A look inside The Jazz Gallery

Photo by Lydia Polzer

Photo by Lydia Polzer

This weekend, saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock will cap off The Jazz Gallery’s 2015 Commission series with a new set of her trademark adventurous music. Like this year’s other commissionees, Laubrock will have the opportunity to present and explore this music over the course of two nights. However, in an unusual turn, Laubrock will present her compositions as performed by contrasting groups on each night—a fleet-footed, highly-reactive trio on Friday, and a hairier, bass-heavy quintet on Saturday.

While Laubrock is perhaps best known for her winding, long-form compositions with groups like Anti-House and Paradoxical Frog, the saxophonist took a different approach to her Gallery commission, trying to condense her ideas into more of a lead sheet form. We caught up with Ms. Laubrock by phone this week to talk about the conceptual underpinnings of her new piece, as well as her approach to balancing improvisational freedom and formal structure.

The Jazz Gallery: The first group you’re presenting on Friday includes pianist Kris Davis and guitarist Mary Halvorson, two people whom you have worked with a lot before. Is this the first time that you’re playing with them in this exact configuration though?

Ingrid Laubrock: We’ve done two improvised gigs over the past couple of years. One was a part of Kris Davis’s Stone residency and we did another one at the Cornelia Street Cafe. We enjoyed it a lot. We basically improvised the whole gig, but it felt like it had a really great flow. I think we called it “Death Rattle” then, but it wasn’t really a working group. They’re both part of my group Anti-House of course, and since the improvised sets worked so well, I thought it would be great to write for them.

TJG: What have you been exploring in the pieces for this group? Are you pitting the more percussive sounds of the piano and guitar against your saxophones? Or are you seeing what you and Kris and Mary will do to looser, more open material?

IL: It’s definitely a little bit of both. Usually I try to find a balance between writing preconceived things and giving improvisers space. I’m very conscious of giving people enough freedom to have fun with it, but I’m also trying to orchestrate, especially with the particular instrumental combinations of the two groups.

The music for this commission is a little bit different than what I usually write, because I usually think a lot about who exactly will be playing the music and trying to write specifically for them. My original idea for this project was to write something a little bit more gestural that can be interpreted in different ways by both groups.

That has changed over the course of writing the piece, though. I figured out that some things would not work with both groups, so I left out a couple of pieces. There are a one or two pieces that will be played by one of the groups and not the other. The bulk of material is the same for both groups, but rearranged and reconfigured.

TJG: Since the pieces have changed quite a bit over the writing process, has that been a result of collaborative efforts and rehearsing thus far?

IL: Well not really so far. All the rehearsing will take place over this week. I’ve sent some stuff back and forth for the musicians to look at and comment on, just to see if it will work, or if it’s all playable on the instruments. I haven’t actually heard it yet with everyone playing!

This was an interesting project for me because I was writing really intensely over the last few months. It made it sort of like a job—I would spend four, five hours a day writing. I wrote as much as I could without thinking of the instrumentation or who exactly would be playing. I didn’t try to limit my imagination in any way, and tried to stick with ideas and not throw them out right away. It was a really good and intense process.

TJG: By writing so regularly and intensely, did you find yourself taking a more systematic approach in your compositions than you do normally?

IL: Well I tried to balance things out between working systematically and working more intuitively. I thought of a narrative for the whole set of pieces, rather than just thinking, “Here’s a piece. Here’s a piece. Here’s a piece,” that sort of thing. And within those pieces there are some that are more like collages, and others that are more gestural where the players can take material and manipulate it with more freedom. And then there are other pieces that are more strictly notated and linear. I tried to juxtapose these different ideas so there’s a narrative scope over the course of the whole hour.

TJG: What made you want to explore this unified set of music in the context of two very different groups?

IL: I think it was when I was asked to do the commission, I was throwing ideas around and my husband Tom Rainey—he’s always laughing when I bring new music in. He always asks, “Why don’t you write any ditties?” So I took that and thought about writing things that could fit on a lead sheet. It ended up not really being that, but that was the original idea. I was going to call it “Ditties and Dittos.” It was a kind of joke.

So after I had that idea, I thought, “Why don’t I do these pieces with different groups?” Having played with Anthony Braxton over the past few years, he always brings in pieces, whether orchestra pieces, or opera, or a quartet piece, and we’ll play it with an absolutely different instrumentation. It always sounds completely fascinating, and the pieces never sound the same because of it.

In my case, I was thinking a lot about range and register—what would happen if we take this whole range out? Like something high up on the piano won’t be there in the other version of the piece. I was definitely playing around with the idea of when is a piece still a piece?

TJG: It’s a bit like when Ornette Coleman would play an older piece with a new group with very different players, like “Turnaround” or “Song X” on Sound Grammar.

IL: Exactly. And that’s what I want to try out over the next few rehearsals as well. There are a lot of plan B’s at the moment—like what happens if not all these pieces sound great on the different instruments. I’m quite happy to break things down and take things out and experiment with the writing while we rehearse. Right now in my head it’s all very clear, but I’m trying to keep it malleable and open to abstraction.

TJG: Since you’re working with a people that you know well, you can trust their instincts and let them get into that core of the piece.

IL: Oh yeah. Any of these musicians could just play an interesting solo concert without blinking. That’s always key, anyway, in a jazz situation. The people you pick are a major part of the recipe.

TJG: What makes a piece really work for two groups with such different instrumentations?

IL: Without giving too much away, a lot of the pieces are very conceptual, so the instrumentation doesn’t really matter. Like I have one piece where there are a lot of things on top of each other and it’s quite fast-paced. It’s very rhythmic, but it doesn’t really work out or line up completely—the players can move through the piece in their own time and pace. With that one, it’s almost the more people the better, but I know it will work with the piano and guitar as well. It will just sound very different. Conceptually, it doesn’t really matter what range the instruments occupy.

There’s another piece that I’ve arranged for guitar and soprano sax in the high range, and then it gets moved to a lower range with the other group. I can use my ears to correct things in the moment and it can still basically be the same piece.

Then there’s another piece that’s very sparse where everyone uses a different sound each time they attack a note. In each piece, the players have a lot of room to bring their own interpretation to it. While the trio might be able to play a piece as explicitly written, the other group will play around with it more. Sometimes I wrote pieces more with the trio instrumentation in mind and sometimes I wrote more with the bass instrumentation in mind so there would be a balance. It wouldn’t just sound like I wrote music for one group and just rearranged it for the other.

TJG: What strikes me about a lot of music in general, and this piece in particular, is how sensitive you are about how improvisers think—the interplay between conscious and subconscious acts. How do you go about making up musical material that will stretch improvisers in interesting ways?

IL: Often, because I love the way certain people improvise and how they surprise me, I try to leave the improvisation completely open, but there are times when I feel the piece needs more of a framework, and the improvisation becomes part of the written narrative. For example, I may feel that there needs to be a certain tension between different parts—like one section needs to feel calm in order to make the next section work. Or I feel that it’s important for the improvisation to go a certain way, be confined or organized in a way. But most of the time I leave it open to the musicians.

Ingrid Laubrock presents her 2015 Jazz Gallery Commission this Friday and Saturday, July 31st and August 1st, 2015. The Friday group features Ms. Laubrock on saxophones, Mary Halvorson on guitar, and Kris Davis on piano, while the Saturday group features Ms. Laubrock, Vincent Chancey on French Horn, Michael Formanek and Eivind Opsvik on bass, and Tom Rainey on drums. Sets are at 8 and 10 p.m. each night. $22 general admission ($10 for members) for each set. Free with SummerPass. Purchase tickets here.