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An Interview With Terri Lyne Carrington: 'I Try To Paint As I Play'
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An Interview With Terri Lyne Carrington: 'I Try To Paint As I Play'

Picture of Isabelle Pitman
Updated: 11 December 2015
We catch up with Grammy award winning jazz artist, Terri Lyne Carrington. A talented drummer from a young age, Terri Lyne has achieved astounding success, collaborating with renowned jazz musicians such as Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, and Al Jarreau, composing critically acclaimed records, and teaching at Berklee College of Music. We discover more about Terri Lyne’s influences, her recently released album, and her upcoming shows.
Terri Lyne Carrington | © Tracy Love
Terri Lyne Carrington | © Tracy Love

The first drums you played belonged to your grandfather. How influential were your father and your grandfather to your musical style whilst you were growing up?

Well, my grandfather was a drummer and he passed away before I was born, so he wasn’t a great influence on me, but maybe in the spiritual sense. My father played saxophone and he had a big influence on me because I listened to what he listened to. He listened to a lot of blues music, blues based jazz, and rhythm and blues, which became a strong foundation for me. I think it still comes out in my playing and writing. He knew so many musicians, so when they came to town, lots of people would ask me to sit in and play with them because my dad knew them. It helped me get my foot in the door, so to say.

How far did your mentors such as Jack DeJohnette and Alan Dawson shape your approach at the beginning of your career? And what influence did legendary artists such as Herbie Hancock have later on?

Alan Dawson was my teacher. I think in the beginning I was trying to play like him. And Jack DeJohnette, he became a mentor of mine when I was maybe 18 or 17 and I probably wanted to play like him, too. I tried to for a while but I think eventually my own personality and style came out, with him as a huge influence.

Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter later influenced me even more, perhaps in a more spiritual way. They taught me to look at life and to look philosophically at things in general, which affects your music.

You have had such a versatile career; composing music, playing the drums solo, singing, acting as bandleader, collaborating with many great talents, playing as the house-drummer for late night TV shows, dabbling in funk, soul and R&B, as well as traditional jazz. How would you characterize your style?

Stylistically, I just love playing creatively. I like playing in a quartet setting, or a small group setting, any setting where I get to kind of play shapes and colors and groove. I don’t take a lot of solos in general, it’s not something that really interests me, so I like to try to paint as I play. I think I’ve just tried to grow. It’s a big compliment when young people say, ‘oh I love those J Dilla beats you can play’, and it’s funny to me. But it’s a compliment because I realize I’m listening to people that have been influenced by Chris Dave or people like that. It comes out in my playing sometimes, you know, so that’s beautiful.

Has there been a standout moment in your career for you?

I wouldn’t say there’s been a single standout moment. It takes all these different moments to build a career. There are so many different moments that were standout at the time, until the next one.

But I would have to say winning the Grammy for the Best Jazz Instrumental Album was a standout moment because I was the first woman to win in that category. Winning the Grammy Award for the Best Jazz Vocal Album was also a stand out moment because it was the first Grammy I ever won, and I feel like it was really for my whole career as opposed to just that album. I could go on and on about standout moments, but I’ll just leave it at those two.

You were the first female artist to win the Grammy Award for Best Jazz Instrumental Album in 2013 with Money Jungle: Provocative in Blue. How important do you think this was for female jazz musicians as a whole? Have you ever felt undermined for being a woman in the industry?

I guess it was important for me and it was important for female jazz musicians in general because it said that we could be counted among men. But I think I’d already said that with my playing, hopefully. So the award kind of accents that point.

But no, I don’t think I’ve been undermined for being a woman. I try not to focus on that, as I just spend too much time focusing on making good music. And people like it or they don’t. I’m just going to be as honest artist as I can. The fact that I’m female hopefully doesn’t play a big role. If it makes other people more curious about me, then I think that that’s great, but it’s not what I’m focused on or concerned about.

You have said that your most recent album Mosaic Project: LOVE and SOUL features some of the best female vocalists of our time. How do you go about selecting your bands and your vocalists?

There are a lot of female musicians and vocalists out there, but not many great ones. I just meet people along the way and if their musicianship speaks to me, I try to remember that. So when I undertake a project like the Mosaic Project: LOVE and SOUL, I have a few names I can call upon who I think might sound good on the record.

