‘The Mosaic Project’ features all-star female musicians
With all due respect for the artist’s intentions, the most obvious talking point of Terri Lyne Carrington’s new album might also be its most insignificant. Rather than noting that “The Mosaic Project: Love and Soul” features an exclusive cast of female singers and musicians, it’s more apt to say it just happens to be an all-star affair made up of women.
The album, which will be released on Friday, is so good that the performances and the caliber of musicianship trump any distinctions based on gender or even genre. It doesn’t need to come with an ingenious backstory; it just needs to be heard.
An exploration of how jazz intersects with R&B and soul, the album is a highly personal project for Carrington, the Medford-born drummer, arranger, singer, producer, and songwriter. She produced and arranged, assembled the band and singers, and weaved it all together in her spare time away from Berklee College of Music, where she’s a professor. (Or, going back, perhaps you remember Carrington from her stint as the house drummer for “The Arsenio Hall Show.”)
“It is a constant challenge to cleverly or interestingly talk about love in an inspired and imaginative way,” Carrington writes in the album’s liner notes. “I’ve explored this with an incredible gathering of many virtuosic women, making music that is not easily defined.”
True enough, the credits are flush with boldface names. Chaka Khan, Natalie Cole, Valerie Simpson, Ledisi, Lalah Hathaway, Nancy Wilson, Lizz Wright, and Oleta Adams are among the vocalists. The instrumentalists are just as impressive: bassist Meshell Ndegeocello, violinist Regina Carter, pianist Geri Allen, saxophonist Tia Fuller, and so on.
“With the vocalists, I wrote the arrangements, and sometimes the songs, with them in mind,” Carrington says. “I sent them demos and tried to sing it in a way where they could hear themselves doing the song. As far as a mission statement, I just said, ‘I’m making a record, and I’m hearing you on it.’ ”
“Love and Soul” is the second installment of “The Mosaic Project,” the 2011 album that also showcased all female musicians, such as Cassandra Wilson and Esperanza Spalding, and garnered Carrington her first Grammy Award for best jazz vocal album the next year. (She was first nominated in 1989.)
Beyond Billy Dee Williams’s spoken-word interludes, essentially the only male presence on the new record is through many of the songwriters.
“There’s a bit of a feminist statement that these are all women gathered together to make something,” Carrington says. “I did it one time and realized there were more women I wanted to work with, so that’s why I decided to do part two.”
“As a bandleader, Terri Lyne is the consummate musician,” says Lalah Hathaway, who sang “This Too Will Pass,” a Carrington original, on the new album. “As she is as a human, she’s very generous. In the studio, she is a crazy person. I’ve worked with her enough times to know that she’s about her business and she is super musical and absolutely has a vision.”
Hathaway appreciated the project’s overarching theme to spotlight female musicians, but she also knew it was secondary to the music at hand.
“As a woman, the energy is, ‘Wow, this is a project that features all female players and writers and engineers. This is phenomenal,’ ” Hathaway says. “As a musician, I’m not thinking about that at all. This is not the kind of band that Terri Lyne put together for the look or theme of the project. She just got all kickass people.”
Simpson, who reinterpreted “Somebody Told a Lie,” which she had originally written and recorded with Ashford & Simpson, respected Carrington’s new ideas for the song.
“She’s somebody who intuitively knows what she wants but will allow you to take the freedom you need to express yourself,” Simpson says. “It’s amazing that these women were able to start at the beginning and get to the end. That’s a true testament to her how she handles the erratic personalities of different artists.”
The performances range from funky (check out Chaka Khan’s rendition of “I’m a Fool to Want You” to sublime (the legendary Nancy Wilson, now in her late 70s, has still got the magic on “Imagine This”). Paula Cole’s version of Bill Withers’s “You Just Can’t Smile It Away” is another revelation, a master class in smoldering. “She e-mailed me after she heard it and said, ‘You bring out the soul in me,’ ” Carrington says with a laugh.
“There’s been a fair amount of buzz and excitement around this record, and it’s been interesting to see that not a lot of people are mentioning that it’s all-female, which is great,” Carrington says. “But I’m also proud of the fact that it is, because people still aren’t used to that many women coming together and playing on that high of a level.”