For Terri Lyne Carrington, drums are ‘just my vehicle’

Tracy Love

Once upon a time, percussionist Terri Lyne Carrington wanted to play drums with the Rolling Stones. While that never happened, the three-time Grammy winner has had plenty of opportunities to flex her considerable chops with a host of other music superstars: Herbie Hancock, Stan Getz, Wayne Shorter, Jack DeJohnette, Cassandra Wilson, James Brown, Carlos Santana and Oscar Peterson.  ’

And that’s just a handful; the list of those she has toured, recorded and collaborated with is long and luminous. Carrington also played drums on national TV, in “The Arsenio Hall Show” house band and for the Quincy Jones-produced series “Vibe.”

By her own admission, though, this recently named NEA Jazz Master who also teaches, sings, composes and produces has “never really been in love with the drums.”

“The drums are just part of the whole,” she says. “I’m more in love with good music, good songs — good creative moments. Drums are a part of that, but If I write something I love, I'm going to love that piece without drums. They aren't going to dictate anything about the composition. It’s not going to dictate my artistic expression as a solo artist. But as a drummer who gets called to play other people’s music, I’m looking for the spark from the composition or the other improvisers to create something in a moment, to participate in and co-create an energy that other people can participate in — something that could soothe or heal or inspire. So that's really what it's about for me. Drums are just my vehicle.”

In a Symphony Center Presents Jazz concert Feb. 4, with her five-member ensemble Social Science (sharing the bill with alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa and his Hero Trio), Carrington will perform pieces from a repertoire that spans more than three decades and started with a bang. After  her “Real Life Story” (1989) was nominated for a best jazz fusion performance Grammy, Carrington made nine more increasingly groundbreaking albums that earned more critical raves and a slew of other honors and awards — including three Grammys, among them one for best jazz instrumental album. So far, no other woman has won that category.

Her most recent release, “Waiting Game” (with Social Science), from 2019, features powerful spoken-word poetry and also earned a Grammy nod. DownBeat magazine described it as “a two-disc master stroke on par with Kendrick Lamar’s 2015 hip-hop classic ‘To Pimp a Butterfly.’ ” Not too shabby.

The Boston-born daughter of saxophonist Sonny Carrington, Terri Lyne from a young age was surrounded by and jammed with accomplished jazz pros. As founder of the Boston Jazz Society, Sonny regularly worked and mingled with the likes of Clark Terry, Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis and Rahsaan Roland Kirk.

As a result of her uncommon early tutelage, when she graduated from Boston’s acclaimed Berklee College of Music (a child prodigy, she began her studies there on a weekly basis at age 11) and moved to New York City, Carrington wasn’t your typical struggling musician. Being exposed to so much so early was a gift, she knows. Most young artists don’t have it so good.

In an email, Jack DeJohnette, fellow drummer and NEA Jazz Master, called Carrington “a consummate artist” who’s working at “the highest level of creativity, integrity and professionalism. “Her contributions as a musician, educator, leader, producer and activist speak for themselves.”

These days, Carrington does what she wants to do when she wants to do it. She teaches at Berklee, where she founded the Berklee Institute of Jazz and Gender Justice. She composes. She plays. She records. She collaborates. She even served as a consultant, alongside Herbie Hancock and “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” bandleader Jon Batiste on the recent Pixar film “Soul.”

Though proudly versatile, she has no interest in being a jack of all trades, musically speaking. She’s similarly uninterested, and has been for years, in taking gigs purely for the money. Like learning in the shadow of jazz titans as a kid, it is an enviable position to have. And one she never takes for granted. The same goes for her career in general.

“I’ve never had any other occupation, no other job,” Carrington says. “So I feel very fortunate.”

It’s a good bet her fans do, too.

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