Arts Beat: A Beat of her Own

After decades of trying, a Berklee jazz professor finds her sound.

Photo by Tracy Love.

Photo by Tracy Love.

When Jazz musician Esperanza Spalding beat out Justin Bieber for the Best New Artist Grammy earlier this year, her bandmate Terri Lyne Carrington screamed while watching it on TV. “My friends just looked at me,” Carrington recalls, “because, well, we’re hip jazz musicians. We don’t do that.

Despite the occasional lapse, Carrington’s long career as a drummer has been the definition of cool. Born into a musical family in West Medford, Carrington was shaking a tambourine with jazz greats like Rahsaan Roland Kirk by age five and banging the skins behind Oscar Peterson six years later. As a teen, she attended Berklee, and at 23 released her debut Real Life Story, which was nominated for a Best Jazz Fusion Grammy in 1990. Around that time, she was named house drummer for late-night comedic gabfest The Arsenio Hall Show.

That’s when her auspicious start stalled. She left Arsenio after four months because the producers wanted her full focus on the show. She chose to follow her muse instead, and soon struggled to find a home for her groove-laden, abstract sound. And while she worked consistently as a session drummer for Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Diana Krall, and others, it was 10 years before she released a follow-up solo album — which she had to self-finance.

In 2005 Carrington returned to Boston to teach at Berklee. Soon she was gigging with an old friend, pianist Geri Allen, and Spalding, then a rapidly rising star. (Catch them at Scullers December 9 to 11.) Playing with them three years ago at the Red Sea Jazz Festival in Israel, Carrington marveled at the depth of female jazz talent. That thought sparked The Mosaic Project, an all-female album released in July (see below).

When Carrington’s star soared in the late ’80s, she may have been a little before her time. But together with Allen and Spalding, she’s proving that tuneful but challenging jazz can still find a way into the mainstream. “I want to show [Spalding] anything I can and help elevate her experience,” Carrington says. “And in return, she helps me stay current.”

All That Jazz, The Mosaic Project by Terri Lyne Carrington, $15, Concord Jazz. The cast behind Carrington’s latest features a roster of greats, from singer Dianne Reeves to conga diva Sheila E. The resulting 70-plus minutes of soulful originals and cool classics suits every mood.