‘Waiting Game’ by Terri Lyne Carrington Review: The Sweet Sound of Speaking Out
The drummer’s latest album with Social Science features a range of voices committed to making a better world.
Nov. 12, 2019 12:19 pm ET
On warm September night, in a third-floor studio of a nondescript building in New York, Terri Lyne Carrington sat at her drum kit alongside her ensemble, Social Science. A small audience—mostly press, musicians and music-business insiders—settled into couches and armchairs. This preview performance of music from Ms. Carrington’s two-disc “Waiting Game” (Motéma), out now, was a casual affair, yet its mood was charged with focused, pent-up energy. It felt a bit like a meeting of a nascent political underground.
In a way, it was. “We’re taking on the issues that bother us,” Ms. Carrington said before she and her band performed “Trapped in the American Dream,” a song whose rapped text, delivered over stuttering hip-hop-inflected beats, commented on inequities within this country’s prison system. Next, during “Bells (Ring Loudly),” an R&B groove framed lyrics about police brutality.
In between songs, Ms. Carrington and her co-producers, pianist Aaron Parks and guitarist Matthew Stevens, spoke about the project’s beginnings. Ms. Carrington wrote the album’s title number—which sounds hymn-like and contains the line “complacency has its price”—the night after the 2016 presidential election, she said. Days later, she called Messrs. Parks and Stevens, saying simply, “It’s time to start a band.” “All she really told us,” Mr. Stevens said, “was ‘I want these songs to talk about this particular moment in time.’ There was no talk of genre.”
Ms. Carrington’s career, which includes work with jazz standard-bearers such as Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter, has long blurred musical styles. She’s no stranger to speaking out: Last year, she was appointed as founding artistic director of the Institute of Jazz and Gender Justice at Berklee College of Music. She is especially adept at creating concept albums and working with vocalists; the expansive cast for “The Mosaic Project,” her Grammy-winning 2011 release, included Dianne Reeves, Dee Dee Bridgewater and Cassandra Wilson.
“Waiting Game” represents a struggle for justice, for which Ms. Carrington has recruited her own small army. Its core is Social Science, a sextet that includes—along with the drummer and Messrs. Parks and Stevens— Morgan Guerin, who plays saxophone and bass; singer Debo Ray ; and Kassa Overall, credited here as DJ and MC. (Additional musicians on some tracks include trumpeter Nicholas Payton and bassists Derrick Hodge and Esperanza Spalding. ) Disc One’s 11 tracks also include singer Mark Kibble ; rappers Maimouna Youssef, Kokayi, Rapsody and Raydar Ellis ; and spoken-word artists Malcolm-Jamal Warner and Meshell Ndegeocello.
This diversity of voices supports the idea of a movement, or at least a community. Ms. Carrington wrote nearly all the sung lyrics; the rappers and speakers provided their own texts. With so many elements, things could have grown scattered. Yet Disc One’s songs are tight and catchy, each riding a distinct groove and nearly all textured with layers of finely crafted sonic details. These qualities owe to Ms. Carrington’s savvy as both drummer and producer. In “Pray the Gay Away,” a lively Brazilian maracatu rhythm underscores commentary about homophobia. Its infectious groove eventually gives way to a more loose-limbed approach, wherein Mr. Overall chops lyrics into sampled fragments that punctuate Mr. Payton’s searing trumpet lines. The riveting track “No Justice (for Political Prisoners)” is built on a slowly shuffling blues, interweaving spoken text from Ms. Ndegeocello and sampled snippets of the voices of Mumia Abu-Jamal, Angela Davis and Assata Shakur.
Throughout, the combination of sung and spoken words, of improvisation and song structure, and of jazz and hip-hop sensibilities suggests the give-and-take and sense of nuance absent from much contemporary political debate. And the range of emotions is broad: Rapsody sounds enraged about gender bias on a tango-flavored tune, “The Anthem”; Mr. Youssef, indignant about the exploitation of indigenous peoples on the urgently funky “Purple Mountains”; and Mr. Warner, earnest considering senseless deaths in “Bells (Ring Loudly).” The straightforward pleas of “Waiting Game” are sung in two versions—prayerfully by Mr. Kibble, set against the sampled sound of a ticking clock, and mournfully by Ms. Ray, accompanied by Messrs. Parks and Stevens.
Disc One’s lone instrumental track, “Over and Sons,” highlights the beguiling sense of tension-and-release Ms. Carrington can create with Messrs. Parks and Stevens. The only cover, of Joni Mitchell’s “Love,” features Ms. Spalding on electric bass, showcasing the intuitive bond she and Ms. Carrington have developed through the past decade, most notably in a trio with the now-deceased pianist Geri Allen. These qualities, and these four musicians (with Ms. Spalding on acoustic bass), shine throughout Disc Two—42 minutes of improvised music, edited into four sections, with added strings and woodwinds orchestrated by Edmar Colón. If Disc One’s lyrics ruminate about freedom, here, wordlessly, is what that condition sounds like.
—Mr. Blumenfeld writes about jazz and Afro-Latin music for the Journal.
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