by Ian Mann
October 30, 2019
With its hard hitting political and social commentary, genre fluid music, and its impressive list of guest performers “Waiting Game” has the feel of an ‘important’ record.
Terri Lyne Carrington + Social Science
Terri Lyne Carrington – drums, vocals, Aaron Parks – piano, keyboards, Matthew Stevens – guitar, Kassa Overall – MC/DJ, Debo Ray – vocals, Morgan Guerin – saxophone, EWI, bass
plus guest vocalists and instrumentalists
“Waiting Game” is the ambitious new double album from the American drummer and composer Terri Lyne Carrington and her new band Social Science.
Carrington has been selected as the Artist in Residence at the forthcoming EFG London Jazz Festival and will appear with a different band dubbed the Social Science Community on Saturday 16th November at Kings Place.
Later that same evening she will collaborate with a number of British musicians at the same venue as part of a performance billed as “Experiments in London”.
On the following afternoon, again at Kings Place, she will discuss her love of the “Nina Simone Black Gold” album as part of the “Classic Album Sundays” series. Details of all Carrington’s EFG London Jazz Festival performances can be found at http://www.efglondonjazzfestival.org.uk
Turning now to this recording, a double set presenting two sides of Carrington’s talents. Disc one, “Waiting Game”, features the Social Science band plus a number of illustrious guests, on eleven song based pieces addressing the social problems of modern America, particularly as seen from the perspective of a contemporary Afro-American woman. The music is hard hitting and politically aware and includes elements of jazz, hip hop, rock, soul, r & b and funk – all the components of modern Afro-American music.
The music on the “Waiting Game” is primarily written by Carrington, Parks and Stevens with the words written by the individual guest vocalists.
The second disc, “Dreams and Desperate Measures”, is more abstract, a single improvised suite, subsequently delineated into four parts, performed by Carrington, Parks and Stevens plus bassist Esperanza Spalding with additional orchestrations by Edmar Colon. It’s possible that some listeners may view this second disc as a ‘bit of a bonus’ and as secondary to “Waiting Game”, but for me it still represents an impressive artistic statement in its own right.
Carrington has enjoyed an impressive career as a sidewoman, performing with Herbie Hancock among many others, but in recent years she has emerged as a composer and bandleader of some stature. Her writing has always been politically engaged as evidenced by her 2013 album “Money Jungle; Provocative In Blue”, which challenged the tenets of modern capitalism, and by her all female Mosaic Project, which championed the rights of women within the male dominated music industry.
In 2013 Carrington performed at the EFG London Jazz Festival as part of the trio ACS, alongside Spalding on bass and vocals and the late, great Geri Allen on piano, at a concert at The Barbican. Unfortunately the performance was marred by a terrible sound mix and by the general air of preciousness exuded by the performers. I rather turned my back on Carrington after this and missed a later Festival visit featuring her ‘Power Trio’ with Allen and saxophonist David Murray.
On the evidence of this new recording I may have given up on Carrington too easily and too soon. Despite the presence of musical elements that I’m not usually a fan of (primarily rap, hip hop and what passes for r’n’b these days) I rather enjoyed the music on this recording. The writing is sharp, focussed and intelligent, and the playing and singing displays similar qualities. Carrington mixes the various elements into a convincing and cohesive whole and the way in which she and the band tackle the social concerns of contemporary America is perceptive, pertinent and incisive.
The first issue to be addressed is the mass incarceration of disadvantaged citizens, the majority of them from ethnic minorities, in the US penal system - the ‘prison industrial complex’ as it has been described. British listeners may recently have had a shocking insight into this unsavoury aspect of American society thanks to Simon Reeves’ ongoing “The Americas” television documentary series.
Musically the piece features the semi spoken vocals of Kassa Overall above the economic, grooves generated by Carrington, Stevens and Parks, with the guitarist and pianist also adding shards of spidery melody. Wordless vocals and sampled speech add to the claustrophobic atmosphere while Guerin’s smouldering sax soloing adds a more discernible jazz element. The music gathers momentum and anger as the piece develops and Overall’s delivery takes on an extra intensity. Taken as a whole the piece is haunting and effective, and, above all, thought provoking.
