Terri Lyne Carrington’s newest release, The Mosaic Project, invokes the mid-90’s hip-hop track, “Da Ladies In The House” – a show of lyrical prowess featuring the likes of Bahamadia and Lauryn Hill, both of whom would go on to become institutions in the game. Now, apply the concept of a posse cut to an album organized and executed by the best and brightest women in jazz. Terri Lyne Carrington is the tour de force behind this project and a gale force wind of percussive talent that has left listeners in awe for decades, likely beginning with Carrington’s acceptance to Berklee College of Music at the age of eleven. In a world where female percussionists, especially those of color, are not as anomalous as the lack of media exposure would have people believe, there long existed a gaping divide between the significant contributions they provided to music and the ability of the industry to market those women as viable artists in their own right without attaching them to larger male stars or selling them as novelties amidst the glut of solo artists; a problem that probably existed for years and applied to female horn players as well.
What changed the public persona of the ladies providing the back beat, may have been the advent of the cool that came with Carrington’s generation and included others, like Cindy Blackman, Stephanie Eulinberg, and Sheila E, who is also featured on The Mosaic Project. Having established herself as a drummer of significant talent at such an early age, Carrington has made a habit of allowing her sound and the resulting works to speak for her. Surrounding herself with like-minded women, she presents a body of work that is musically and socially significant, that transcends gender and from the opening note suggests an air of timelessness; something less and less available in music today, regardless of who it is coming from.
The project may have been incubated as much by the patient prodding of friends and peers, as by Carrington’s recent participation in an all-female band for the 2010 Mary Lou Williams Women In Jazz Festival, the only major festival of its kind for female musicians in the genre. The Mosaic Project is the first time Carrington has acquiesced to the decades old suggestion that she record with an all-female lineup. For her fifth studio album, Carrington aligns herself with some of the biggest names in music, including Cassandra Wilson, Dee-Dee Bridgewater, Geri Allen, Dianne Reeves, Tineke Postma, Patrice Rushen, Ingrid Jensen, and Esperanza Spalding. Of the laundry list of collaborators, each one is singularly acclaimed and none a stranger to virtuosity. How, then, does a project of this magnitude avoid the cluster chorale that surfaces at those ubiquitous charity group recordings and musical award dedication performances to become the opus it has the potential to be on paper? It seems to have happened one track at a time. Beginning with a nod to the mother of all things, “Transformation” closes with the refrain, “Mother nature rules us all” – the lyrical and vocal content provided by Nona Hendryx, one-third of the iconic soul trio, LaBelle. Her words are a fitting introduction to an album produced by over twenty female musicians, comprised of fourteen tracks, with Carrington at the helm as the long-reluctant matriarch.
To say that this is an album full of standouts, is a matter of opinion that should be accepted as an absolute truth – just for the sake of argument. The newer contributors on the block, Gretchen Parlato and Esperanza Spalding contribute quite a lot of muscle to the recording, if often under the cover of subtlety and an awesome blanket of rhythm, courtesy of Carrington and friends. Parlato shines brightly on “I Got Lost In His Arms” and “Michelle”, while Spalding brings her one-two punch of vocal and bass to a number of tracks, “Crayola” a standout amongst them. In stark contrast, Cassandra Wilson lends the dense, melting depth of her voice to “Simply Beautiful”, a power ballad for those enrapt by the possibility and power of love. The performance Wilson provides is punctuated by a stirring string performance.
Diane Reeves then sets about putting the nail in the coffin as she pushes every single word forth with the astounding clarity and beautiful range she has become known for, as she leaps into the pool of epic memory for “Echo”, a narrative of black experience focused on the pain, chains, and inhumanity of the African slave trade, and how that has informed the present conditions of life for many people of African descent around the world. The track opens with commentary from activist, Angela Davis. It is as painful to listen to as it is beautiful, and bears repeating for the rich vocals, riveting lyrical content, and the astounding instrumental performance. If there was never a song capable of breaking and melting a heart at the same time, this is it.
The group, under the direction of conductor Geri Allen, then combines to form the musical equivalent of Voltron for “Unconditional Love” – the arrangement begins somewhere between a nod to Bernstein and the head nod of Mongo Santamaria before pouring into a lush landscape punctuated by saccharine vocals from Spalding, synchronized with the saxophone performance – a move that hearkens to the habitual singing and playing of George Benson and Pat Metheny, but in this case comes off like each instrument is just a dimension of one cohesive voice, solos aside.
What you realize very quickly is how inclusive this recording is, in terms of the musicians’ collective willingness to move very adeptly in and out of genres on many of the tracks without distracting from the core thematic elements of each track. This is particularly noticeable on “Wistful”, a track that sounds very much inspired by the same global soul and jazz feeling that inspired Quincy Jones’ “Back On The Block” over a decade ago. This a group of musicians swimming in a soup of soul, rock, bebop, funk, and more. “Crayola” continues, a playful and very danceable ode to heartbreak, that seems almost ironic in the contrast of subject and tone – the musicians make up for the lack of overt melancholy in the moments of dissonance that peek around the corners of the electric piano performance and Spalding’s light but smoky vocal.
Download “Wistful” here:
“Soul Talk” is a heavy dragging electronic sort of ballad that plays like the seductively gradual movements of burlesque reviews and molasses. Dee Dee Bridgewater shines against the circuitous horn playing in the same haunting way she once pushed against the trumpet of Charles Sullivan, on “Now I’ll Sleep”, a dirge from his 1974 album Genesis. The only that could possibly have served to put this track even further over the top would have been a cameo from Me’Shell Ndegeocello on bass and backing vocals. Then again, the possibilities are endless, should these ladies decide to take The Mosaic Project on tour.
After waiting for Carrington to take a moment to herself, she does quite a job with an amazing combination of full horn section and electric guitar on “Insomniac” – tossing out rhythms both brash and slight, she plays well with others, but well enough to stand as a refreshing contrast to the other movement in the track – a fluttering drumroll juxtaposed by a steady pounding of the cymbal are what make the chameleonic performance. Much like the rest of the album, but more obviously here, she is the constant in an ever-changing landscape. This is a piece of music for lovers of fusion.
Ending with “Sisters On The Rise (A Transformation)”, the group ironically plays on the idea of a posse cut, with a rap track that plays over staccato-paced drumming and samples of the ladies’ performances on the opening track – set against clanging piano chords, the track is a beautifully forceful reiteration of the point of this monumental gathering – to speak to life and art with an unbridled love and respect for the concept of evolution – the changes in this case being “transformations, variations, causing nations”.
By giving birth to this project, these women are not only speaking to the intrinsic biological ability of the female species to give life, but of the infinite amount of ways in which they are able to do that, literally and metaphorically. Here, they just happen to employ powerful words and impressively thoughtful arrangements to conceive and deliver one of the most stunning albums that has been released by anybody this year; black, brown, green, purple, man, woman, or child. For that reason alone, it could be argued that Teri Lyne Carrington’s reluctance to execute an all-female project was an exercise in patience that The Mosaic Project and its contributors have made well worth the wait.
For info on this album, head over to Terri Lyne Carrington’s site here.
Words by Karas Lamb