Ingrid Laubrock: Playing with the Future

Chris May BY

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The older I get the wierder I feel the music is going to be. I have a feel of where it's going and I know it's going to get less and less commercial.
Born and brought up in Germany, but resident in London since 1990, saxophonist, composer and bandleader Ingrid Laubrock started getting noticed on the UK scene in 1997, with the release of her first solo album, Who Is It?. The same year she began recording with Brazilian singer Monica Vasconcelos' band Nois, a collaboration which continues on the road and in the studio, and in 2001 recorded her second album, Some Times.

Those first two solo albums, both on Candid, documented the development of a singular and increasingly free-thinking stylist, but it was 2004's Forensic, on F-IRE, an altogether more radical and adventurous album, which marked Laubrock out for greatness, serving notice that here was an artist acquiring world stature. That, and her regular recording and performing work with Polar Bear, with whom she was featured on the Mercury Prize-nominated album Held On The Tips Of Fingers.

Laubrock is one of the most in-demand musicians on the London cutting edge—she plays soprano, alto, tenor and baritone, but concentrates on tenor and soprano—working in F-IRE Collective colleagues Jonny Phillips' Oriole, Tom Arthurs' Centripede, Jonathan Bratoeff's quintet and the expanded line-up Synergy, amongst other bands and projects. Later in 2005, she plans to record a follow-up to Forensic with her regular performing quintet of Ben Davis, cello, Barry Green, piano, Larry Bartley, bass, and Seb Rochford, drums.

Listening to Laubrock play live is thrilling and momentous not only for the music, which is incandescent, but also for the sense of occasion. You know you are witnessing the arrival of major new voice on the international stage, one which seems to grow more daring and resonant with every gig.

She is a delight to interview, too. Articulate, focused, detailed, revealing, and with serious intent. Like her music. And generous with her time: when we spoke she was preparing to record a duo album with pianist Liam Noble, now completed, and rehearsing for a playing and acting role in a contemporary opera production at Islington's high profile Almeida Theatre.

We talked, mainly chronologically, about her early discovery of jazz—she began listening to free improv, big time, at the age of twelve—through her arrival in London, important periods of formal tuition, first with Jean Toussaint and later on with David Liebman, her own approach to music, bandleading and improvisation, the musicians in her quintet, and some upcoming recording projects.

In conversation, Laubrock is relaxed, straightforward and modest, but deep down you sense a non-negotiable, no surrender, absolute, absolute determination to develop her music the way she wants it to go—whatever it takes, on her own terms, unfettered by commercial considerations. She also has that more or less indefinable but immediately recognizable quality: star charisma. It's something to do with poise and quiet self-confidence, but that's only part of it. A vision of where you want to go, and how you are going to get there, plays a part, too.

Speaking to her was a real pleasure....

All About Jazz: I feel the British jazz scene is very fortunate to have you in this country. What was it that brought you to London?

Ingrid Laubrock: I grew up in a very small town in the middle of nowhere and from the age of fifteen I was dying to get out. The day I left school, the day I finished my exams, I moved to Berlin. I just couldn't stand it any longer. After a while, my boyfriend in Berlin wanted to go to London and I agreed to come along too, for a holiday. [This was in 1989, when Laubrock was 19.] I liked it and I've lived here ever since.

AAJ: Were you already into jazz when you got here?

IL: Very much. I had started listening to a lot of free stuff when I was about twelve. I had this big old valve radio in my bedroom that my granny had given us, and I found a station that played a lot of very strange, free jazz, mainly German and East European. I didn't think of it so much as music then, I just let it transport me somewhere else. I made lots of tapes of it, some of which I still have.

A year or so later, an aunt lent us a box of American jazz recordings, mainly Prestige stuff, that had belonged to her husband before he died. Some of it really grabbed me. Miles' Workin' and Cookin' and the Thelonious Monk Quartet with Sonny Rollins. Kind Of Blue came a bit later, and the Mahavishnu Orchestra's Birds Of Fire—I think I bought that one because I liked the cover, I was only about thirteen. When I was fifteen, a friend took me to a jazz festival where I saw Ornette Coleman and Prime Time, and Albert Mangelsdorff, and over a few days I heard loads of live free music.

