. It wraps around you. It’s endearing. It’s comforting. I related to the feeling it invokes.
I don’t have, like, real intellectual reasons why I do a lot of things. Don’t get me wrong, though; the concept of the album — of the whole project — is intellectual. The project culminates in a six-week exhibit called Shifting the Narrative. People who haven’t quite thought why gender equity is important, or didn’t notice that they don’t have women musicians or composers in their collection, won’t be able to leave this exhibit unchanged — no pun on Marta’s tune. Again, we’re challenging the idea of what is standard. The standard we’ve been held up to has been based on the output of male performers, composers, writers. That bar has been set by men without real consideration for the aesthetic value of women who contribute to the art form. Women are 51 percent of the population. The majority has not contributed, has not had access, has not necessarily been supported and allowed into this arena. It’s not like this is the football team. It’s not really based on physicality. It’s not based on anything other than what was set in stone in some way in the very beginning. It’s terribly incomplete. So how is it the standard when it’s terribly incomplete?
So my question is: What is jazz without patriarchy? How would the music have developed differently? And now that we’re thinking about that, a lot of people are thinking about what is the potential of the sound? My entire career I’ve been trying to sound like all of these amazing male artists I’ve admired from the beginning. My foundation has been set for many years. Now there are all these new possibilities in my brain about what I may have sounded like. But is it even possible for me to bring other things into it? I once read a review, I can’t remember what record it was for, or maybe it was a gig. They said, “She played with more fire when she was 18.” That really struck me. First I was like, “Oh, shit, I’m losing it.” But then on the other hand, I was 40 at the time. I thought, “Why do I need to play with the same fire?”
Didn’t you tell me that your father once noted that you don’t put on a show or something like that?
Yeah. But he wasn’t saying that because I’m a woman. He said it because that’s what he saw great drummers do. But that was never in my DNA. I’ve never been extroverted on the kit in that way. It’s never been my thing to want to impress somebody by anything visual.
And yet you were impressing people as a young person. As you’ve told me, you got built up a lot when you were very young, and then you were pulled down a little by various aspects of the marketplace, and you adapted and developed.
I’ve persevered. Definitely persistent. But mostly resilient. That’s a word I use all the time. I definitely feel resilient, but I also feel that no one should have to be so resilient. When I look at the struggles of marginalized groups, resilience is always the thing that comes up, because in order to survive, you have to be resilient. So you can grow to resent that, as well.
What appealed to you about “Rounds” by Marilyn Crispell?
I like the rhythmically free approach. I like the structure of the melody — the intervals, the question and answer. It feels complete. There aren’t really bar lines or chord changes, and you don’t need them. It represents another way of looking at composition.
Has that approach appealed to you more in recent years?
I’ll read back to you a remark on the Blindfold Test we did for Downbeat in 2015. I played you a duo track by Han Bennink, the Dutch drummer, and Irene Schweizer, the Swiss pianist, and you said something to the effect that you thought it was amazing drumming, but you hadn’t quite been able to integrate that approach into your conception and consciousness.
I’ve grown a lot since then. I felt that the only way I could really dive deeper into my quest for freedom as a human being was to do it musically, too. So I sought out Kris Davis, whose name I’d seen in an issue of Downbeat that had something like 20 young musicians to look out for. The first thing I did was listen to the people I didn’t know on that list. I was blown away. I emailed Kris cold from her website and said, “Hey, I’m coming to New York; any chance you want to get together and talk? I’d love to play with you sometime.” That was the beginning.
You thought highly enough of her that she assumed Geri Allen’s chair in your trio.
They’re obviously very different players. A lot of people are surprised at Kris’ playing on this record, because some of it seems more inside than they’re used to hearing her do. And some of the people in her community are surprised she’s hired me, because they feel I’m commercial or whatever. I’m mainstream! They’re protective of their community that maybe doesn’t get as much support. For me, first of all, music is music. Nobody has a monopoly on a community of music or a style of music; the beauty of music is we can all try different things, do different things and apply ourselves as we want. So although I may not have as much experience as some of the musicians who are playing in that style, it’s my music, too. I can’t say to them, “don’t play a jazz standard” or “don’t play a funk groove” or “don’t play ... .” I would never even think to ask why someone is using them for something that I don’t see them doing very often. For the most part, anything that’s called jazz and improvised music stems from the same source if we go back far enough. Of course, classical composition has come into play and has influenced it.
Anyway, my point is that I sought out Kris because I knew I wanted to find out more about myself and my musicality in less structured situations. Not that there’s no structure. Kris writes some very difficult music. It’s not easy to read, and then you’re constantly thinking how to play the piece as written, but also have freedom. It’s an interesting challenge. But it’s actually where I feel the most comfortable these days. I’m much happier playing more open than I am playing with restraints.
You play with that spirit of openness on the new Candid album that you produced of Wayne Shorter’s 2017 Detroit Jazz Festival concert with you, Esperanza Spalding and Leo Genovese.
I was 21 when I started playing with Wayne. It was a life-altering experience in many ways. He is so generous with sharing his wisdom. I owe him a lot, because not only was it a huge milestone in my career, but my understanding of music and life expanded immensely. In Detroit, we rehearsed by briefly running the heads in a hotel conference room, with no real sound system, just something to amplify Esperanza’s voice — and we talked through the tunes we were going to do.
When you’re around Wayne, you end up talking more than anything else — and we hang onto his every word. … I mean, I’m always nervous playing with Wayne. He does bring out the best in me, but if I don’t feel like I’m doing my best, I feel like I’ve let him and myself down. But when we started playing, I realized the vibe and the feeling was right.
Leo was the perfect person to play piano because of his musicality and his relationship with Wayne. Geri was supposed to be there — she was really looking forward to it. Esperanza has a great relationship with Wayne, too. Really, at the end of the day, I felt we had prepared our whole lives for this. We all have a lot of love and experience with each other. I remember afterwards, Esperanza and Leo and myself were sitting in the hotel restaurant; we kind of looked at each other with a feeling, like, “We got into some stuff! That was nice, right?” We didn’t want to say it. We were waiting to see. But everybody had that look like this was a special night. I’m very happy that we could pull it off and get it out there. - Ted Panken
Photos by Michael Goldman.