Terri Lyne Carrington: In Conversation

Probably no drummer besides Buddy Rich turned pro as young as Terri Lyne Carrington. Today she is a full-time Berklee professor living in Boston, but her career began in 1972 when she was just seven years old. By the ripe age of 11 she was awarded a scholarship to the Berklee School Of Music. She was mentored by Jack DeJohnette and the legendary Alan Dawson, and played with some of jazz’s biggest names. In addition to being a world-class on-call drummer (most recently for Herbie Hancock), Carrington was the house drummer for the 1990s TV talk programs The Arsenio Hall Show and Vibe. Her first solo CD, 1989’s Real Life Story, was nominated for a Grammy. Her recent releases include 2002’s Jazz Is A Spirit, and this year, a rerelease of 2002’s Purple: Celebrating Jimi Hendrix, a killer session by French guitarist Nguyên Lê that features Carrington on drums and vocals on five tracks. Her newest solo project, More To Say … Real Life Story/Next Gen, will be released in January 2008 and features her compositions with Nancy Wilson, George Duke, Patrice Rushen, Kirk Whalum, Everette Harp, Christian McBride, and others.

Carrington says that her musical style is “a hodgepodge of traditional jazz and groove music,” and admits, “I don’t listen to much jazz anymore except sometimes new recordings that my students tell me to check out. I mainly listen to mainstream R&B and hip-hop. I love to listen to soul, as it touches me deeply. Jazz I love, of course, but I’m listening to it and working at the same time, analyzing it. Soul music hits the soul. I just feel it.”

When did you first pick up a drum stick?
At age seven. My grandfather played with folks like [saxophonist] Chu Berry and [pianist] Fats Waller in the Boston area. My dad plays mainly sax, and some drums too, so he started me because his father passed away six months before I was born. He died of a heart attack after ending a set with [saxophonist] Gene Ammons.

What did you think? How did it feel?
My father would put on records and I would play along with them. I would always go out with him when somebody came to town to hear music, so I was always sitting in with Clark Terry, Rashaan Roland Kirk. That’s what I remember. I had great times with Max [Roach], hanging out with him and learning from him and so many other masters, like Papa Joe [Jones], Art Blakey, Roy Haynes, and non-drummers like Clark [Terry], Dizzy [Gillespie], and so many more. I was truly blessed to have had these experiences.

When did you know you were a drummer?
I never thought about it any other way. This was always what I was going to do.

Do you play another instrument?
I play just enough piano to write songs. I really don’t play because I can’t play in time. I took piano lessons for harmonic and melodic information. I’d love to get an acoustic bass and take some lessons, though.

What was your first jazz record?
My dad had thousands of records. I heard so much jazz even while in the womb. I remember that he played a lot of [organist] Jack McDuff, [organist] James Brown, and [gospel bandleader] Ben Branch. I also heard blues-oriented stuff to get me into the feel of jazz, the deep-pocket stuff, the swing.

Guiltiest musical pleasure?
I have no guilt in regard to my listening. I play sensitively to whatever style I am playing, but I never really feel that anything is inappropriate, even if it’s loud and bombastic. That’s the nature of the instrument, as long as it’s not the norm and played like that all the time. I do believe in fully utilizing the entire range of the drum set. But if I had to look at it that way [about being “guilty pleasures”], I’d say some hardcore hip-hop that doesn’t have the best lyrics [laughs]. But I like the hooks, and even though I may not agree with what they’re saying, I like the way they’re putting it together — basically because it’s tribal, and I like the tribal essence of hard grooves.

Tony or Elvin?
Both. When I was young I would have said Elvin. Then as I got into adulthood I may have said Tony. But the reality is I love Jack DeJohnette, who incorporates both sounds in his playing. Elvin and Roy were his two guys and Tony is an extension of Roy to me — in his own way, of course.

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