Terri Lyne Carrington is fresh off a Grammy win for an album she says never would have been possible at the start of her career 35 years ago. That’s because “The Mosaic Project” is an all-female album, featuring a who’s who of women in jazz playing every instrument and singing every note.
It’s not that there hasn’t been a rich history of accomplished female jazz musicians. Mary Lou Williams — whose name is attached to the Kennedy Center’s upcoming “Women in Jazz Festival,” where Carrington plays with a group from the album Saturday — is one example of a musician and composer who worked alongside the likes of Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman and countless other jazz luminaries. But, says Carrington, the pool of accomplished female jazz musicians then was markedly smaller than it is now.
“I will never play with women because they are women,” says Carrington, 46. “I always have to feel musically connected. But now I feel [I have] so many more peers than before, musical comrades that happen to share the same number of X chromosomes.”
It had never occurred to Carrington to work on a female-driven project until 2007, when the drummer and composer played the “Red Sea Jazz Festival” in Israel, with bassist-vocalist Esperanza Spalding, pianist Geri Allen and saxophonist Tineke Postma. It was the first time Carrington had played a succession of gigs with the 27-year-old Spalding, and something fortuitous clicked between them.
“For me, [Spalding] completed some kind of circle that still had an opening. She reminded me of myself and we were like-minded. . . . You have to interpret a piece of music in a like-minded way in order for it to have something really special and magical.”
Carrington and Spalding continued to play together after the stint in Israel. Carrington recorded “Chamber Music Society” with Spalding and toured to support the album. She’s also featured on Spalding’s newly released follow-up album, “Radio Music Society.” But Carrington’s musical chemistry with Spalding sparked a desire to work on a new project that would bring together other female musicians she enjoyed.
“I realized I was playing with some incredible women,” Carrington says. “And I thought, ‘Let’s just celebrate these women all together.’ ”
So Carrington started calling her peers, including Dee Dee Bridgewater, Sheila E., Carmen Lundy, Anat Cohen, Geri Allen, Helen Sung, Nona Hendryx, Cassandra Wilson, Gretchen Parlato and, of course, Dianne Reeves, with whom Carrington has maintained a lifelong friendship since Reeves appeared on her first professional gig with Clark Terry in 1976 (Carrington was only 10 years old).
Carrington selected the songs — a mix of jazz standards, original compositions and adaptations of pop songs.She then reharmonized and arranged them and recorded personalized demos for each song, which she then sent directly to the vocalist-musician she wanted to feature. Despite that many of her targets were big names who probably wouldn’t receive the compensation they deserved, most jumped on board without hesitation. Carrington says more women wanted to participate than she had room for, so she’ll be cutting a second record to include them.
“I have a long history with all of them,” says Carrington of the women on “The Mosaic Project.” “That’s how I was able to do the record. Because all those singers, it’s not like they need to do it for career reasons or for financial reasons. They have to do it just because they want to.”
The album is eclectic yet cohesive, never falling victim to the kind of disjointedness that can often result from such a large cast. The mosaic metaphor is wonderfully apt: Each musician has her own influences and occupies different musical territory, and the group is diverse in age and nationality. But Carrington orchestrates them in such a way so as to piece them together almost seamlessly.
Carrington found the mix of young and older women particularly important in capturing a more universal sound.
“Jazz is always moving forward,” she says. “I like to be around younger musicians because I like to stay current and the young musicians help you to stay current. That’s why in ‘The Mosaic Project,’ I really like to feature musicians from all different age groups and all different cultural backgrounds and countries. I just wanted to have a global feeling and also the seasoning that you get with older players and the excitement and new territory that you get with younger players.”
For a musician as prolific as Carrington, it is rewarding to win a Grammy for an album such as “The Mosaic Project.” The album is also a testament to the fruitful musical relationships she has cultivated throughout her career.
“I think most people [felt that] the album really showed my growth and 30 years of work culminating into a project that kind of all came together. It’s not that I haven’t done other decent projects in the past, but this one really culminated in a special way. And I think people who knew my history at all — and even those that didn’t — were supportive of that.”
Saturday, 7 p.m. Kennedy Center, 2700 F St. NW. 202-467-4600.
www.kennedy-center.org . $38