It’s easy to see why Terri Lyne Carrington cites Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, and Jack DeJohnette as her primary mentors. Like DeJohnette, she’s honed her technique on the drums to the point where her playing is more about manipulating energy than keeping a beat. And like all three of those older musicians, she takes an inclusive attitude toward the thorny question of just what, exactly, constitutes jazz.
But Hancock and Shorter, two of the most prominent Buddhists in that African-American art form, also seem to have passed down some spiritual wisdom. Carrington doesn’t say, explicitly, that she shares their Zen beliefs, but being on-stage is certainly, for her, a meditative state.
“You have to look at why you do what you do,” she explains, during a break from a mixing session at New York City’s Sear Sound recording studio. “And if you look at that honestly, in most cases somehow you work back to some kind of spiritual journey that you’re having within the art of being creative. That’s kind of how I look at it: it’s about purpose, your sense of purpose in life. And music is really healing; it affects people on levels that they don’t even realize. So it’s about healing and inspiring people, and that’s spiritual as well. It’s all connected.
“It’s also about the spiritual process of just being in the present,” she adds, with a quiet chuckle. “I’ve realized that when I’m playing it’s the only time when I’m not really thinking anything. I’m just totally in the present, and that in itself is a spiritual act.”
The 49-year-old percussionist and composer also shares a more worldly kind of accomplishment with her musical elders: she recently won a Grammy. In Carrington’s case, she took the 2011 best-jazz-vocal honours for The Mosaic Project, an elegant fusion of modern jazz and radio-friendly R&B that features singers Diane Reeves, Cassandra Wilson, Dee Dee Bridgewater, and Nona Hendryx, along with an all-female cast of instrumentalists.
In fact, on the day she spoke to the Straight she was putting the finishing touches to that record’s follow-up, which local listeners will get to preview in live form when she brings her Mosaic Project septet to Vancouver this weekend.
Lizz Wright will be the featured vocalist, with pianist Helen Sung and Nanaimo-born trumpeter Ingrid Jensen among those returning from Carrington’s Grammy-winning crew. That the bandleader isn’t bound by gender conventions of any sort is evident: in addition to saxophonist Tia Fuller, the band is fleshed out by a pair of talented young men, guitarist Matt Stevens and bassist Josh Hari.
Yes, the initial Mosaic Project album made a feminist statement, but when Carrington assembled this touring group she was primarily concerned with finding musicians who could work together at the highest possible level.
“Great musicianship is great musicianship,” she says. “I know a lot of male musicians who are just as sensitive as any female musicians. You use all those qualities to make great music, so it’s not really gender-based: to me, it’s just a celebration of friends.”
Terri Lyne Carrington’s Mosaic Project plays the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts on Sunday (February 15).