Artist Feature

Ingrid Laubrock
By Ken Waxman

One of the many non-American musicians who have set up shop in NYC, German-born saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock, 43, has quickly become a presence on the local scene. But the soprano and tenor saxophonist one who was already recognized for her playing and writing elsewhere – London’s highly competitive improv scene – before she crossed the ocean permanently in 2008.

Then again, the Hundewick-raised reedist has always thrived on new situations and challenges. And as someone who didn’t start playing the saxophone until her teens she declares that “I didn't really decide that I wanted to become a musician, it more or less happened … I sort of drifted into it.”

Crucially her interest in free jazz came about almost concurrently with her becoming a player. As a child she inherited some jazz singles from a deceased uncle – including ones by Thelonious Monk, Sonny Rollins and Charlie Parker – and also would tape and re-listen to jazz radio programs. An excursion at 15 to the nearby Münster Jazzfestival exposed her to everything from Ornette Coleman’s Prime Time band to pianist Wolfgang Dauner and trombonist Alfred Mangelsdorff. But it was hearing Cannonball Adderley on Kind Of Blue that drew her to the sax.

“I pestered my parents until they finally gave in when I was about 17 years old. My high school music teacher found us a super cheap alto that had been played in an Ivory Coast army band. It was a great saxophone – but it was badly patched up. When I first picked it up I just went berserk on it and that felt great. The saxophone got run over by a bus after about three months and I only got a replacement when the insurance came through, about a year and a half later. I didn't really start playing again until I moved to the UK when I as almost 19.”

Laubrock had already relocated to Berlin –“answering phones and working in bars” – when her then-boyfriends suggested they try the UK. “I didn't enjoy the jobs I was doing, so I went for the adventure of trying a new country.” Soon she was busking, then playing restaurant gigs on saxophone.

It was in London that Laubrock started taking saxophone seriously, put aside the alto, whose range she felt was best for the Brazilian music she initially played, and by 1992 was concentrating on soprano and tenor. She studied with ex-Jazz Messenger Jean Toussaint and veteran Stan Sulzman. “Jean was extremely helpful. We’d have a lesson every few months, when I felt I had assimilated what he taught me. He used to play at me for hours and made me copy him, which is a great way of learning, as it was aural rather than on paper. He also explained a lot about harmony and made me compose my own solos. I went to college for a year very late, at 29, and I mainly had composition lessons from Stan.” “Brutally honest”, as she recalls, during a master class with Dave Liebman, he told her she was talented but need more practice. “After that I went back to live with my mum for six months to practice eight to 10 hours a day,” she reveals. In London Laubrock also began an association with free music players such as bassist John Edwards drummer Tony Marsh and cellist Hannah Marshall. “They told me there were no fast rules and I could figure music out myself by doing it a lot.” she recalls. Another influence was pianist Veryan Weston. “Veryan invited me to his house and we'd play, then eat, then listen to lots of different types of music. He helped me learn by experiencing it. We had a few duo gigs, playing Steve Lacy's music. Then Hannah joined us and we abandoned the Lacy material. She’s incredibly intuitive and her timing is brilliant. She’ll come in at the right time with the right idea and move the music on when it needs it.”

This experience eventually led to a long-time affiliation with London’s F-ire Collective. With UK players often divided into camps – completely improvised verses bebop/post-bop – F-ire was a refuge for those she terms “open-minded musicians who somehow couldn't be classified and therefore had a hard time getting their music performed.” Collective members created their own festival and record label, shared mailing lists, rehearsed one another’s music and “generally we learned from each other,” she asserts.

Around this time Laubrock became confident enough to start composing. “I reluctantly started in 1996,” she remembers. “I had been content being a sidewoman and had a real fear of it. I had so much respect for composers I thought I just couldn't do it. Now I can't live without it. My compositions tend to be pretty epic and go through many peaks and valleys. The improvisational parts in them can be finding avenues to connect through-composed parts with each other at times, and creating layers on top of composed material at others. I like trying to create density and mystery which still remains transparent. The language I use when improvising finds its way into the writing and vice versa. I think improvisation and composition informing each other is a pretty common process – after all, it's the same person doing both. If you’re honest with yourself your taste buds should determine the outcome.”

Meanwhile her eventual move stateside came about after she tired of maintaining a long-distance relationship with American drummer Tom Rainey. They married in 2010.

“The first two years were kind of hard,” she admits. “NYC definitely didn’t need another tenor player and I really missed my London community. Tom was on tour a lot and I wasn’t, so the times I was here by myself were tough. But I also had time to compose, practice, focus and, of course, to check out the millions of bands and musicians here. It was both lonely and exciting – a new playground. It was also really important to me not to use Tom, who is a really established musician, as a shield and calling card. I didn't want to be ‘the girlfriend’ who hustles everybody her man plays with. I really wanted to find my own connections. That takes time and patience.”

That patience paid off. Right now she’s involved with many NYC bands, most notably Anti-House with pianist Kris Davis, guitarist Mary Halvorson, bassist John Hébert and Rainey plus her yet un-named brass/wind quintet with altoist Tim Berne, tubaist Dan Peck, trombonist Ben Gerstein and Rainey. She’s even curating two nights at the Arts for Arts Sake Evolving Music Series this month, one set of which involves a 29-piece orchestra. Meanwhile Sleepthief, her trio with London pianist Liam Noble and Rainey still exists; she’s also part of two Amsterdam-based bands, Luc Ex’s Assemblée and Lily’s Déja Vu; plus there’s the co-op Paradoxical Frog with Davis and drummer Tyshawn Sorey

As for differences between US and UK musicians, all Laubrock says is that she works alongside more improvisers with jazz roots in NYC than in London; and that the Americans “play very different types of music with the same players. In the UK I found there was a bit more of a trench between the improvisers and the jazz musicians.”

In the spring Laubrock and Rainey will embark on a cross-country tour for And Other Desert Towns their duo CD. Concurrently an octet CD of the music she was commissioned to compose and record in 2011 by the prestigious SWR New-Jazz Meeting in Baden-Baden will appear.

Overall, it’s probably no exaggeration to say that Laubrock has managed to establish herself in NYC, while remaining a respected musician of the world.

Recommended Listening

Ingrid Laubrock/Tom Rainey And Other Desert Towns (Relative Pitch 2014)

Tom Rainey Obbligato (Intakt Records 2014)

Veryan Weston/Hannah Marshall/Ingrid Laubrock Haste (Emanem 2012)

Sleepthief The Madness of Crowds (Intakt Records 2010)

Ingrid Laubrock Anti-House Intakt Records 2010)

Tyshawn Sorey/Kris Davis/Ingrid Laubrock Paradoxical Frog (Clean Feed 2010)

Ingrid Laubrock Liam Noble Let’s Call This… (Babel 2006)

—For The New York City Jazz Record March 2014