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It was standing-room only at Berklee’s Cafe 939 on a recent September night, the crowd young and hip and almost uniformly sneaker-clad. Onstage, Matthew Stevens ripped into a snarling guitar riff. The singer Debo Ray, vivid in a backless red dress with a draped hood, matched him, then threw it to rapper Kassa Overall, who unleashed a ferocious retelling of American history: “These purple mountains/ These amber waves of grain/ They weren’t yours/ We gave them different names.”
Terri Lyne Carrington sat at the back of the stage behind her drum kit. If you didn’t know it, you might not guess she was the one in charge — the heartbeat of this ensemble, its unassuming driver.
That back-of-the-stage spot has served Carrington well. A grown-up prodigy, she was the first woman to win a Grammy for Best Jazz Instrumental Album in 2011. She has worked with jazz luminaries like Herbie Hancock and Geri Allen. Carrington is a producer, a teacher and a leader. But lately, she’s been thinking about what she’ll leave behind when she’s gone.
“I don't want my legacy to just be, you know, she was a good or hopefully great drummer or, you know, she was a good or hopefully great teacher. I feel like I'm more than that,” Carrington told me a couple weeks after the Berklee concert at her home in Woburn.
When I spoke to her in October, Carrington, 54, was getting ready to release an album, “Waiting Game,” with a new band she calls Terri Lyne Carrington and Social Science. ("Waiting Game" drops Friday, Nov. 8.) Comprised of a crack lineup of young, forward-thinking musicians, Social Science is groove-oriented and contemporary, a fusion project that sometimes sounds like rap or rock with a jazz accent, rather than the other way around. This is new territory for Carrington, who, while never a traditionalist, has always produced music that is best described as "jazz."
All of the group's songs focus on issues of social or political concern, and this is a first for Carrington, too. She has long understood the political nature of her success, as one of the few women to reach the upper echelons of jazz. Her 2013 album, "Mosaic," pointedly featured an all-women lineup. But lately the Berklee professor has funneled her energy into more overtly political projects, like the Berklee Institute of Jazz and Gender Justice. Carrington founded the organization last year with the intention to make a tangible impact on the notoriously male-dominated jazz world.
“Waiting Game,” with its activist ethos, continues in this vein. “The song 'Bells,' for instance. I wrote that based on seeing that video of Philando Castile being shot in his car and his girlfriend in the backseat with her child witnessing that,” Carrington said. “And I just couldn't imagine being in that position. It was very difficult to even watch it.”
Carrington conceived Social Science with guitarist Matthew Stevens, known for his work with Esperanza Spalding, and pianist Aaron Parks, a rising talent in the jazz scene. The trio had been kicking the idea of a political album around for a while, and then came the 2016 election. “We texted each other and said, ‘We really have to do this project now,’ ” Carrington said.
Trump isn’t the focus of “Waiting Game,” which is driven by a generalized sense that progress is under threat, or maybe by the realization that no progress is gained without a fight. The record takes on a panoply of lefty causes: mass incarceration, police brutality, sexism, LGBTQ rights.
The music is is a potent fusion of hip-hop, rock and jazz. The core trio of musicians is rounded out by Debo Ray, Kassa Overall and multi-instrumentalist Morgan Guerin, plus a chorus of guest vocalists from across the musical spectrum. Raydar Ellis protests homophobia in the church in a mesmeric, propulsive number; Rapsody asserts the humanity of women in soaring verse; Meshell Ndegeocello examines the enduring symbolism of Assata Shakur: “She’s more than a mother, a wife/ She’s a warrior,” Ndegeocello breathes over smokey chords. “A woman soldier, elusive.”
And that’s just Disc 1. Disc 2 is a nimble, occasionally rapturous four-part piece that was improvised by Carrington, Stevens, Parks and guest bassist Esperanza Spalding while they were holed up in the studio during a snowstorm. Carrington decided to call it “Dreams and Desperate Measures.”
“We're dreaming of a future that's different,” Carrington explained. “And at the same time, you know, it's a very critical time. And you don't have a whole lot of time to dream. … You have to take action.”
That sense of urgency is a through line on “Waiting Game.” It’s an album about time: how much we have left, and how best to use it.
“I've spent considerable time focused on my craft. And now I'm really looking at a bigger picture. And everything that I do, I want it to, you know, [to] create value in the world, I want it to be meaningful, or I don't want to do it,” Carrington said. “Because of time. I only have so much time. And now my time needs to be really well spent.”
This segment aired on November 7, 2019.
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