Telling stories with instrumental music – an interview with Terri Lyne Carrington

Picture via

It’s the first day of the JazzTM festival. It’s only 1PM, the show won’t start for another seven hours, so the square is almost empty. A handful of people have gathered around the stage to see what’s going on. Terri Lyne Carrington – the evening’s main event – is doing a sound-check, calmly directing traffic. Guest vocalist Lizz Wright pauses from time to time to take a picture of the lovely Cathedral that overlooks the square.

I arrived a bit early but I’m glad I did because I get to witness the open, natural vibe characteristic for sound-checks. I remember Tom Waits jokingly stating once that whenever he goes to the philharmonic it is just to see the band tune up their instruments. He claimed he leaves once they’re finished, because for him, the most interesting and lively part of the show was over. When Terri’s band is done and my buddies from JazzyBIT take the stage, I go to meet the two-time Grammy award-winning drummer and composer at the café which is being used as a backstage area. She seems tired but she’s very friendly. Her calm, contemplative demeanor makes for an enjoyable interview.

Terri, you’re back concerting in Europe. At one point you took a twenty-year hiatus from recording in the U.S and produced your albums in Europe. Can you tell me about the difference between the jazz scene here as opposed to the U.S?  

Back then, it felt like the U.S jazz scene was a little more conservative. Europe was a little more open musically. More open to experimental music. Now it’s changed and the U.S scene is a lot more experimental and merging different genres, which I like a lot. I was always trying to merge jazz with groove stuff and more electric jazz but not really fusion, not “smooth” jazz. It seemed like you could try things over here a lot easier. Nowadays it seems like the U.S has some cool stuff going on. I think that the Internet has made the world a lot smaller, so everybody’s checking out everybody else. Everything is a lot more global.

You live in Boston and teach at Berklee. Is Boston a good city for jazz?

Well I grew up in Boston. The scene was really great in the ‘70s when I grew up. So many jazz people coming to town, to clubs. It was kind of like a little NY back then. Now it feels a lot more college-oriented, which is ok. There are some really talented students from Berklee and going to conservatory and other places. I think it has a young energy, which is good. And experimental, in the sense of young people who could be into indie rock and jazz, or hip-hop and jazz and fusing those things. People still come up from NY. Especially with a place like Berklee that now has, I think, seven venues where you can always hear some great music. People outside of Berklee come to the school on any given week. So that helps with the scene. Especially since I’m at Berklee, I can see what’s happening there. A lot of that is open to the public. So, it’s a good scene. But it’s not like New York. There’s nothing like New York.

I talked to a young vocalist named Jazzmeia Horn recently. She complained about the lack of mentoring from the older generation, the established musicians. She said – I quote – “the elders have disconnected themselves”. She mentioned Roy Hargrove coming out to sessions and how she would like to see more of that happening. How do you feel about that? I know that you yourself have mentored young musicians.

Let’s see, that’s a hard one. I was mentored very much by veterans. It’s great that somebody like Roy goes and really plays a lot in clubs. People have just  gotten busy and it’s harder. I mean, I do it because I teach. So I have students. The ones that you find that are very special, you know, you invite them places and hang out with them more. So it becomes like mentoring for sure. I know there’s people that do it. You have to be persistent. The students or the young people have to really want to learn. I think what happens is, over time, this stuff has been at their fingertips. They take it for granted. There’s a certain sense of entitlement that has surfaced over the years. So, that place of humility and eagerness to learn and be around the masters, I find, is not there anymore as much as it used to be. So when somebody like Roy Haynes comes to Boston, every drummer at Berklee should be there trying to check him out, you know what I mean? And it’s just not like that. So it kind of makes the established players less likely to want to mentor, because it seems like the respect is not the same as it used to be with the young musicians. I think that for anybody who really shows that they want it, people will step up. Because we want the music to continue to flourish.

You have now won your second Grammy award, this time for Money Jungle: Provocative in Blue. How does this impact your career? Does it affect your creative process at all? Do you feel pressured by it when working on new music?

I don’t think it affects the creative process. I mean, this next record I’m working on, Mosaic Part 2, it’s going to lean a little more towards RNB, especially with the vocalists: Oleta Adams, Valerie Simpson, Lizz Wright, Lalah Hathaway, Paula Cole, Jaguar Wright, Chanté Moore, people like that. So jazz heads may not like it as much. But it’s the kind of record I want to do. Having won two jazz Grammys, it’s still going to be a jazz record, but with a soulful essence to it.

Your latest projects, Mosaic and Money Jungle are vastly different recordings. How did you approach them creatively? Is it more difficult to compose as a drummer?

For me it is, yeah. It takes me a long time. Probably three times as long as somebody else, or more. Like, the Money Jungle song “A Little Max”…it took me forever. It took a long time to get it. I don’t know, I just follow my heart, follow my muse, follow whatever’s driving me at the time. I’m not trying to do this or trying to do that or trying to take advantage of anything. Because I won two Grammys, I’m not going to say ‘Oh, I have to come back with another jazz record, straight ahead’ to try to get another Grammy. I mean, this record I’m about to do, I’m not sure where it would even fall in the Grammy category. It probably doesn’t have a home. So I can’t really think about that stuff. I just want to keep making quality music. I want to keep working.

Any up-and-coming young drummers I should be keeping an eye out for?

I don’t know, I don’t hear all the up-and-coming ones. I hear some people with some great potential. There’s a drummer who came through my high-school program at Berklee named Adrian Cota. He’s great. But you have to wait and see what happens. Justin Faulkner was in my high-school program, he plays with Branford Marsalis. He’s great. So you have to sort of see how people develop. Antoine Roney’s son now, if you haven’t heard him you should go on the internet. He’s about ten. He’s going to be amazing. He plays a lot like Tony Williams right now, it’s amazing. It’s actually really crazy.

Can you describe your creative process? What inspires you? Do you find inspiration in other art forms besides music, or jazz specifically?  

I don’t really listen to a lot of jazz. I find inspiration in daily life but not necessarily in other art forms. I think most of my inspiration comes from either music or just…life, you know. It depends. If I’m writing a lyric, it definitely comes from life. It’s storytelling. So the idea is to try be able to tell stories with instrumental music too. And it’s hard. It’s easy to tell stories with words. Without the words it’s hard but you still want to tell a story, you know?

If you could travel back in time to when you were seven years old and had your first contact with music, what advice would you give yourself?

Wow, that’s interesting. I don’t know, maybe to practice more. To take my solo career more seriously. I took a long hiatus in my solo career. I feel like I’m making up for lost time now. So, I would have maybe not done that. I would have built a catalog of records earlier. Learn other instruments more. Maybe play the piano better or maybe guitar or bass or something. Now that I’m so much more interested in producing, I would have told myself to learn more engineering and other things in production. Now that I’m older and working so much it’s hard to go back and take classes. When I was in school I could have studied more of that stuff.

by Andrei Cherascu

Myself with Terri Lyne Carrington

1 comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: