Drummer Terri Lyne Carrington started playing seriously in the Boston area when she was only ten years old. Her chops and imagination found her working with peers such as the singer Cassandra Wilson (on the subtly subversive standards recording Blue Skies from 1988), saxophonists Greg Osby and Gary Thomas, and pianists Michele Rosewoman and Danilo Perez, but also with towering elders Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Mulgrew Miller, and Rufus Reid. Carrington’s mentors included the legendary drummers Tony Williams and, particularly, Jack DeJohnette.
From the start, Carrington worked across styles and formats—acoustic and electric, straight-ahead and smooth, with eclectic downtown bands and as the hip drummer on Arsenio Hall’s 1980s TV show in Los Angeles. Her output as a leader may have confounded critics by being only occasional and without obvious focus, but her playing always caused ears to stand on end—she made every band great.
In the last few years, Carrington has seemed to emerge as a critical figure in this music. That she was the first woman to win the Best Jazz Instrumental Album Grammy (in 2013 for Money Jungle: Provocative in Blue) tells us much less about her than her founding of the Berklee College of Music’s Institute of Jazz and Gender Justice in 2018. In 2019, Carrington released Waiting Game with her band Social Science, and she was a critical collaborator on Diatom Ribbons, a recording by pianist Kris Davis. The two recordings are very different, but both are powered by diversity in musical idiom and personnel. And both are driven by Carrington’s combination of rhythmic drive and orchestral color. They are two of 2019’s handful of great recordings in creative music.
Waiting Game has two halves, each rich and deep, varied and hard to stop listening to. Each is very different. Together, they tell us much of what the last decade in jazz was about.
One half of the recording is made up of songs largely featuring vocalists—all addressing the politics of the new century: mass imprisonment; equality across gender, race, and sexual identity; and economic equity. This hour-plus program is based around Carrington’s collaboration with pianist Aaron Parks and guitarist Matthew Stevens (co-producers), as well as bassist saxophonist Morgan Guerin, and vocalist Debo Ray—in addition to a range of special guests. The music is not necessarily “jazz” in the traditional sense. Hip-hop, soul, contemporary popular music with a conscience, call it whatever you like. But it is animated not just by political issues but also by the spirit of progressive collaboration that jazz and hip-hop have in common.
For example, “Trapped in the American Dream” not only features a rap by Kassa Overall that address mass incarceration but also a tapestry of instrumental motifs. A throbbing repetition on the piano from Aaron Parks is a counterpoint to the voice that sometimes interlocks with it. But a Matthew Stevens guitar line also soars above, doubled by wordless vocals, all building up into a graceful saxophone solo by Guerin. Carrington grooves beneath it all, yes, but also tends to be disruptively exciting rather than comfortable, and she explodes the track into a rocking out-chorus section.
Layers like these are critical to most of the vocal tracks. “No Justice (For Political Prisoners)” uses a series of spoken-word samples from radio news and interviews that pile up both emotionally and sonically over a deliberate pattern of chord changes around which Parks improvises on piano. Ultimately, a spoken monologue from Meshell Ndegeocello takes over, and that is fused with a larger melody for tenor sax. This kind of throbbing groove is done a bit more soulfully on “Bells (Ring Loudly)”, with spoken-word from Malcolm-Jamal Warner and Ray’s soul vocal. Parks uses both piano and Fender Rhodes to wash it all in gorgeous harmonies and pulsing repetition. Warner’s rhymes address the pointless deaths of black people in the U.S. with sonorous focus—it is a tough message put across with smooth joy. Equally soulful is the Ray feature “Love”, which provides lots of room for Parks’s Rhodes and Stevens’s guitar to play over a sophisticated harmonic structure.
The music veers toward some older-school progressive rock on a paired sequence of two songs. “Pray the Gay Away” is the most uptempo piece here, a syncopated groove pattern that gets a wild, contrapuntal instrumental melody section featuring the horns of Raydar Ellis and Nicholas Payton as well as chorus of vocals that have the off-beat joy of a Frank Zappa tune. “Purple Mountains” is also uptempo, with the band playing a fusion melody that sets up a tough-toned and puckish rap from Kokayi that addresses justice for Native Americans. Layered voices here interlock with guitar lines in a phantasm of hip melody and electric color.