My older brother listened to jazz too. I would hear it through the wall when he was playing it in his room. At sixteen, I got involved with a bunch of local musicians and friends of my brother who introduced me to Miles Davis and dope—we lived about five miles from the Dutch border and the nearest coffeeshop. We listened to Miles' seventies' music a lot. All I did for three years, until I moved to Berlin, was smoke dope and listen to music.

It made a really strong impression on me, that music. It really got my imagination going. I'm glad about that period, I listened to so much good stuff, without always knowing who it was and not very analytically, just immmersing myself in it.

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.

AAJ: In performance, it's very clear how important intuition and in the moment creation are to your band. Does conscious thought play a part too?

IL: I've often thought about that. Yeah, sometimes, it's difficult to describe. Sometimes there's a thought process that starts something off. You think of a shape or an interval, for instance, or you think of a chord, or you think of what you might play on this chord, and then you take it from there. Sometimes it seems you just play and you don't really know what you're doing, you don't think about it. Other times it's an intellectual thing that goes, "OK, this is not happening, let me step in, let me take charge." I think it's all very fast actually! It's not that conscious. There seems to be a balance between thought, physicality and emotion.

What I find I can do much better now, the older I get, is to be in the moment and concentrated, focused. If I really concentrate it flows much better. And if I make sure I keep a sense of play, like child's play, in it, then I will stay more open to whatever's going to happen. I'll be happy to play, to tease, whatever you do. It's definitely not intellectual in the way most people use the word. It's not calculating and unemotional.

AAJ: Your band is made up of some of the most exciting young musicians in London. In what ways are each of them special to you?

IL: I met Seb [Rochford, drums] through F-IRE. I had listened to his band Polar Bear quite a few times and I always really enjoyed it. I love the writing. After a while he asked me to do a few gigs with Polar Bear, and I've depped for both Pete [Wareham] and Mark [Lockheart]. It's a great band to play with. I love Seb's music and I love the freedom he brings to it. He tunes into peoples' creativity very strongly and he allows them to be themselves. He is one of the most unselfish bandleaders around, he doesn't impose himself much in his rehearsals, but he lets you get on with it, find your own space in his music. He's a really creative guy who can handle things going differently. And I like the darkness that comes from Seb as well.

I also met Ben [Davis, cello] through F-IRE. I think he's a fantastic improviser. He's got a really beautiful sound, he gets loads of different colours out of the instrument. We also play together in Jonny Phillips' band [Oriole]. I think our sounds go really well together and there's a strong connection when we play. He once said I was his "other half on stage" and I can go with that, if it doesn't sound too gushy.

Barry [Green, piano] was at the Guildhall School of Music at the same time as me, when I was doing a postgraduate course in jazz. He was one of the people I played with a lot at college because he was always up for staying on after lessons and blowing. We continued after my course had finished, met up two or three times a week. We still do that. Barry seemed the obvious choice when Karim [Merchant] left the band, because we had this thing of playing together. He's very musical and also a good friend. We've done quite a few gigs as a duo as well. There's always a real sense of enjoyment when I play with him.

Larry [Bartley, bass] is very important. We've played together for about 12 years. We met at a Saturday afternoon workshop and our paths have kind of always crossed again. He's such a strong person onstage—and offstage—he's very honest and will always say what he thinks. When he feels the music isn't happening he says so but when it is, he's the most enthusiastic guy I know. He's a really natural musician, has got very good intuition, and is very alert to vibes and atmosphere. Larry's a great guy to play with and has been really important in my life.

All these guys are bandleaders and have their own albums. Seb's Dim Lit and Held On The Tips Of Fingers with Polar Bear, of course. Larry's Along This Way, with amazing original compositions. Barry's Timings, with various duos, and Ben's How Do Birds Hear Music, with the Basquiat String Quartet and drums.

AAJ: There are some tremendously talented musicians in London. In that respect things are very healthy right now. But how do you find the scene itself, in terms of supporting what the artists are doing?

IL: There aren't enough places to play. Ronnie Scott's is being really watered down, rebooking the same bands all the time, and sometimes booking bands that I would call cabaret for two, three weeks. The Pizza Express has been commercialized too, I feel, even though that might change. The Vortex re-opening is a good thing and I like playing at The Spitz. There are many musician-run small gigs now, like the Progress Bar, Horseshoe and the North London Tavern, which are getting busy.

