Terri Lyne Carrington is one of the leading artists in jazz and improvised music today. Her prolific output and astonishing versatility make this clear, as she has recorded many critically acclaimed albums as a leader and performed extensively with Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Esperanza Spalding, and countless other luminaries. The past few years have seen her leading her band, Social Science, in performances across the world, participating in panels at the Jazz at Lincoln Center gathering Jazz Congress, and acting as musical director for a symposium in honor of Geri Allen at Harvard University. In August 2018, it was announced that Carrington would serve as founder and artistic director of Berklee College of Music’s Institute of Jazz and Gender Justice, further solidifying her place as one of the most important and influential educators today. In honor of her 55th birthday in August, we will examine one of her more influential contributions to the recorded legacy of Black American Music.
Despite her incredible current array of activities, it is crucial to remember that Carrington has been innovating at the drums for decades. One especially powerful example of Carrington’s contributions to the music world, which recently celebrated its ten-year anniversary, can be found on her playing on “Not No One (for Helen)” from her recording More to Say...Real Life Story. The track is an homage to her grandmother and showcases the depth of Carrington’s rhythmic erudition.
Carrington’s playing on this track is a case study in how to find a sense of agency and creativity within the 7/4 time signature. Playing in odd-time signatures has long been a prerequisite for students entering contemporary jazz spaces; however, many drummers still struggle to play with the same freedom in these meters as they do in 4/4. This often results in the drummer playing a default pattern, repeated ad nauseam, that usually has a jarring emphasis placed on beat “1” of every measure. For instance, in 7/4, a common example is this ostinato:
While it is a fine ostinato to play occasionally—it certainly leaves no question as to where the “1” is—it is oftentimes aesthetically inappropriate, and it certainly places a box around the musical statements that can be made.
Carrington’s playing on “Not No One” shows us other possibilities of expression within this time signature. Its ingenuity can be found in both its creative expansion of traditional Afro-Cuban clave patterns and the way it is orchestrated around the kit. A traditional son clave in 4/4 looks like this:
Carrington expands this idea and places it in the context of 7/4:
It is important to notice a few things regarding this pattern’s implications for creative music-making. For one, there is a rest on beat one! This immediately gives the music a lift by delaying a sense of arrival. Instead of smashing into beat one, the clave—and thus the music—jumps off of it, providing a sense of excitement and forward motion that is entirely lost when you hit the downbeat every single measure. Moreover, this clave is filled with syncopations that the mainstream 7/4 ostinato lacks, further increasing the sense of anticipation and groove in the music. Indeed, in 4/4 swing and groove music, you rarely hear musicians play a strong beat “one”; instead, the chord changes and melodic statements are anticipated by half of a beat to propel the current musical statement into the next measure. Listen to the recording and notice how the clave aligns with the accents in the horns to create a deep collective groove.
I recommend practicing this clave on its own to really internalize it. Move it to different parts of the drum kit and different limbs; use a metronome and play along with the original recording.
Once you are comfortable with the clave, begin to study what is happening around it. Carrington contextualizes the clave by placing it within other expanded elements of Afro-Cuban music. In 4/4, the Afro-Cuban cascara—originally played on the side of the timbales, but often played on the cymbal or bell in jazz-oriented settings—looks like this:
Once again, Carrington brilliantly expands this into seven, which looks like this:
Again, this pattern is likely to be somewhat challenging at first, as it is a familiar rhythm placed in a less-familiar context. Work on the bell pattern on its own and then try to orchestrate it alongside the clave. As you can see, placing the two ideas alongside one another creates a nice flow:
The cascara (lightly!) grounds the groove with by playing on five out of seven strong beats, while the clave provides syncopated accents that drive the music forward.
Now we can turn our attention to the final part of this groove: the bass drum and snare drum. Carrington expands on the Afro-Caribbean rhythm of calypso to give a final layer of sophistication and groove to this pattern. Originating in Trinidad and Tobago, a traditional calypso rhythm in 4/4 might sound like this:
Carrington incorporates this into 7/4 by adding an iteration and using displacements:
You could start by practicing this alone with the traditional calypso hi-hat pattern placed in 7/4, which looks like this:
One that feels comfortable, you can try to play it as Carrington does in the recording and place it within the cascara ride pattern on the ride cymbal and the 7/4 clave on the hi-hat. The complete pattern looks like this:
This is an incredible groove and one that is sure to expand the way you hear and interact with the music that is being made around you. Experiment with different possibilities of orchestration—for instance, use a cross-stick for the clave and the shell of the floor tom for the cascara—and use Carrington’s recording as reference to figure out what sounds most resonate with you. Implement these ideas into your own playing and compositions when the moment calls for them, and enjoy the freedom that comes with a more nuanced understanding of how to navigate odd-time signatures.
Chase Kuesel (pronounced “key-sull”) is a musician and writer based in Brooklyn, N.Y. His debut album as a leader, Space Between, was released on Ears & Eyes Records in July 2020. Cross-disciplinary explorations animate Chase’s latest work: he recently published both a fully-animated music video for “Falling,” in collaboration with the visual artist Ian Kelly, and an essay in Music & Literature that explores the relationship between music production and digital culture. You can follow Chase’s activities at instagram.com/chasekuesel/.