Terri Lyne Carrington: In Conversation

What was your most frustrating experience on the road?
Not being home more. I was once on a plane with Herbie Hancock, and we had to turn around because we lost one of the two engines. That was more scary than frustrating.

How does teaching compare to touring and recording?
They’re two completely different outlets. Teaching is mentoring and taking care of the future, at least part of it. Playing has more personal rewards as you are applauded and praised by many. With teaching, you affect one person and that is a different reward. People mentored me, so I have to pass on what I know. It’s more than important — it’s a responsibility.

Is the vocabulary and art form of jazz still being developed?
Yes. The vocabulary foundation has been established, but younger players are finding new and different colors and textures to add to it, especially by infusing more of the music of their generation with jazz vocabulary.

What aren’t players doing these days?
They’re not checking out enough of the old stuff, just for knowledge, reference, and foundation. Not that they need to play it, but they need to know it.

What do your students find toughest to learn or acquire?
Jazz vocabulary and feel. They haven’t listened to the thousands or hundreds of thousands of recordings that will give you everything you need to know.

Your composition side may not have gotten the recognition it deserves. What’s next for you as a composer?
I was just asked by email yesterday to do a film. Stay tuned on that. I just completed the CD More To Say … Real Life Story/Next Gen. Real Life Story was my first album on Polygram, so it’s a follow-up to that. It’s a groove jazz CD, featuring Nancy Wilson, George Duke, Patrice Rushen, Kirk Whalum, Everette Harp, Christian McBride, Dwight Sills, Robert Irving III, Anthony Wilson, Greg Phillinganes, Jimmy Haslip, Danilo Perez, and some more folks. I am very proud of this, as it represents more of a blend of the sound I am traditionally known for playing and the groove music that I listen to. It’s not as complex harmonically and melodically as my jazz stuff, but I’m proud of it and I put the same amount of energy and intention into it.

What’s your theory of drum set sizes?
I play 20" kicks the most. The 20" fits both a jazz sound and a contemporary sound. I just tune them differently and put different heads on them. I always play 10", 12", and 14" toms. I may add an 8" for non-jazz stuff, or occasionally I’ll add a 16", but I’ll rarely play it. They’re standard-size toms all around, but I’m getting back into deeper toms for non-jazz stuff. My snares are always 14" x 5" or 14" x 5.5". I try to keep my cymbal setup the same for any style gig, so that ends up being my signature sound. I developed the High Definition ride with Zildjian, which works great for all styles, and I play a Constantinople ride as well.

If you could play any other instrument, what would it be?
Something out front so I can be a melodic soloist. Probably guitar, but it’s so foreign to me. Maybe saxophone, if I realized early on that I would never sound good on guitar.

If you could play another style, what would it be?
I love old-school rock and roll: Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, and Southern rock like the Allman Brothers. I don’t get calls for meat-and-potato rock and roll, but when I was on TV shows like the Arsenio Hall Show or Vibe, when any of those types of artists came on, we got to play with them and I was really into it. I like straight-up-and-down grooves.

Who’s your biggest musical influence right now?
That’s impossible to answer. I listen to a lot of hip-hop, neo-soul. That music I love because of the songs and tracks, not necessarily the artist. I also love the singer-songwriter style, like Joni Mitchell and Jonatha Brooke’s older stuff.

Does Boston have an influence on how you play?
Not really. Of course Tony and Roy are from here, as well as one of my teachers, the great Alan Dawson. Interestingly enough, I played more like Alan when studying with him, but then got way more into Roy and Tony a little later and let their influences seep in. They are still influencing me for that style of jazz, but since I play a lot of different styles, it’s hard to really get stuck on any one sound.

Women have been in jazz from the earliest days — what do you bring that a man might not?
The feminine aesthetic in daily life influences our artistry. Sometimes maybe I’m a little too sensitive, and I guess that comes out in my drumming, if that’s possible. But mostly I don’t hear a difference. There is a lot of male energy in me too, which comes out as well.

What was the hardest lesson you’ve learned as a musician?
That you sometimes need to figure out the “dazzle effect” to draw people in and then hit them with the heavier artistic side. But I didn’t say that! I would never admit that! I actually can’t stand musicians that do more of the “dazzle” and less of the rest because of limitations, because they are covering up their lack of ability — so it’s a balancing act.

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