Improvisation is Everything for Avant-garde Saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock

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Saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock and her husband, drummer Tom Rainey, have intertwined their prolific careers over the past dozen or so recordings with various ensembles. Whether it’s standard jazz tunes or avant-garde improvisations, these two bring a thrilling sincere energy to their art, and can now be heard on their first duo recording: And Other Desert Towns. We spoke with Laubrock about this collaboration to get a sense of what we can expect to hear at tomorrow night’s show at Mahall’s Twenty Lanes, the first stop on their United States tour.

You have a very modern approach to jazz in terms of composition and improv and even the standard tunes you play. How would you describe your own sound or musical style?
This is always such a difficult question to answer. I feel that over the years I’ve checked out so many different things, and in a way, everything that has attracted me over the years has somehow influenced what I do and what I write. What I would say is that, for me, it’s very important to have improvisation in everything I do, even the stuff that incorporates heavily written music. My written music usually has an element or layer of improvisation over it. I feel that I like to have transparency, even in very dense music if that makes sense. I use a certain amount of clarity that is disguised, both in improvisation and in composition. For Tom [Rainey] and I, it is important to us that we don’t phone it in. We always try and keep searching while we play, and keep looking for avenues that make it different and fresh. So even with the standard tunes we play in Tom’s quintet, we like to make it feel improvised.

You and Tom have worked together a lot over the years, playing with each other in various recording projects with different groups. Can you describe how this duo came about and some of the resulting music?
I think the first time we ever played together was as a duo, and that has since become the nucleus of a bunch of stuff that we do. We play in a lot of groups together. Groups that play music composed by others, and a lot of improvised groups as well, and we always rehearse together. If we are playing a lot of quintet music, or things like that, Tom and I will play and rehearse at home, the two of us. We’ve always had this sort of connection as a duo, and from the beginning, it always felt like a special chemistry. It’s also an interesting challenge to get saxophone and drums to work, and it’s been fun for us to try and do that. We have a recording studio on our block, and after our improv sessions at home, we always joke saying [to our sound engineer] “Andy, did you get that?” For years we’ve been talking about doing a tour and recording, but we always end up recording with my group, or his trio, and it was always kind of pushed away because there’s only two of us. So one day we finally did get into the studio and pressed the record button.

How did the two of you decide on material for the tour? Is it all purely improvisational, or do you have some guidelines set up for the pieces?
We set out to improvise mostly, but what we have talked about is that we can incorporate any of the music that we’ve played together but in a very abstract way. If one of us decides to play a certain tune, we’ll play a gesture or whatever we remember from it, so it’s like tapping into a collective subconscious of all the music we have done together. We are open to going into a standard or a composition, but the basic plan is to improvise.

What can we expect from you after the tour?
I have a lot of stuff in New York, and a few concerts with Anthony Braxton. I have two quintets that I’m investing a lot of time in. Anti-House is one that’s existed for about five years with Mary Halvorson, Chris Davis, John Hébert, Tom, and myself, and I have written material for a new record that we will record in the fall and then tour Europe. The other group I have is Nor’easter with Tim Berne, Dan Peck, Ben Gerstein, and also Tom and me, and that’s basically just wind and brass instruments for which I’ve written music that we will record and tour the U.S. as well. I’m also working on a new orchestra piece.

Is that commissioned by an orchestra?
No, I’m just doing it for myself! I wrote one last year, and it was just so exciting and I got so much out of it, that I decided to do another. That piece was performed by the American Composers’ Orchestra, and then I rewrote it for the Tri-Centric Orchestra that does a lot of Anthony Braxton’s music.

Is there improvisation in that piece?
In the ACO version there wasn’t, because that’s really a classical orchestra, and in the Tri-Centric version there was. I incorporated improvisation, which made me very happy to hear it again, and to hear it played by a group that deals with both [classical and improv] was really fantastic.

How do you see the landscape of the modern jazz scene and how you fit into it?
Well I can only speak from living in New York City because it’s the only place I’ve really lived here, but I feel that anything goes. There are so many musicians and different ways of doing things here, and any time you want to hear something completely different that’s done at a very high level, you just go to another venue, or a place you haven’t been, and that goes for any type of music. I feel that there are all these little universes [of music] that co-exist in New York, and there are overlapping things, and places where they meet, and we inhabit just one of them. There’s just so much stuff out here — so much good stuff out here — and we’re just sitting somewhere in this big pot of music.

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