The seed for the “Waiting Game” project was the composition “Bells (Ring Loudly)”, which began life as a tune by Parks for which Carrington wrote a lyric addressing the subject of police brutality, inspired by the shooting of Philando Castille in Falcon Heights, Minnesota. His own words are spoken with considerable gravitas by the actor Malcolm-Jamal Warner and soulfully sung by Debo Ray, the pair forming a contrasting but effective duo. The words are poetic but hard hitting – opening with the line “sirens swell, morphing into church bells, signifying another unjustifiable death”, and also referencing the Black Lives Matter movement.
Homophobia and Christian Fundamentalism are tackled on the insistent “Pray The Gay Away”, which features guest appearances from DJ/MC Raydar Ellis and trumpeter Nicholas Payton. The lyric parodies US gospel singer Kim Burrell’s infamous homophobic sermon, changing her words to “pray the hate away”. Within the framework of the piece there’s some space for the instrumentalists with Stevens briefly stretching out and with Payton’s trumpet entering into dialogue with Guerin’s sax.
The hard hitting and evocative “Purple Mountains” addresses the subject of the genocide of Native Americans with an impassioned rap from Washington DC born MC Kokayi, his words complemented by a similarly powerful performance from Carrington and her band.
American jazz is more politicised now than at any time since the Civil Rights struggles of the 1960s. I’ve never met a musician with a good word to say about Donald Trump and Carrington wrote the title track, “Waiting Game”, shortly after he was elected. “It’s about waiting for him to leave”, she explains, “but it’s also a metaphor for all the other things we’re waiting for”. It’s a hymn of defiance, sung with a soulful, gospel infused sincerity by guest artist Mark Kibble. Essentially it’s an acapella performance, with only minimal percussive assistance from the leader.
There’s more righteous anger on “The Anthem”, as female rapper Rapsody celebrates the solidarity of the sisterhood with a rousing battle cry of “breakdown the walls ‘til patriarchy falls”. Musically the band match the power of her delivery with Guerin’s saxophone, Stevens’ guitar and Parks’ piano all prominent in a jazz style arrangement driven by the march of Carrington’s drums.
With Parks featuring on electric keyboards “Love” is a more straightforward soul / r’n’b ballad that also incorporates the voices of Ray and Overall. Stevens also impresses on guitar, and its all pleasant enough, but lacks the political bite of the rest of the disc.
The political agenda is restored on “No Justice (for Political Prisoners) which features the sampled voices of the fugitive activist Assata Shakur and the imprisoned author and activist Mumia Abu-Jamal, the latter recoded in his prison cell in Pennsylvania. Guest artist Meshell Ndegeocello handles the song’s lead vocals.
“Over And Sons” is the first disc’s only instrumental and features the interplay of the core trio of Carrington, Stevens and Parks with bass duties presumably being undertaken by Guerin. It’s an agreeably relaxed performance, if slightly anomalous within the context of the disc as a whole, and features fluent solos from Stevens on acoustic guitar and Parks on piano as Carrington directs proceedings from the drum kit.
“If Not Now” I as second rallying cry for gender equality, a funky call to arms to the sisterhood from guest rapper Maimona Youssef (aka Mumu Fresh) that sees Carrington, in conjunction with Guerin’s bass, laying down some of her heaviest, most propulsive grooves of the set as Stevens takes flight on guitar and Parks doubles on acoustic and electric keyboards. Guerin throws in some soulful saxophone lines too.
Disc one concludes with a reprise of the title track, this time sung by Ray with accompaniment from Parks at the piano and with Stevens adding subtle guitar textures and colourings.
The second disc, “Dreams and Desperate Measures” inevitably sounds very different, consisting as it does of four freely structured improvisations, these later expanded with the addition of tasteful orchestral overdubs written by Edmar Colon.
Described as an “improvised suite” “Dreams and Desperate Measures” is largely performed by the core quartet of Carrington, Stevens, Parks and Spalding. Stevens and Parks are key protagonists in the “Waiting Game” project as a whole, acting as Carrington’s co-producers as well as playing leading roles as instrumentalists.