There is also gospel music here. “Waiting Game” gets two versions. Mark Kibble, one of the terrific singers from Take Six, negotiates this tale of making a sacrifice for freedom in overdubbed voices against only a bare metronome of rhythm. Ray sings it above the piano, guitar, and bass, soaring. The spirit surges through as well as a sense that justice and beauty ought to be served.
The band proves itself on all these tunes, but it sounds most effervescent and proud on “The Anthem”, which begins with a strong feminist rap but truly blossoms as a series of improvisations for piano, sax, and guitar over Carrington’s muscular march patterns on snare and toms. “Over and Sons” is purely instrumental, with Stevens playing the head on acoustic guitar in harmony with Parks’s piano. The band sounds a bit like the acoustic version of Chick Corea’s Return to Forever, with the composition full of surprising twists and turns. Both Stevens and Parks are powerfully lyrical in their solos.
But it is in the second half of Waiting Game that the band really shines—and unusually so. “Dreams and Desperate Measures” adds Esperanza Spalding to the quartet on acoustic bass, and Carrington sets them loose on long-form free improvisation. Almost an hour of playing without preconception or a net. But two things about this are special.
First, this band may be improvising without set themes, but it has no trouble centering itself and finding listenable melodies and appealing forms. This is “free improvisation” with a set of tonal rules that keep things exceptionally consonant. It is a surprising rarity in jazz, where “free” playing usually means dissonance. But imagine, perhaps, Keith Jarrett’s Koln Concert improvised by a quartet rather than a solo pianist. “Part 3”, for example, moves into a section in which Parks plays with lyrical impressionism that edges into the classical.
The second distinctive element is set up by the first. After the suite was recorded, Carrington had Edmar Colon write and record sections of gentle orchestral accompaniment for the free playing. Therefore, what we hear achieves a magical quality, as woodwinds and strings frequently creep into the quartet’s imagination and play melodic elements or chordal cushions that flesh out the spontaneous ideas of the band.
This combination is most powerful at the beginning of “Part 4”, where Colon inserts a woodwind opening that leads into the groove begun by Spalding on acoustic bass. Carrington adds an ominous groove pattern that brings to mind a famous section of Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew. As Stevens improvises on electric guitar, Colon sprinkles in eerie patches of strings or creeping low harmonies for clarinets. Parks lays in Rhodes with a wah-wah’s effect. At some point, the live track and the written orchestrations are so blended as to be completely one.
For more of the suite, the territory may be less certain than at the end, but all 45 minutes repay repeated listenings. Colon’s work is nuanced enough that you are likely to imagine that it was all written ahead of time, particularly in “Part I”, where the band allows Spalding to set the tone with a line that keeps coming back to a common tonality. All the members of the quartet are conscious of leaving plenty of space in the music, and Colon is wise not to fill it all up. Parks and Stevens hold back from coming into the foreground too often with “solos”. So the band is always led from the center by a joint idea rather than the loudest voice.
Notably, even though the leader of Waiting Game is a drummer, Terri Lyne Carrington rarely insists on reminding us that she is in charge. On “Dreams and Desperate Measures”, she is a consummate “jazz” drummer, playing and pulsing throughout as both a time-keeper and a colorist. She steers the band, perhaps, or nudges it to its own discovery. When she is shoveling coal on the fire during the vocal/groove tunes, she is not an overpowering drummer, but a musician dug into her band’s common purpose. She is powerful at the same time that she is cooperative.
Waiting Game achieves a rare act of balance and diversity. Explorations of melody born of freedom and hip-hop politics. Gospel singing and Zappa-tinged rock melody. Propulsive groove and fragmented syncopation. Her band is electric and acoustic, and it uses phrasing from jazz, soul, and global forms too. Her band is wise to a sense of cooperation too, with voices of all genders and races bringing the full force of their individuality and bending those forces to a sense of community.
The recording, as a whole, seems less like the “best of 2019” than like a summation of the decade—ten years in which jazz has had to come to terms with and resolve so many of its old battles. The division between commercial forms of the music and classic forms has largely disappeared—all the vanguard musicians are using forms or rhythms or sounds from hip-hop or soul or rock, and so is Waiting Game. Jazz excluded women ruthlessly for nearly a century, and Carrington is making that crumble too. Waiting Game doesn’t respect a division between composition and improvisation or a firm notion of “jazz” and “classical” being meaningful terms of separation. It is a record that feels new and references the past, both.
In Waiting Game Terri Lyne Carrington has made a record that probably could only have been made at the end of this interesting decade. If we are wondering what will come next, she seems like a musician with some interesting answers.