Jazz comes first for all-female Mosaic Project

Boston Globe, December 9, 2011

It shouldn’t be this way, but it’s still the case that when a jazz group forms in which all the players are women, that fact attracts at least as much notice as the music they perform. It’s unavoidable: all-women groups remain rare in a jazz world where most performers, listeners, and critics are male. It’s also annoying, not least for female artists who have worked their way to the music’s heights only to find their work with one another treated as a novelty.

That is why it is tempting to see the trio of drummer Terri Lyne Carrington, pianist Geri Allen, and bassist Esperanza Spalding, who appear at Scullers tonight through Sunday, as simply a dynamite combination of virtuosos with amazing combined breadth and experience, gathered together in a piano trio, one of the music’s classic formats.

But that would be leaving out part of the story. That’s because Carrington, who initiated this trio (although it’s the buzzed-about Spalding, Grammy winner and featured performer at the White House, who gets the attention in the club’s listing), recently set aside her deep reluctance to highlight gender in her music. And to spectacular effect: “The Mosaic Project,” her new record featuring 21 top women in jazz (with a dash of soul and funk) is a grand celebration, as well as one of this year’s most appealing releases.

With a strong vocal component (including Dianne Reeves, Cassandra Wilson, Gretchen Parlato, Nona Hendryx, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Carmen Lundy) it has received a Grammy nomination for best jazz vocal recording. But with trumpeter Ingrid Jensen, saxophonist Tineke Postma, clarinetist Anat Cohen, guitarist Linda Taylor, and more, including Sheila E. on percussion and Patrice Rushen on keyboards, it sparkles as much for its instrumental range as for its lyrics of love, politics, yearning, and transformation.

And with Carrington on every track and Allen and Spalding on many, this weekend’s trio represents the backbone of the larger project. It is also, Carrington says, the group that inspired her to develop the Mosaic Project in the first place.

“I thought it’s really time to do a female-driven record,” Carrington says. Three years ago, the three and Postma played as a quartet at the Red Sea Jazz Festival in Israel. Last year, the trio made its debut at Bowdoin College in Maine. A seed was planted, Carrington says: “When I started thinking about a project that would be recorded, immediately my thoughts expanded.”

The result is a recording that is all-women, not by accident, but also not as its sole raison d’etre. It is as much, Carrington says, a chance to bring together friends.

“People look at it like an all-female record, I understand that, and the point was to celebrate women’s artistry,” Carrington says. “But it’s really a documentation of where I am in my life. I have been playing with these musicians on and off for 20 years.”

Or longer: Carrington, 46, was a teenager when she first met Allen. Spalding, 27, is a newer acquaintance, but the two were brought together as colleagues on the faculty of the Berklee College of Music. (Carrington, a Medford native, returned from the West Coast six years ago and lives in the Boston area.)

Allen says it makes sense that Carrington assembled this project. “She has a wonderful way of bringing people together,” Allen says. “It represents her being kind of a visionary. She has a good sense of timing in a lot of different ways.”

Allen, 54, has a long discography ranging from avant-garde work in the tradition of Ornette Coleman and John and Alice Coltrane to sacred music (her Christmas album, “A Child Is Born,” came out recently). But she says Carrington, an avid hip-hop and rock listener, pushes her to new places, whether in the open, accessible funk that characterizes much of Mosaic, or in their work together with Angelique Kidjo and Lizz Wright on the “Sing the Truth” project.

“She kind of throws me in a lot of different fun, organic challenging experiences,” Allen says of Carrington.

Carrington cautions that the trio will differ from Mosaic’s lush, produced texture, even if they revisit a few of its songs. She says Spalding, who has become known not just for her bass playing but also as a vocalist, “might sing a little” as she does on “Mosaic.” Each woman will contribute new compositions. But the emphasis will be on standards, in arrangements that allow the three to stretch out and improvise.

In that respect, this gathering is as classic as jazz gets. It echoes important trios past and present: Carrington cites those led by Keith Jarrett and Brad Mehldau, for example, and even Medeski Martin & Wood. “I’ve always loved great jazz trios,” she says. “It’s cool to figure out how much you can do in that setting.”

Allen concurs: “I’m really just looking forward to the opportunity to find what our place is in that history,” she says. And in a further nod to the tradition, Carrington says the trio -which she hopes will turn into a long-term venture -will appear next month at New York’s hallowed Village Vanguard.

All this makes the trio and the larger Mosaic Project significant both because they are all-female and for reasons that have nothing to do with that fact. That’s why Carrington isn’t wrong when she says, “I don’t deal with gender at all” – even though Mosaic plainly does.

“When I play with great musicians, I play with great musicians,” Carrington says. “All great musicians listen. They are sensitive and compassionate. You can’t go in with an agenda. When you’re open is when the magic happens.”