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Ingrid Laubrock: Playing with the Future

By Published: August 15, 2005

AAJ: How did you support yourself when you arrived in London?

IL: For the first nine months I lived by busking. It was like a regular day job. Each day I went down the Tube and played till I had made about £25, which was enough to get by on. This was with very little technical facility on my part, I had only started playing the saxophone about a month before I got here. I really enjoyed doing it. My boyfriend, who was a guitarist, was doing the same thing, but somehow the saxophone proved to be more popular and I was making more money than him. It kind of forced him to play with me, a total beginner, which he did very begrudgingly at first. Great for me though, as he was so much better, and taught me a lot.

The interesting thing is that I played in front of an audience straight from the beginning and every day. Talk about public humiliation! But at least people were able to walk straight past if they wanted to.

AAJ: When did you start formal tuition on the saxophone?

IL: After I'd been playing alto for about three years, in 1993. I came across Jean Toussaint on a CD and I thought, "I really like this guy's playing." So I got his number somehow and I rang him up. He said, "Oh, I don't know, I don't really teach beginners." But he must have heard some sort of desperation in my voice, realised that he was not going to shake me off, and he agreed to teach me. We never had a lesson that stuck to an hour, they always went over. He would play at me with his huge tenor sound and make me copy him for two, three hours at a time. He also got me transcribing and writing out my own solos. It was a great time.

AAJ: You studied with David Liebman, too, didn't you, after you'd taken up tenor and soprano.

IL: I got a lot out of his book How To Develop A Personal Saxophone Sound. I liked the clarity with which it was written. I wrote him a letter, saying how much I enjoyed the book and asked him if I could have a lesson or two next time he was in Europe. He wrote back and invited me to join one of his US masterclasses, which I did, twice actually, in 1998 and 1999.

Studying with David Liebman was one of the biggest changes that has happened to me as musician. Maybe the most important thing. His masterclasses are very intense. On the first evening, we all sat down together—this is about twenty saxophonists—and he put the demo tapes we'd each sent to him in a bag and pulled them out one by one, anonymously. Then he played them and basically tore them apart. Saying what he really thought, as a super critical, very experienced, older musician. When he played mine he deliberately chose a bit that he didn't think was very good. He played a bit, and shred it to pieces, played another bit...and I was absolutely gutted. I was sitting there thinking, "I'm gonna get you." I was really angry. I was so upset I couldn't sleep that night. At some point during the week, everyone had to perform an original solo piece, composed or improvised or both. So I spent every evening until then in my room writing this piece, with all my anger and frustration in it. He laughed when I played it, because before I started I explained where it was coming from.

AAJ: As you do.

IL: He was also important for the encouragement he gave me. He kept saying, "You can do it, you have something special, it's time to get it out." He also talked about having to go back to bebop, back to the roots, standards, to check out what other people had done before, but like in real detail. He said, "You will not end up being a bebop player, that's not you, but you will do something with this knowledge." That really opened my mind. There were many holes in my knowledge, and I knew he was right.

So I went back home to Germany for about six months, and I just practiced for ten hours every day. Really fanatic. My poor mum! And I spent one day a week just writing, and listened a lot too. I knew Miles but I had missed the earlier things, and I discovered how much I liked that stuff, how it all hangs together, the history and development of the music.

AAJ: Did you ever take tuition on the baritone? [Laubrock occasionally plays it live and on record.]

IL: Obviously not! I don't know why I picked it up on the Forensic session, because I really can't play the thing, and originally took it along just to double a bass line. I actually considered not putting "BLT" on the album, but I liked the vibe of the whole thing, so I put my ego second. [Laubrock is being super self-critical. Her baritone work has great character.]

AAJ: Let's continue with Forensic and your own music. On the F-IRE website, you say something very simple and illuminating about your band's approach to performance. You say, "We all try to improvise as much as possible whilst never losing track of the composition."

IL: I think there are many different and valid approaches to improvisation. My band's is that we keep the essence of the composition strongly in mind in order to go away from it furthest, if that makes any sense. It's like finding new angles on painting the same thing. Look at a still life of a bowl of fruit and a dead pheasant, or whatever people used to paint, and how it might change over the centuries: however abstract it might get, it is still about the poor bird and the fruit. We kind of let the music mutate in a similar way every time we play it. I like keeping the options open and not have my music too pre-arranged. It keeps you on your toes and in touch with the other musicians around you. There's lots of fun to be had that way...and it can go wrong too.

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