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Photo courtesy of the artist.

This Sunday, October 8th, The Jazz Gallery is pleased to welcome saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock back to our stage. Laubrock is among the most active and sought-after exploratory improvisers working in New York, performing with luminaries like Anthony Braxton, and many acclaimed groups led by her close collaborators including Mary Halvorson, Kris Davis, and Tom Rainey. Laubrock is an active leader in her own right, always seeking novel combinations of instruments and players, like in her 2015 Jazz Gallery Commission project.

On Sunday, Laubrock will convene a new lineup of her band Serpentines. Featuring Miya Masaoka on koto and Sam Pluta on electronics, alongside more typical jazz instruments, the group straddles many compositional and improvisational traditions. We caught up with Laubrock by phone to discuss the challenges of blending these diverse instruments and organizing a team of top-flight improvisers.

The Jazz Gallery: The instrumentation for this group is a little unusual—could you talk about that?

Ingrid Laubrock: The origin of this band is not what the lineup currently is—usually we also have Peter Evans, who is not available, and Kris Davis is on piano and Tom Rainey is on drums—but the music is written in a relatively open way, so the instrumentation can be adapted. Originally this was basically a commission by the 2014 Vision Fest, which asked me to put a group together, people who I’d like to play with, and I wrote for it. I really enjoyed it—for that particular event I wrote a very very open piece. And then Intakt records, who I usually record for, agreed to record the group, and I added Peter Evans to it. Since it has koto in it and electronics, I had to adapt my usual way of writing; certain specific things can’t be played on the koto since it’s not a chromatic instrument, and likewise, on electronics, I think of it as a different instrument, therefore not a traditional jazz instrument, so it was a good challenge for me.

TJG: How do you approach writing for these things differently?

IL: I check back a lot with Miya and with Sam, so I’ll write something or have an idea—sometimes it’s very intentional, maybe global idea, a sort of drone or sound or how I want a piece to communicate electronics over the course of the piece—things like that I’ve sort of closely checked with Sam, and Miya while I was writing it. I’ve gotten together with Miya a couple of times and seen what is possible on the koto, for her to demystify it a little bit so that I could write something that was meaningful for it.

And then of course they’re all fantastic improvisers and I wanted to make sure they had scope to express that, to have a certain open modes where they can really just put in their own taste buds.

TJG: There’s also a certain amount of large group coordination that goes on that I’m curious about, how that comes into play.

IL: You have to balance it all, more than with a smaller group. In a smaller group I might not specify combinations of improvisers, I might have an open section. In a large group, it’s more like I’ll ask—you three improvise, and then you two improvise and the rest are like backgrounds, or I specify backgrounds as in improvised intersections with cells of material, so it’s a little more organized than you might find in a smaller group, to prevent it from descending into chaos.

TJG: Does balance become more of an issue, with the electronic/acoustic combination?

IL: Not really! I feel like Sam is really used to it, and he’s such a great composer himself that he thinks super compositionally, which is always been an important thing. I feel like all the musicians I play with have that—I picked musicians because of it, because they have a really great sense—they don’t overplay or underplay, they know what to play and one and I don’t have to think too much about it. I feel like Sam fits into that because he’s a composer.

TJG: How would you define the difference for you between composition and improvisation?

IL: It’s always both. Sometimes I improvise very compositionally; it depends on the people and changes, and even when I improvise I have an overall sense of where it’s going and an overall sense of form. It really depends on the band for certain things. There’s one piece that is very very open, and I’ll just write, gradually bring these bits in, you can bring this in whenever you like, here’s a section where the koto and the piano play pitches very sparse, the electronics grabs them and creates a drone out of them, and then the pitches increase and the specified pitches change, so that the drone becomes more of a cluster. So I’m not actually telling anyone to do anything or writing a rhythm, but I’m still directing it somewhat. It still has sort of the shape, but it might sound closer to improvising than anything else. And then there’s other pieces where I use really traditional rhythmic notation. For a minute, everyone will sound like a jazz quintet, trumpet and saxophone playing the line, the melody, the bass in the tuba, and piano solo over and drums playing. But then I might have another section following this where Sam and electronics have a solo where he can use material from what we’ve already been playing and manipulate that, so there’s some sort of context and you still have a feeling it hangs together, but at the same time, you’re not completely sure how or why it hangs together. There’s a little bit of trickery in there, sometimes.

TJG: Where does the name “serpentines” come from?

IL: I was trying to find a title for the record—our record is called Serpentines—and the thing that the music has, some sort of snaky kind of lines in it, and it seemed to make sense, as a name. It’s one of the tracks too.

TJG: What do you mean by snaky lines?

IL: Ones that are not straight—like there’s a very long tuba line in one of the pieces that is based on the same kind of material that changes throughout, so there’s a lot of little tradition in it but it’s a really long line. So there’s a certain kind of that spiky winding sneaky thing, rather than the form, the four-bar vamp that repeats, that you can follow easily. I guess if I were to find a reason, to find a description, that’s closest.

TJG: Where have you been finding musical inspiration?

IL: The last thing that comes to mind is actually Nate Wooley—he is preparing some solo trumpet pieces that he commissioned, is premiering them soon. He just gave me a private preview of two of them, he wanted to play and I live close by and I was available, so he played me two pieces. And both of them were really different and really fantastic, so that made me think of other stuff to write! Sometimes it’s immediate like that—that was the last thing.

Sam is in Chicago now so it’s actually quite rare that we can get together, so it’s a rare opportunity to be able to play with this band, and it’ll be exciting to be back at The Jazz Gallery!

Ingrid Laubrock’s Serpentines plays at The Jazz Gallery this Sunday, October 8th, 2017. The group features Ms. Laubrock on saxophones, Kris Davis on piano, Miya Masaoka on koto, Sam Pluta on electronics, Dan Peck on tuba, and Tom Rainey on drums. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. $15 general admission (FREE for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.