Review: Terri Lyne Carrington’s Montreal Jazz Fest Invitation Series


When it comes to jazz, Carrington digs deep into its intertwining legacies and reaches not for higher ground but for the illimitable heavens.

(Photo: Frédérique Ménard)

Attending Terri Lyne Carrington’s three-day invitation series at the 42nd annual Festival International de Jazz de Montréal (July 4–6) was to marvel a master unwilling to sit on her laurels. It’s inadequate to say that she was at the top of her game as a suspenseful drummer, composer, and bandleader. That’s because, she exhibited so more vigorous investigations during each performance that it seems premature to suggest that she’s peaked even though at times, she sounded as if she’s grasped new horizons. When it comes to jazz, Carrington digs deep into its intertwining legacies and reaches not for higher ground but for the illimitable heavens.

For a little more than a decade now, Carrington’s prestige has expanded exponentially from being a versatile drummer, capable of steering ensembles of varying sizes and idiomatic persuasion to being an insightful conceptualist, mentor, educator, and activist. In 2010, she released a career-defining album, The Mosaic Project on which she led a motley crew of only women musicians that included pianist Geri Allen, bassist Esperanza Spalding, trumpeter Ingrid Jensen, and singer Dianne Reeves, among others. The album earned Carrington her first Grammy win. Also, from The Mosaic Project emerged the critically acclaimed trio ACS, featuring Allen and Spalding.

Three years later, Carrington released the inventive, Money Jungle: Provocative in Blue, which paid tribute to the iconic 1962 album, Money Jungle, recorded by Duke Ellington, Max Roach, and Charles Mingus. On Money Jungle: Provocative in Blue, Carrington fronted another splendid assortment of musicians that included bassist Christian McBride and pianist Gerald Clayton as they offered modern takes on compositions from that album and a couple of sparkling originals written by Carrington and Clayton. That album earned Carrington with the distinction of being the first woman to win a Grammy for “Best Jazz Instrumental Album.”

In 2015, Carrington and Allen teamed with David Murray for the unexpected delight, Perfection, an elliptical tribute to Ornette Coleman. Then in 2019, she and her Social Science ensemble released her boldest album yet, The Waiting Game, an incendiary mediation on the rise of Donald Trump’s presidency amidst the backdrop of the Black Lives Matter Movement’s ceaseless protests against police sanctioned violence against Black people. The album earned her a Grammy nomination for “Best Jazz Instrumental Album.”

In addition to those recording triumphs, Carrington founded the Berklee Institute of Jazz and Gender Justice in 2018, became a Doris Duke Artist grantee in 2019; inducted into National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master in 2021; and proclaimed “Musician of the Year” by the Jazz Journalist Association in 2021.

With all of those achievements, Carrington could have easily used her invitation series as retrospective victory lap. And the audience would have responded with predictable glee. Instead, she used her laurels as launching pads for artistic explorations that subverted expectations. Each night inside the Church of Gesù’s concert hall, Carrington embodied jazz as a kinetic, time-defying entity. She anchored her sets with the combustive, improvisational propulsion of bebop while edging toward the future.

Her first performance was the most confrontational of the three. Occurring on July 4 — Independence Day — Carrington engaged in a blistering duo performance with poet and sound sculptor Moor Mother. Their performance was their first meeting face-to-face as collaborators as they upended the dark vim underneath the United States’ Independence Day as Moor Mother imbued newfound fire and fury inside Frederick Douglass’ famous 1852 speech, “What To The Slave Is The Fourth Of July?”

The performance felt like an Afrofuturistic séance as Carrington summoned the spirits by blasting faint snippets of the Melodian’s reggae classic, “Rivers Of Babylon” from her laptop computer. Soon after, Carrington dropped surging sonic bombs underneath the sample with Moor adding eerie sound effects with twinkling tiny percussion, giving the allure of incantation. The performance gained momentum as Carrington integrated her fractured rhythms with celestial suspended cymbal work while Moor intoned her heavy, authoritative voice through a processed reverb before delivering a blistering reimagining of Douglass’ incisive prose.

