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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.


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