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Ingrid Laubrock: A New Saxophone Colossus

By Published: September 15, 2008
AAJ: When was Sleepthief recorded?

IL: We made it on September 1, 2007 at Radley College near Oxford. A friend of mine offered to let us use a music room he was teaching in. It has really good facilities, plenty of space and a great sound for a trio. Andrew Tulloch, the recording engineer, came out with his mobile facilities.

The previous day before we had recorded Nein in the same place. That didn't turn out so good—the room didn't work for the band, it was hard to hear things and get separation. It was too big, and in the nonet we have everything from really loud instruments to really soft ones, and the two pianos were miles away from each other. It was impossible to hear certain things.

But since Tom and Liam are in Nein, the plan had always been to record this album right afterwards. The size of the room and its acoustic, which had been so difficult for the nonet the day before, worked perfectly for the trio. After the frustrations of the previous day it was like a release. We just went in and played, and went out for a bit, and came back and played some more. It was a very natural process.

AAJ: The music is all wholly improvised, isn't it? No tunes, everything created entirely in the moment. Was there any editing or post-production?

IL: None at all. The only thing we did, we left off two or three of the tracks that we'd made. Otherwise it was just going to be too long. It felt right at about an hour, it didn't need to be longer. Also, the order of the tunes on the disc is not as they were played—it's not that different, but it's not as played.

AAJ: By contrast, Forensic and Let's Call This... used pre-written tunes and structures. Do you have a preference between improvised and pre-structured music?

Ingrid Laubrock

IL: That's a really difficult thing to answer, it involves so much of your inner life, things that aren't always tangible. Sometimes, when I play pre-structured music with the right combination of people, it doesn't feel all that different to a completely improvised situation.

I guess the difference is that even when you play standards very freely, you still have a guideline that connects your ideas to the ideas of the other musicians. You have a common reference point, however vague you want to make it. But in a wholly improvised situation it's not only your own imagination, ears, taste buds and emotions that guide your playing, it's also those of the other musicians. Not having a "grid," any player in the band can change the course of the music. I love the responsibility of that and I also love going where the other musicians can take me.

For me, not having to deal with anything preconceived seems to allow me to feel the room, the musicians and myself in a heightened way. It lets me get in touch with an inner world in a way that feels deep and is fun at the same time.

But I do still love playing pre-structured music. It really depends on the musicians involved. This summer in New York I was listening to some recordings the (Forensic) quintet did for BBC Radio 3 and also a live recording we did in Ireland, and I was missing it. It's still really fun for me to play tunes.

AAJ: Your Fellowship from the Arts Foundation was directed at pre-structured music, wasn't it? At composition specifically.

IL: Yes. That was a fantastic opportunity. Somebody nominated me and all I had to do was make a proposal about what I'd do with the award. I said I'd use it to go and study composition in America.

This lead me to Myra Melford in San Francisco. She's a pianist in the Berkeley area. She was on the New York scene for a long time. She's a really good composer and she also played and studied with Henry Threadgill. I had read this article she wrote about composition for a project by John Zorn, and though I didn't understand all of it, I understood enough for it to sound really interesting. And so I called her up and I said would you mind giving me a lesson? She was great. I was there about a month. It was really intense. I only had about four actual lessons but she showed me lots and I stayed there and wrote.

Ingrid Laubrock

And then the Nein commission happened and it gave me the space to develop those ideas. It's written but interspersed with improvisation. Certain bits are totally free, others are written. Sometimes you have a part of the band that's fixed and another part that's free; sometimes you have duets and then you have trios. Trying to get a lot of texture out of it. I'd really love to record it, but it will cost quite a lot.

AAJ: Texture is important to Sleepthief too, not least in the remarkable sonic palettes you're developing on the tenor and the soprano.

IL: Well, sound and sounds are vital parts of your expression on an instrument. I often discover new sounds in an improvising situation, or a situation that is new to me, and I love the surprise of finding a new "noise" and often let it lead my improvisation in a new situation.

Separately from that, I also consciously work on unusual sounds or extended techniques so that I can access them when I want to.

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