Terri Lyne Carrington’s award-winning band Social Science, with whom she’ll perform Saturday at the Newport Jazz Festival, had its genesis in tours featuring music from the drummer and composer’s Grammy-winning albums “The Mosaic Project” and “Money Jungle.”
Pianist Aaron Parks and guitarist Matthew Stevens had each subbed in the bands involved, usually separately, and the experience led her to tap them for her next project, which led to Social Science’s provocative, rap-infused 2019 double-disc album “Waiting Game.”
“I was just loving them as musicians and people and always felt like, ‘Man, we should do something together outside of these situations,’ ” she recalls while driving back to Boston from a studio session in New York. “We had one gig together, and basically that is when we really started talking and getting together and writing some music.”
“I think it was a ‘Money Jungle’ gig in China,” echoes Stevens. “Aaron and I go way back, and we both had a good vibe, a good feeling with Terri. So it was one of those things born out of musical admiration for one another, kind of feeling like we played well together but also feeling like we enjoyed one another’s company.”
They also shared an ethos — coupling an eclectic and highly improvisational approach to music with an eagerness to confront social issues — that was crucial. Three additional members were added to the core band: multi-instrumentalist Morgan Guerin on tenor sax and electric bass; Boston native and Berklee College of Music grad Debo Ray, of the international vocal group Women of the World, on vocals; and Kassa Overall as MC and DJ.
Carrington had known Overall exclusively as a drummer in her late friend Geri Allen’s band until running into him one night in Europe.
“I heard him talking to somebody and he breaks into this rap,” she recalls, “and I was like, ‘What are you doing?’ I had no idea. And he was like, ‘Yeah, this is kind of my other life. This is what I do.’ ”
Guest rappers, vocalists, and spoken-word artists were added for specific tracks, including Kokayi, who raps on the album track “Purple Mountains” and will be subbing for Overall at Newport.
Guest instrumentals include a Nicholas Payton trumpet solo on “Pray the Gay Away” (a catchy tune that makes joyful mockery of conversion therapy) and Esperanza Spalding playing bass on “Desperate Measures,” the extended instrumental piece that comprises all of disc two. Edmar Colón added string arrangements to the pieces featuring Payton and Spalding.
Carrington herself wrote lyrics, something she’s been doing since her first album. “The rappers wrote their own lyrics, of course,” she clarifies. “But anything that was sung on the record, I wrote, except for Joni’s song.”
Joni being Joni Mitchell, whose song “Love” was included as an antidote to injustices protested in the album’s other songs. “Love is social justice, too,” notes Carrington, “because you have to have it in your heart to have compassion and empathy for others.”
The band debuted at New York’s Winter JazzFest in January 2017, shortly before Donald Trump was inaugurated as president. His election prompted what became the album’s title track, a reaction to the backlash to social progress that it represented.
The lengthy recording process began that February. Collaboration was emphasized throughout.
Parks early on played Carrington a selection of music he had already written, to “see what lit her up and gave her ideas” for repurposing. His “Trapped in a Dream” was rechristened “Trapped in the American Dream” and became the album’s opening track.
“I always felt that it needed a vocal element to it, so I talked to Kassa,” says Parks. “I said, ‘Listen, you go to town.’ But the basic idea is the prison industrial complex and how we’re trapped in this idea of the American dream. People are making money off of people rotting away in prison.”
His song “Bells” would eventually appear on his own album “Little Big,” but it was first recorded with Social Science and Carrington’s lyrics, inspired by the then-recent killing of Philando Castile and the acquittal the following summer of the police officer who shot him.
“One of the reasons I think ‘Bells’ works so well,” says Parks, “is there’s an almost numbing repetitiveness to it — the repeated Rhodes figure, the repeated chord progressions — something about it that feels like it’s lulling you into this sense of complacency, which reminded me of the way we had started to approach the police killings . . . where it starts to become this repetitive ritual that does not lead to any change.
“I thought it also was an interesting vehicle for the message, because it’s a message that is appealing to the humanity of the police officer rather than just full-on outrage. It’s like, ‘Have you considered what this feels like from another point of view?’ That’s really what the story of it is.”
Parks’s militaristic piece “The Anthem” had been written years earlier but gone unrecorded, until Carrington set the rapper Rapsody loose on it.
“Terri is a genius in so many ways,” Parks enthuses about Carrington, who founded the Berklee Institute of Jazz and Gender Justice and was named by the National Endowment for the Arts as one of four Jazz Masters for 2021. “Of course on the drums, but also seeing possibilities that maybe other people wouldn’t even consider or start to look for. The fact that she has the ability to take this song that I had conceived of as an instrumental song for the band, bringing Rapsody onto it and turning into it a radical, militant, feminist anthem I think is pretty astonishing. Not to mention what I think of as a master stroke of an idea: to take that whole second disc of the record, that improvisation, and hire somebody to write arrangements around what we improvised.”
The resultant album was a Grammy Awards finalist for best jazz instrumental album. Last summer’s DownBeat Critics Poll voted Carrington jazz artist, her band jazz group, and “Waiting Game” jazz album of the year.
That’s a lot of accolades for an album whose range of overt social-justice themes might have come off as preachy and didactic in less skilled hands.
“I think the bottom line is the music has to be good,” says Carrington. “You can’t write conscious music and it not be really good music too, or it will never get its point across. So I was trying to be as conscious as possible with that aspect of it, writing something that I felt would work musically, whether people liked the message or not. They might like the music and maybe they would then be exposed to something, the message would seep in, even if it’s not really what they thought about in the first place.”