LIVE: Terri Lyne Carrington Quartet @ Skidmore’s Zankel Music Center, 6/26/18
Put simply, Terri Lyne Carrington is a badass. Aside from being one of the most powerful drummers on the menu, she’s also the first woman to win a Grammy for Best Instrumental Jazz Album. That happened in 2013, “though I don’t think it should have taken that long,” Carrington dryly observed at the start of her appearance at Skidmore Jazz institute’s annual concert series. She won the statue for her Concord release Money Jungle: Provocative in Blue, a wildly modern take on the 1962 trio date Money Jungle featuring Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus and Max Roach. (Yup, that happened!) Ellington wrote most of the music on the original recording, even though he’d previously said he didn’t want to play his own stuff. Both Carrington’s disc and her performance at Skidmore’s Zankel Music Center showed the full house that you can still be respectful to classic compositions while also making them your own.
Carrington’s arrangements on Provocative include vocals, hip-hop and spoken-word, but the all-instrumental quartet Carrington brought to Skidmore more than delivered the aggressive essence of the disc. That’s despite reed wizard Mark Shim laying out for most of the fiery opening number. Santiago Bosch’s piano was a little low in the mix to start, but the sound tech quickly brought him up to par. The one thing people forget about Duke is that he was a kickass piano player in his own right, and Bosch nailed Ellington’s unique combination of glowing lyricism and adamantine structure. With a drummer as hard-hitting as Carrington, the bass usually focuses on maintaining the foundation, but Jared Henderson was making his own powerful statements right from the jump. When Shim added his mind-bending tenor sax to the already-borderline-chaotic piece, you definitely knew that this was not your grandfather’s Ellington.
There aren’t a lot of reed players who think as far outside the box as Shim: There’s Dave Liebman, Ben Goldberg, Jeff Lederer, Myron Walden and that’s about it. Wearing a chequed jacket that even the late Lindsey Nelson would have looked askance at, Shim alternated between tenor and Electronic Wind Instrument as he took each piece even further from the traditional. His tenor on the swirling “Fleurette Africain” was full but slashing, and his snarling solo on “Little Max” brought a smile to Carrington’s face that clearly said, “THAT’S what I want!” Shim was able to bring himself down to earth for the beautiful ballad “One Valley,” a track from the 1962 recording Carrington hadn’t covered in 2013, “and I’m kind of sorry I didn’t,” she admitted in her introduction.
When Delfeayo Marsalis was developing his take on Duke’s late-career suite Such Sweet Thunder, Gunther Schuller wrote a letter imploring Marsalis not to change a single thing because it would destroy the music’s “essential Ellingtonness.” That was rubbish then, and it was rubbish at Zankel, because although Carrington’s musical attack flirted with both the fusion and the funky, you never lost the sense of where the music got its start. Both Sweet Thunder and the pieces Ellington brought to his session with Mingus & Roach come from the same era, which I’ve always maintained contains Duke’s richest music. Carrington gave this music the respect it deserves by following Ellington’s own definition of jazz, which simply meant “freedom of expression.” In addition, the power and lyricism she brought to everything she touched paid tribute to Roach, who Carrington told us “is someone very important to me.”
Towards the end of the 90-minute set, the quartet was working through a slow, slinky blues when the stage doors opened, and Ingrid Jensen walked out, blowing her trumpet like someone determined to make her mark. Carrington and Jensen (an instructor at Skidmore this year) are longtime friends and co-conspirators, and are at the forefront of the burgeoning movement to give female jazz players the same respect their male counterparts get on a daily basis. Like Carrington, Jensen is no shrinking violet on her chosen instrument, and her energy and quality had the crowd whooping even louder then before. She paired up with Shim like they’d been working together for years, and the band’s overall vibe ramped up to something akin to Miles’ “Second Great Quintet”: One foot in the traditional, one foot in the future. The group’s encore take on Ellington’s “Come Sunday” was absolutely monumental.
As in life, jazz is pretty much useless without honesty. In her introduction to “Come Sunday”, Carrington referenced the legendary gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, saying she wished she could play “one stroke with the same honesty and integrity” Jackson displayed throughout her career. I’m pretty sure everyone else at Zankel felt the same way I did: You can stop wishing, Ms. Carrington. You did it!