Drummer Terri Lyne Carrington couldn't have imagined producing an all-female jazz album like her Grammy-nominated "The Mosaic Project" when she launched her career three decades ago. Back then, she got used to being the only woman on the bandstand.
"The pool of female jazz musicians was not the same before," said Carrington. "But now there's like a surge of younger players ... and that made me feel like I can actually do a project like this."
Over the years, Carrington has helped mentor a new generation of female instrumentalists who have gone beyond the roles of singers and pianists that women traditionally filled in a male-dominated jazz world.
The inspiration for "Mosaic Project" came at the 2007 Red Sea Jazz Festival in Israel when Carrington performed in a quartet with Dutch saxophonist Tineke Postma, pianist Geri Allen, and bassist Esperanza Spalding.
"I looked up on the stage and there were four women, and it just felt very organic and natural, and I thought maybe I would use it as a nucleus for a group for a recording project," she said.
The 46-year-old Carrington says that having the CD with 21 female performers receive a Grammy nomination for best jazz vocal album is "just icing on the cake for a project that I did deep from my heart."
"I think people could feel its honesty," said Carrington, speaking by telephone from her home in Medford, Mass. "I wasn't trying to go for any kind of gimmick effect. It was a sincere attempt to just celebrate the really great women in jazz — people that I've been close to over the years."
The album carries its own Grammy pedigree. The featured vocalists include Dianne Reeves, Cassandra Wilson and Dee Dee Bridgewater, who between them have won more than half of the Grammys awarded in the jazz vocal category over the past 15 years. There's also Spalding, the upset winner over Justin Bieber for best new artist at last year's Grammys, who plays bass on all 14 tracks and sings on two of them, including her own whimsical "Colors."
Carrington says she felt a strong connection with Spalding the first time they played together after meeting six years ago as faculty members at Boston's Berklee College of Music. The drummer performed on Spalding's CD "Chamber Music Society" and the soon-to-be-released "Radio Music Society." They also recently formed a collective trio with Allen that plays open-ended arrangements of jazz standards.
"Terri has played with so many masters from so many different generations, and she carries with her in her sound elements of all of the music that she's been part of," said Spalding, interviewed at last summer's Newport Jazz Festival after leading a band that included Carrington. "Terri's never talking about being a woman or that it's different or harder or easier or anything. She's just a musician's musician."
Carrington's grandfather, who died shortly before she was born, played drums with Gene Ammons and Duke Ellington, among others, and her father was a professional saxophonist. She started playing tenor sax at 5, but at 7 her teeth fell out and she started practicing on her grandfather's drum set in the cellar.
"My father wanted a son to carry on the music tradition in the family so he was very disappointed, but then as soon as I started playing music he was really happy and definitely encouraging," she said.
She gave her first major performance at age 10 at the Wichita Jazz Festival with trumpeter Clark Terry, whose band she joined after receiving a scholarship to Berklee and then moving to New York. In 1989, she released her debut CD, the Grammy-nominated crossover "Real Life Story," with an impressive guest list that included Carlos Santana, Grover Washington Jr. and Wayne Shorter.
Carrington wouldn't make another album as a leader until 13 years later when she recorded "Jazz Is a Spirit" for a European label. But she built up an impressive resume playing in groups led by Shorter, Danilo Perez and Herbie Hancock as well as high-profile TV gigs on Arsenio Hall's show and the Quincy Jones-produced "Vibe."
She took to heart lessons learned from Jones and Hancock when the opportunity came to produce "Mosaic Project." Carrington selected songs and wrote arrangements to match each singer's personality, assembling a lineup that is cross-generational and cross-cultural.
"I wanted to make a product that had these different colors and styles and shapes come together that felt like one total picture — and that's what inspired the word 'mosaic,'" said Carrington, in an earlier interview at the Newport festival. "I'm a person that likes to play different styles and genres. ... I'm a jazz musician at heart, but I play many R&B and funk gigs."
Carrington also meant the album to spotlight some of the best female jazz musicians of recent decades by featuring vocal arrangements with lots of space for the instrumentalists and three instrumental tracks that she wrote. Besides her Red Sea bandmates, the lineup includes percussionist Sheila E., trumpeter Ingrid Jensen, keyboard player Patrice Rushen, pianist Helen Sung, and Israeli-born clarinetist Anat Cohen.
Cohen places "Mosaic Project" in a historic lineage that includes the all-female International Sweethearts of Rhythm swing band of the 1940s and the Diva Jazz Orchestra, formed in 1990.
"When I started playing, it was still like,'Oh wow, you're a woman playing jazz,'" said Cohen. "Today it's not a thing anymore. There are definitely way more women out there doing their thing and being accepted by the audience and other musicians."
Carrington insists that "Mosaic Project" shouldn't be seen as any kind of feminist statement. Close your eyes and listen, she says, and "you don't hear gender."
"There's some aggressive qualities and a lot of just beautiful qualities to it. The idea is to be able to be aggressive and seductive at the same time. And that's what a woman can be and has to be in life a lot of times."