The suite commences with the sprawling seventeen and a half minute “Part One”, a piece that embodies many of the now conventional tropes of freely improvised performances. It is introduced by a tentative dialogue between Carrington at the kit and Parks at the piano, subsequently joined by Parks and Spalding. Colon’s orchestrations add depth and colour to the delicate interplay between the four main players. Carrington’s role here is that of colourist, her mallet rumbles and cymbal shimmers adding punctuation to Parks’ lyrical, melodic flourishes at the piano and the knottier improvised lines of Stevens’ scratchy guitar and Spalding’s resonant bass. Colon’s orchestration deploys woodwinds as well as strings to crate an even wider sonic palette. This is music that straddles the boundaries between the composed and the improvised, less frenetic than much free improv, and with the unusual component of orchestral material written in response to the initial improvisations of the core quartet. It’s a shadowy, atmospheric sound world that eschews bombast and bluster, and which is all the more effective for it.
The music segues into “Part 2”, which has more of a written feel about it, with Colon’s lush orchestrations adding colour and texture to the musings of the quartet. The mood subtly gravitates from pastoral and lyrical through sombre and atmospheric to subtly funky as Parks mixes acoustic and electric keyboard sounds. Spalding’s bass plays a key role in the proceedings and its good to hear her focussing on this side of her talent. Stevens’ distinctive acoustic guitar playing is sometimes reminiscent of that of the great Ralph Towner.
A second segue takes us into the lengthy “Part 3”, this time a twelve minute excursion that maintains the largely contemplative mood established by the previous two pieces. Parks reverts to acoustic piano, combining well with Stevens on guitar, while Colon’s orchestration plays an even greater role with its rich blend of strings and woodwinds. However a few minutes into the piece Carrington, hitherto a low profile but essential presence in the proceedings, delivers her first and only drum solo of the entire double album. It’s a passage of unaccompanied playing that is totally devoid of bombast as she continues in her ‘colourist’ role, thoughtfully providing the link into the next ensemble section.
Indeed the drummer is a notably ego-less presence throughout the whole recording. Her technical abilities are undoubted, but as Carrington herself has said, she would prefer to be recognised for her political and societal legacy rather than as just ‘a great drummer’. It’s an approach that shapes her playing and writing throughout this whole double recording. “Waiting Game” never sounds anything remotely like a typical ‘drummer’s solo album’.
The second disc concludes with “Part 4” of the “Dreams and Desperate Measures” suite, emerging from gentle, wispy atmospheric beginnings to embrace a subtly propulsive funk groove which forms the bedrock for Stevens’ FX laden guitar explorations. Parks features on electric keyboards and the closing stages of the track feature a brief, but attention grabbing saxophone solo, presumably from Guerin.
“Dreams and Desperate Measures” is an impressive and distinctive piece of work in its own right, but inevitably the spotlight will focus on Disc 1, the “Waiting Game” half of this double set.
With its hard hitting political and social commentary, genre fluid music, and its impressive list of guest performers “Waiting Game” has the feel of an ‘important’ record. We all know by now that music itself can’t change the world overnight, but that doesn’t mean that musicians shouldn’t speak out about the injustices that they see around them. Through her music Carrington speaks out with intelligence and compassion, warning her listeners against complacency in an increasingly polarised world. She acknowledges that true liberation for all is a “Waiting Game”, but with this album she proves that she’s very much a ‘game changer’.
And Carrington is a musician who ‘puts her money where her mouth is’. She is the founder of the Berklee Institute of Jazz and Gender Justice, dedicated to fighting the gender imbalance in music. The Institute’s slogan, coined by Carrington, is “Jazz Without Patriarchy”.
Carrington also supports, and draws inspiration from, the youth organisation Black Youth Project 100, founded in the wake of George Zimmerman’s acquittal for the killing of Trayvon Martin in Florida in 2012.
Politics aside “Waiting Game” is a musical triumph in its own right, two discs of contrasting music covering a wide range of stylistic bases and featuring some excellent playing and singing.
Carrington’s residency at EFG LJF promises to be unique and thought provoking experience, enhanced by some exceptional music.
“Waiting Game” will be released by Motema Music on Friday 8th November 2019.
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