Ingrid Laubrock: A New Saxophone Colossus

Chris May By

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Ingrid LaubrockWith Sleepthief (Intakt, 2008), Ingrid Laubrock—a uniquely adventurous saxophonist and bandleader on the British scene since mid decade—has made an album so exceptional that the German-born, London-based musician hasn't gone so much global as galactic.

Deep, singular and utterly compelling, Sleepthief features Laubrock in a trio with British pianist Liam Noble and American drummer Tom Rainey, on a wholly improvised program in which she dazzles both with her brilliantly inventive playing and with the paradigm-shifting sonic vocabularies she is developing on the tenor and soprano. The disc completes a sequence of work—also including Forensic (F-ire, 2004) and Let's Call This... (Babel, 2006)—which confirms Laubrock as a weighty new presence in creative jazz, a superstar in all but mainstream breakthrough. Hopefully, the involvement of Rainey in the Sleepthief trio will give her a bigger platform in the US, where an important new audience awaits her.

In a previous interview with AAJ in August, 2005, Laubrock spoke about her life and music from childhood up until the release of Forensic and her guest appearance on Polar Bear's Mercury Prize-nominated Held on the Tips of Fingers (Babel, 2005). An open, generous and articulate interviewee, with an unassuming but unmistakable presence, she was a pleasure to talk to.

A few months later, in January 2006, Laubrock was awarded a Fellowship in Jazz Composition by Britain's prestigious arts funding body, The Arts Foundation. She released Let's Call This..., a program of duets with Noble, later the same year. In 2007, she was commissioned by the Jerwood Foundation to compose music for a nonet, Nein, to be performed at the 2007 Cheltenham Jazz Festival.

All the while, Laubrock maintained a busy schedule of live performances in Britain and Europe, leading her own bands and guesting with others. She has also made several extended trips to the US, studying, travelling and jamming with friends. She is one of Britain's most active performers, restlessly extending the boundaries of her music. It seems she lives to play.

AAJ spoke with Laubrock again in London in July, 2008—auspiciously, on the day Sleepthief was being pressed. Despite being a little jet-lagged after returning from the US just 36 hours previously, she spoke revealingly about the Sleepthief album and trio, the development of her playing, and her feelings about improvised and pre-structured music.

Ingrid Laubrock

All About Jazz: Let's start with the new trio, Sleepthief. You've been playing together for a year or so now, haven't you?

Ingrid Laubrock: We've been going since early 2007 or late 2006. It's been so organic I've kind of lost track of it. Tom and I had been playing, and I'd been playing with Liam for a while, and at some point we just decided to get together and play whenever Tom was in London and have some fun. Right from the start, the chemistry worked.

I called the band Sleepthief after we'd completed the album, when we were looking for tune titles. I'm terrible with these, and Sleepthief was something a friend had suggested. And I was listening to the album and I thought, maybe this works for the band too. There's a mysterious, dreamlike feel to some of the music—and also you can be torn right out of it.

AAJ: Did you decide not to have a bassist early on?

IL: Right from the start the band seemed to work without one. We tried playing standards once, just for the fun of it, and then we did miss a bass. But for improvisation, we felt that this combination of people, the way it interacts together, works well.

AAJ: The interaction between the three of you is extraordinary, so finely tuned.

Ingrid Laubrock Sleepthief l:r: Liam Noble, Ingrid Laubrock, Tom Rainey

IL: I love playing with these guys. It's so important to be able to let go completely, to be able to express yourself without fearing that the other people aren't going to stay by your side to catch you. It's a situation that needs trust, where people are completely equal. With Liam and Tom I always get the feeling that they're so aware of the whole thing that it's possible to let go and take sidesteps and create all sorts of different scenarios along the way. I lead Sleepthief in the sense I started it, but I don't feel I'm leading it musically.

Liam is someone I've played with for a long time. I always have to be on my toes with him, because he's a very creative, very knowledgeable musician—he can really develop an idea. He can be quite knotty and brittle but soulful too, really lyrical. He's a great improviser despite coming from a more straight-ahead background. Even when we played standards, like on Let's Call This..., there was always this feeling of being on the edge and then catching each other. I have always been in awe of him. When I came out of college, Liam was someone I was eager to play with, and I really had to pluck up my courage to ask him.

Tom is an amazing drummer. It just feels really good playing with him. He's also one of the most creative people I know. He has such a strong feeling of shape and form, of where a track goes. He's just very architectural. I love that, and I especially love it in improvised music. And he has a really beautiful sound. He's such an amazingly experienced and special drummer. He knows how to take the lead but he's also a wonderfully supportive player. I can recognize him on anything, I think, even really old records in completely different styles.

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.

AAJ: You're creating something quite revolutionary, practically a new language for the saxophone—a new dialect anyway. Are you aware how much you've developed over the past couple of years?

Ingrid Laubrock

IL: I'm aware that I'm progressing. But you can be so judgmental on yourself. You have crises and you think, "What am I doing? Am I any good?" But it seems to be coming together now. I'm more confident and I'm having a much better time playing. And I'm fortunate to play with guys who really push it—I like trying to rise to a challenge, I like being challenged. But there are still moments when I go, I don't know about this. It never stops, if it's a thing you have in your character where you question what you're doing.

One thing that's helped is that over the last couple of years I've only played with people I really wanted to play with and in situations I really wanted to play in. It's been a conscious decision. It means you're not fighting with yourself all the time, going against yourself.

AAJ: What's next for Sleepthief?

IL: We have a largish tour coming up in autumn 2008 and I'm curious to see where that leads us. Everything develops when you play together regularly on the road. It's a pretty dense tour—fifteen gigs in five countries in just over two weeks. I'm going to try and record two of the gigs and see what comes out of that. (Click on Ingrid Laubrock At All About Jazz below and go to Calendar for tour details).

AAJ: What about in the US?

IL: I sometimes fantasize about doing an album there. There is a nice studio in Brooklyn where they have tons of different keyboards and where you could potentially make a little bit more of a studio album, overdubbing things and so on. It's a bit of a fantasy, and I don't know if it will happen, though if it does I would obviously like to find a few gigs too. But it's complicated because of the visa situation.

AAJ: Do you have plans to tour the quintet?

IL: Yes. We did quite a long run of touring in 2006, and Nein includes more or less everybody from that band. I'm planning to get a tour together for 2009. I have really strong loyalties and if I like the sound of someone I tend to keep liking it for a long time.

Selected Discography

Ingrid Laubrock/Sleepthief, Sleepthief (Intakt, 2008)
Ingrid Laubrock/Liam Noble, Let's Call This... (Babel, 2006)
Polar Bear, Held on the Tips of Fingers (Babel, 2005)
Nois4, Gente (Candid, 2004)
Ingrid Laubrock, Forensic (F-ire, 2004)
Tom Arthurs' Centripede, Centripede (Babel, 2003)
Monica Vasconcelos and Nois, Oferenda (Candid, 2002)
Ingrid Laubrock, Some Times (Candid, 2001)
Nois4, Bom Dia (Candid, 2000)
Monica Vasconcelos and Nois, Nois Dois (Independent, 1999)
Ingrid Laubrock, Who Is It (Candid, 1997)
Matt Borgmann, Summertime (Independent, 1995)

Photo Credit
Top Photo: Helena Dornellas

All Other Photos: Duncan Hening

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