Watch out for [email protected], if it ever becomes a reality. Last year me and my partner put on this night called Soup at the rehearsal space we rent, which is a big warehouse room in Stoke Newington. It was like a private party and felt great. We have plans to do it again and make it a regular night.

AAJ: How do you find the process of getting gigs?

IL: For me, personally, getting bookings has got easier in a way, because I don't have to introduce myself when I ring people, they tend to know who I am. But in other ways it's harder, because the older I get the wierder I feel the music is going to be. I have a feel of where it's going and I know it's going to get less and less commercial. So that won't make it easier to get work. But I'm playing a lot more now, and I'm hardly doing anything I don't want to do. I'm definitely not doing pure survival gigs anymore.

AAJ: What recording projects do you have coming up?

IL: The first is a duo album album with [pianist] Liam Noble for Babel. We've just been to the studio, two days ago. Liam can turn everything into some sort of symphony; the complexity and beauty of his accompanying is out of this world. And during his solos, I get completely absorbed and follow every note of it. For me, his playing is a special combination of deep lyricism and driving energy, and he gets the most possible out of a single idea. The solos have real architecture. [Noble's new album Romance Amongst The Fishes will be out in October, with Phil Robson, Drew Gress and Tom Rainey.]

I'm also planning another album with the Quintet. I haven't done all the writing yet, so I can't say much. But I hope we'll do it before Christmas.

And I'm planning to do some recording with Leafcutter John [the electronica artist who guests on Polar Bear's Held On The Tips Of Fingers.] He's from a completely different field, obviously. He's not sure about jazz. He likes Seb and Polar Bear but there's a lot of jazz he doesn't like. It's interesting to talk to people like that, it's interesting to hear what they say, why jazz is inaccessible to them. We met up at his house, where he has all these instruments, and we had a fantastic time. The whole day, just jumping around. I was really getting around on the saxophone, playing the springs, playing the pads, it was really interesting. And he was playing every conceivable instrument that he owned—which is a lot—from a glockenspiel to a bouzouki. He doesn't play any of them in a conventional way, but he has such a good ear for sound that he creates something really good with it. We're also thinking about getting a live act together. It's going to take a while, because we're both busy and he's playing all over the planet.

AAJ: You were one of three nominees for Rising Star in the BBC Jazz Awards this year.

IL: Yes, and it was nice to have been considered. I think I will always be the "rising" or "emergent" star, never anything else. After "rising star" it goes straight to "under-rated." But as long as the music keeps moving, progressing, I'm quite happy really.

AAJ: We started out talking about the first jazz you remember hearing. Could we finish with anything you've heard recently which has blown you away? Jazz or non-jazz.

IL: I just listened to the whole Atlantic Ornette Coleman back to back, as I recently saw his quartet gig in Cheltenham, and it completely blew me away. And there's a singer I've been listening to a lot, Regina Spektor. She's a New York singer/songwriter/pianist, and her album Soviet Kitsch has been a bit of a refuge record when I didn't want to listen to jazz, but wanted to hear good songs with good lyrics. Leafcutter John lent me this record by Bernard Parmigiani, an electronics guy from the sixties. Just pure sound, with loads of space. And the new Paul Motian Trio album, I Have The Room Above Her. That trio has always been one of my favourite bands. There's another album that really blew my mind, by a French band called Thot Agrandi. It's completely out of this world music, completely different, and complex, but I find it moving at the same time. I've also been listening to contemporary classical composers, Gyorgy Ligeti and George Aphergis. And Steve Lacy's Monk and Only Monk solo albums are great.

Visit Ingrid Laubrock on the web.

Related article: Ingrid Laubrock Quintet: Live at the Progress Bar

Selected Discography

Held on the Tips of Fingers (with Polar Bear) (Babel, 2005)
Gente (with Nois4) (Candid, 2004)
Forensic (as leader) (F- ire, 2004)
Centripede (with Tom Arthurs' Centripede) (Babel, 2003)
Oferenda (with Monica Vasconcelos & Nois) (Candid, 2002)
Some Times (as leader) (Candid, 2001)
Bom Dia (with Nois4) (Candid, 2000)
Nois Dois (with Monica Vasconcelos & Nois) (independent, 1999)
Who Is It (as leader) (Candid, 1997)
Summertime (with Matt Borgmann) (independent, 1995)

Photo Credit
Juan-Carlos Hernᮤez (first and third photo)
Tim Dickeson (second photo)

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