There are several aspects of Soul Train that three-time Grammy-winning drummer and producer Terri Lyne Carrington remembers quite fondly. Watching as a child, the Medford, MA native was impressed by the Soul Train Line, the new dances, the styles, and all the artists she saw. Carrington does, however, have standouts. “One cool memory was seeing Patrice Rushen on Soul Train, and then later meeting her and becoming friends,” she shared. “It’s one thing when you watch people on TV, then it’s surreal when you meet them and become friends with them.”
Carrington is celebrating 40 years in the music industry, a high-profile professional career that began when she was just 10 years old. In those 4 decades, she attended Berklee College of Music under full scholarship and became the Zildjian Chair in Jazz Performance for Berklee’s Global Jazz Institute and Artistic Director of the Berklee Beantown Jazz Festival. She’s also been house drummer for the original Arsenio Hall Show and Quincy Jones’ Vibe, and produced and written for Diane Reeves, Marilyn Scott, and Peabo Bryson, among others. Carrington’s performed, toured, and recorded with a multitude of icons including Herbie Hancock, Joni Mitchell, Stevie Wonder, Dizzy Gillespie, Joe Sample, Al Jarreau, Carlos Santana, and George Duke, and released 7 all-star-packed solo albums. Her newest release, 2015’s The Mosaic Project: Love & Soul, is a concept album featuring women vocalists singing loved-themed songs written or originated by male artists.
In this very special SoulTrain.com interview, Terri Lyne Carrington discusses her career, favorite instrument, and working with Natalie Cole.
SoulTrain.com: With this being your 40th anniversary in the recording industry, we could easily go on for hours about what you’ve seen and heard, the people you’ve met, and the things you’ve done. Let’s narrow it down to this: In those 40 years, what did you bring to jazz that wasn’t there before?
Terri Lyne Carrington: I think a lot of awareness for women playing male-dominated instruments. I’m pretty proud of that. I felt, for sure, I was one of the pioneers. Of course, there were people who came before me that did it; but as far as playing with all the major artists I have, I think that was something that I contributed. And also just being a cross-genre artist. I’ve been able to play with Stevie Wonder and Babyface and successful artists like that, but I’ve also been able to play with founding fathers of jazz. There’re not too many people who’ve been able to do that. I’ve brought awareness to how you can really excel in these different worlds.
SoulTrain.com: You also excelled as a student. What did you learn about sound while attending Berklee that you didn’t learn organically?
Terri Lyne Carrington: Going to school helps you label what it is you’re doing. You can speak more intelligently about it. Someone can show you why something makes sense, which helps point you further down the road. It helps you grow the more you know. Before, I’d write a song by ear. I maybe didn’t know all the names of the chords. When I went to school I could put labels to those things. I still try to follow my ear to this day. To me, that’s the best way to write a piece of music. But with school, having that theoretical knowledge, it’s important because you have to be able to relate it to other people.
SoulTrain.com: You started professionally at age 10, a child prodigy raved about in major publications such as Ebony, People Magazine, and Modern Drummer. The same is happening with 12-year-old pianist Joey Alexander. What’s your impression of him?
Terri Lynn Carrington: He’s amazing! It just blows me away that anybody at that age sounds like that. With the real child prodigies it’s not even about their age. When you can close your eyes, listen to them, and feel like it’s just good, then that’s what it’s all about. And he’s amazing. When you close your eyes you don’t feel like you’re listening to a kid.
SoulTrain.com: Is that what people said when they heard you playing the drums?
Terri Lynn Carrington: Yeah, they did! People have said that! And I definitely matured over the years. They were especially impressed because they hadn’t heard too many women playing the drums. So that added to the whole thing.
SoulTrain.com: In all honesty—and surely many will agree with this, you’re still a prodigy. You’ve proven it again with your concept album The Mosaic Project: Love & Soul. When you started putting it together what came first: The concept of various love themes, or the music?
Terri Lyne Carrington: I think it all came together. Conceptually, I knew I wanted to do love songs. I knew I wanted to acknowledge different male artists—songwriters and singers, some passed and some still living. I wanted to talk about the different ways of loving, the different styles of love. It’s not all romantic love songs. One song, “So Good,” is a tribute to George Duke. He was kind of a mentor of mine. But I did know what I wanted to do, and then I started writing music for it. And there were certain songs I knew I wanted to cover. So it all went hand-in-hand.
SoulTrain.com: “I’m a Fool to Want You” featuring Chaka Khan, “This Too Will Pass” featuring Lalah Hathaway, and “For You to Love” featuring Oleta Adams are but a few of the impressive songs on the album. And all these guest performers have amazing voices. With your knowledge of production, where does the human voice rank among your favorite instruments to use?
Terri Lyne Carrington: It’s definitely one of the most natural instruments you can hear. It’s my favorite instrument, I think. The problem is it’s harder to control. There’re a million people who want to sing and express themselves that way, but it’s hard to be great at it. I sing some myself but it’s not my main instrument. Though I do like to express myself singing, I think I’m a frustrated singer. I’m a frustrated vocalist. When you can sing like Lalah Hathaway, or like Chaka, or like Nancy Wilson, or like Natalie Cole, I think you’ve been really anointed. You’re blessed to be able to touch people with your instrument. I’m more expressive on the drums.
SoulTrain.com: The spoken word Billy Dee Williams performs on the album is also impressive. What’s your impression of his voice from the perspective of both a fan and a producer?
Terri Lyne Carrington: What’s interesting about Billy Dee is he actually asked me if he could be on the record because he likes my two previous albums, The Mosaic Project and Money Jungle. So I told him this record is all females and he said, “Well, what better male could be on there?” I had to agree. I knew I wanted some spoken word, and I thought he’d be perfect. He has such an identifiable voice. He represents the male perspective of romantic love. So I thought it was a great match. His voice is beautiful; it actually sounds better than ever. And he also knows jazz very well. I was so happy to get him on the project.
SoulTrain.com: You also have the late Natalie Cole on the project singing the beautiful Duke Ellington song, “Come Sunday.” When some people hear it it’s going to make them cry, something an emotional form of music like jazz already has the power to do. What was your intention for the song, and what type of significance do you expect it to have now that Natalie has passed on?
Terri Lyne Carrington: The intention was to do something that would make Natalie’s voice sparkle, and to show her jazz abilities in a different light than what we were used to hearing on her records. I feel like we accomplished that. I lucked-up and picked a song that was so strong! And she really loved that song and knew it already, so I knew there was going to be some magic. For her to be speaking to God on that song, it’s pretty poignant considering the circumstances. It brought tears to my eyes when she recorded it! Now it’s hard for me to even listen to it.
—Mr. Joe Walker