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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.


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