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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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.