But it’s the same thing with young guys, it’s not just for women. I have guys in my band too and I have different bands and different configurations. I meet some young hot shot and if it seems like a good fit, then I’ll ask them to come play with me, too. As far as vocalists go, I have some of the greatest singers in the world on my record. I’m so fortunate that I’m still pinching myself. I think the key was creating something for them that felt good, was a little bit of a challenge, and sounded like I’d made an effort to create an arrangement that worked for them.

The Mosaic Project: LOVE and SOUL | Courtesy of Terri Lyne Carrington
The Mosaic Project: LOVE and SOUL | Courtesy of Terri Lyne Carrington

The Mosaic Project albums have been characterized by rearrangements of classics, how important do you think this it is to keep the revival going? And how do you make sure your own style and voice are heard?

Wow, well yeah, I rearrange classic songs a lot because it’s just something I like to do. I hear all this music and I remember these classic melodies, and if they’re great melodies, they’re great melodies. I generally rearrange the time, put a different time signature on them, and reharmonize them, but I keep the melodies the same. And yes, I think my style of writing comes out in my rearrangements. Even if I was to write an original song, it would probably sound a lot like my arrangements, so I think that it’s no detriment to me arranging classic material. This new album I mixed half and half: six arrangements of classics and six original songs.

You’re coming to London to play at Ronnie Scott’s at the end of November, do you enjoy London’s jazz scene? Have you played here before?

Yes, I played Ronnie Scott’s once before with my own band. I played the Barbican several times, not necessarily as a leader but as a MD for a Billie and Me project with Herbie Hancock, and with ACS Trio, which was a co-led band with Esperanza Spalding and myself. So, I’ve played London many times with different people, such as Wayne Shorter, Al Jarreau and David Sanborn.

I love London’s jazz scene. I haven’t really been on it very much but I’ve met many jazz musicians from London and they all sound great, so there’s something in the water over there. I know everyone’s really learning the history of the music but also trying to move it forward just like we’re doing here in the States, so it feels very similar, actually.

How important is it for you to be able to pass on and teach your talents at Berklee College of Music? What advice do you give to your students?

I give a lot of advice. It’s important for me to teach because it keeps me current and in touch with what’s happening now. I give them advice really to do the same thing, to reach back to the past and understand the history, so that it can really inform what’s happening now. It can inform your choices by knowing what came before you. So that’s one thing that I always try to instill in my students. But I also make sure they have all the piece of the pie together: their technique, as well as their ability to listen. When you leave Berklee or any school, your competition is everybody else in the world and that’s a lot. I try to make them as prepared as possible.

What have you got lined up next?

I have a lot of gigs coming up this year for this particular Mosaic configuration but I’m trying to work on some new music and ideas. I’m not going to throw any out there because they’re not totally formulated yet, and I don’t want to also give them away! But I’ll be coming out with something not too far in the future.

Have you had any artistic disappointments in your career?

I auditioned for Sting and didn’t get it, that was a disappointment. But for the most part, I don’t have many disappointments, I just look at them as opportunities to open another door. That’s the way to look at disappointments: it means that something else is there for you.

What are you listening to right now?

Well, I just did a blindfold test for Downbeat, so I was listening to a lot of young drummers, some of my peers, but some younger. There’s a lot of records out right now by drummers, it’s amazing how many, it’s crazy! Kendrick Scott has a record out, Clarence Penn has a great record out, reimagining Thelonious Monk. Antonio Sanchez has a great record out, Three Times Three. I was listening to Jeremiah Williams, Eric Harland, Jeff Watts, Mark Guiliana, who else? Oh man, Jeff Ballard, he has a great record out with Lionel Loueke. Bill Stewart’s on the new John Scofield record. So I’ve been listening to a lot of drummers, just getting excited to want to go practice and try to become a better drummer.

What is the best piece of creative advice you have received?

Wayne Shorter told me a few weeks ago to try not to be someone else. I was subbing for Brian Blade in a Wayne Shorter quartet and I think maybe I was thinking about Brian too much. He said the music really started to happen later in the show when I was just being myself, and that I didn’t need to be anyone else. That was great advice.

Culture Trip Local Favorite 2015

Terri Lyne Carrington is one of the winners of The Culture Trip’s Local Favorite 2015 Award. The Local Favorite badge is awarded to our favorite local towns, restaurants, artists, galleries, and everything in between. We are passionate about showcasing popular local talents on a global scale, so we have cultivated a carefully selected, but growing community.


Interview by Isabelle Pitman