Carrington superbly underscored Moor’s engrossing oration with silvery textures and splintered soldierly rhythmic passages. Once the performance reached maximum altitude, Carrington’s improvisations conjured both extravagant firework celebrations that often accompany July 4th celebrations as well as the recent spate of gun violence in the U.S. — some of which occurred that very day. Carrington’s torrential yet incessant passages paired with Moor’s phantasmagorical delivery — especially when Aquiles Navarro gave a special appearance by alternating between muted and flaring bittersweet trumpet asides – evoked the perpetual violence the U.S. inflicts on Black America since the arrival of Blacks through the transatlantic slave trade. Carrington has explored similar socio-political themes on race relations in America before. This performance, however, was most galvanizing social commentary artistic statement yet. After the performance, Carrington revealed that it was also inspired by the U.S. Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade, which occurred less than two weeks prior.

Carrington’s second night was another duo performance — one that comparatively more serene but no less penetrating and vivacious. This one highlighted her astonishing rapport with pianist and composer Aaron Parks, who is a member of her Social Science combo. Carrington began the recital with symphonic suspended cymbal work under which Parks eventually laid down small melodic cells, which flowered into abstracted bolero-like passages. As the performance gathered steam, Carrington and Parks engaged in wondrous interplay sometimes nailing oblique melodic passages in unison. As Parks unraveled cogent lines that sometimes took on the characters of disjointed calligraphy, Carrington provided restive rhythmic bedrocks that sounded as if she was constantly tilling soil in search of fresher, more fecund musical revelations. Their elaborate dialogue reached more recognizable points when they segued into Parks’ “Bells,” a gospel-laden piece from The Waiting Game and “Drummer’s Song,” a circular and festive tuned composed by the late Geri Allen. As a finale, the two delivered magnificent renderings of Wayne Shorter’s “Infant Eyes” and Herbie Hancock’s “Sorcerer.”

The third night of Carrington’s invitation series provided the best vehicle for her bandleading gifts to shine. She led one of her newest ensembles, the Art of Living, which consists of pianist, composer and frequent collaborator Kris Davis, saxophonist Morgan Guerin, bassist Devon Gates, and trumpeter and flugelhorn player Milena Casado Fauquet. The quintet performed music from its forthcoming release, which will be a part of Henry Threadgill’s 13-disc set Baker’s Dozen. Here, Carrington demonstrated her reverence for jazz’s past glories by offering imaginative new works based upon some of Charlie Parker’s solo transcriptions.

Carrington’s Bird-inspired compositions such as the ebullient “Pig Foot” (which was based on Parker’s “Big Foot”), the suspenseful “Charlie Parker” and the probing, slightly Ornette-ish, “Happie” surged with dazzling tingly energy, cross dialogue, and snapping rhythmic momentum as Guerin and Fauquet uncorked spiraling improvisations that were steeped in the bebop tradition that Parker helped spearheaded yet rendered without slavish imitation.

One of the Art of Living’s highlights was Davis’ episodic “Diatom Ribbons,” on which the pianist embellished her estimable improvisations with prepared-piano techniques, which gave her entrancing piano lines an additional percussive, lustrous sheen to interact with Carrington’s loping groove which alluded to Dilla’s influential hip-hop beats before they splintered into loose-limbed freedom swing. Other times Davis’ punchy solos veered into thunderous, jagged, and harmonic dissonant territory that recalled Don Pullen. The structure of the piece constantly evolved and reached an emotional apex during a spoken-word section, performance by Gates. The bassist spoke empathically about the plight and resilience of Black femininity and motherhood.

The Art of Living ensemble also premiered material from another forthcoming Carrington album, New Standards, Vol. I, with its superb rendition of pianist Shamie Royston’s Afro-Latin-flavored “Uplifted Heart” before returning to the Bird homage with a zigzagging original that recalled Parker’s “Ornithology.” After the rousing performance and enthusiastic cheers from the audience for an encore, Carrington and Davis returned to the stage for a transfixing reading of Davis’ “Sympodial Sunflower,” which pranced along a pneumatic groove befitting Ahmad Jamal.

In all, Carrington’s invitation series was so dynamic, inspiring, and illuminating that it deserves to be released on disc in the same manner as Jamal’s Live At The Montreal Jazz Festival 1985, Charlie Haden’s Montreal Tapes and the recently issued Miles Davis’ What It Is Montreal 7/7/83. The lightning in a bottle performances Carrington gave at the 42nd Montreal Jazz Festival deserve proper documentation for future generations of jazz lovers to study and indulge. DB

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