To find a drummer on the roster of Grammy winners for Best Jazz Vocal Album is an anomaly. But Terri Lyne Carrington, who also boasts skills as a composer, arranger, bandleader, and producer, is an uncommon talent. In its first iteration, The Mosaic Project featured an all-female instrumental ensemble and a cast of formidable singers. In its second, for the album Love and Soul, Carrington has gathered new songs and new singers. She appears on the American Songbook series with Valerie Simpson, half of the husband-and-wife songwriting-production team Ashford & Simpson, and Grammy-nominated Oleta Adams. With any luck, Carrington will take a turn at the microphone herself.
Lara Pellegrinelli: The new album is a collection of love songs. The details about what was going on in your personal life have been scant, but you've said you were inspired to explore your own vulnerability in romance.
Terri Lyne Carrington: That's the beauty of art—leaving it up for interpretation. When you write about love, it's generally from the perspective that you're yearning for it, you're lonely, or you're sad about having lost it. I've experienced all of that, but I'd never explored it artistically. You can actually experience all of that at the same time.
LP: You come across as such a strong person, it's hard to think of you as vulnerable.
TC: I am a strong person, but even people who are strong need a space where they can be weak. Also, I was 49 when I was working on the record and gearing up for 50. When you get to this stage, you don't care as much about appearances. You focus more on honesty in your expression, honesty in your life in general.
LP: The first Mosaic Project featured an all-female ensemble. How important was it to shed light on the accomplishments of women musicians?
TC: It's important, but it's not something I dwell on. That's why I did the album Money Jungle after the first Mosaic Project—because I didn't want to be boxed in. The timing was good for a second one. I felt that there was more I had to say and more people I wanted to work with.
LP: Like Valerie Simpson and Oleta Adams. What is your relationship with these women?
TC: I've been friends with Valerie for a few years. She's a great producer herself and was very helpful with the project. If I wanted to get her opinion, she'd listen and tell me what she thought. I met Oleta in the 1990s. She has an amazing work ethic. She was concerned that her voice wouldn't be in the best shape to record for me because she had rehearsals and performances right before and after. So she said, "It's my husband's birthday and one of his favorite restaurants is in Boston. We'll fly there, you don't have to pay for it, I'll take him to dinner—you can join us as a matter of fact—and I'll record there." I was shown that kind of dedication to music by so many people throughout the project.
LP: In the vocal jazz tradition, love songs are often ballads wrapped in pretty string arrangements. Your vision of romantic love sounds quite different than that.
TC: The title Love and Soul is a double entendre; soul music was a big part of this record. I love all of the big romantic albums, but I also hear romance in a sexy kind of way—like the saying "being grown and sexy." It’s not a romantic love that's so far in the clouds it can't get down. It's more of a romantic love that makes you want to dance, makes you want to move your body, makes you want to celebrate.
LP: Talk us through an arrangement.
TC: For Valerie, I picked "Somebody Told a Lie," which she wrote with her [late] husband Nick Ashford. I tried to give it some of today’s groove, for lack of a better term. A jazz section goes into an African 6/8 rhythmic feel. I put it in a relative minor key, which makes it a bit darker and funkier harmonically. I also gave the lyrics some space, so you could really digest them. Because Nick had passed, the "heaven" in the lyrics wasn't just a figurative one.
LP: You sing a track on Love and Soul as well. Any chance you'll leave the drum set for the microphone at Lincoln Center?
TC: In New York? I'll have to try that out in another city.
LP: Come on. You hold your own on the album.
TC: Outside of the Mosaic material, I have sung some other things more comfortably in the past. We'll see how I feel, but I might just do that.
Lara Pellegrinelli is a Lecturer in Music & Theater Arts at M.I.T. and lives in Jackson Heights, Queens.