We last spoke with saxophonist and composer Ingrid Laubrock on the occasion of her 2015 Residency Commission Series premiere concerts last summer. Laubrock, perennially in-demand on the international improvised music scene for her versatile and sonically daring musicianship as both a saxophonist and composer, first convened the band now-known as Ubatuba several years ago, and one of their first performances was at The Jazz Gallery in the summer of 2013.
We caught up with Laubrock again in the summer of 2014 when the band returned under the name “Nor’easter,” and we were pleased to once again have the pleasure of speaking with Laubrock, who released Ubatuba on Firehouse 12 Records in the fall. She is currently preparing to release a duo album with her husband, drummer Tom Rainey, titled Buoyancy (Intakt, 2016), as well as preparing to record a new project, a sextet featuring Craig Taborn on piano, Tyshawn Sorey on piano and trombone, Miya Masaoka on koto, Dan Peck on tuba, and Sam Pluta on electronics and live processing.
The Jazz Gallery: This band was called Nor’easter at one point, wasn’t it?
Ingrid Laubrock: At the time, I had struggled to find a name for it. I wanted something to do with wind, so Nor’easter, but then I thought “Ubatuba” had a better ring to it. Ubatuba has absolutely nothing to do with wind—it’s a city in Brazil—but it has the word “tuba” in it and I thought it had a ring, and it is identifiable!
TJG: How did you decide it was time to document the music of this band?
IL: The first concert we did at The Jazz Gallery, I was really into it and it was sort of a catapult for me to compose for the band. In 2014, we rehearsed and then did a States tour, and when you tour or play several nights in a row, the music takes on a completely different shape. At the end of that, we documented the music at Firehouse 12, so it had a nice curve to it because we were really able to learn the music.
We just toured last October, our first European tour, playing partly music from the album and partly a new set, which we’ll play at The Jazz Gallery.
TJG: Some bands record all the music first and then tour to promote it, but then I’ve heard from some musicians you can get used to playing different proportions in concert, which can present a challenge getting tracks down to CD length. Was that a concern for you?
IL: It is different, but the unique opportunity you get if you record for Firehouse 12 Records is that you have a day when you record, and then you do a performance at night for a studio audience—Firehouse 12 is a venue as well as a studio—so it’s a great set-up.
At least in my case, I do make use of the studio—my stuff tends to be shorter in the studio, a bit more concise—whereas live, I like collecting the tunes and making a whole kind of movie out of it, and it all gets probably a little more expressive, a little wilder. Because the live concert is recorded in the same setting as the recording during the day, I was able to pick takes from both, so where I wanted a bit more of the raw energy of the performance, I used that on the record, and where I wanted to have more accuracy or a more toned-down, more concise version, I used the studio takes. It’s a very smart set-up that they have there.
TJG: Could say a few words about the personalities of each member of the band, in this context?
IL: First of all, they are all incredibly versatile, they’re all great readers, they’re very accomplished musicians.
Tim [Berne] is someone I’ve known for years and listened to for years. I love his compositions and his own role as a saxophone player within the composition, you know? He directs really well from the saxophone, and he has this kind of lyricism: it’s not like an in-your-face kind of lyricism, but it’s always there. Deep down, actually, the way he plays is very melodic to my ears, and has a beautiful sound, very expressive.
I mean, all of these guys are great improvisors. Dan [Peck] is one of the most versatile musicians I’ve met. I’ve heard him in new music performances and I’ve heard his own band, which is leaning toward metal, like his solo record is quite dark and brooding sonically, but in certain pieces he fills the role of the bass player really well. I’ve also heard him play trad-jazz. He’s an incredibly curious and deep musician.
Ben Gerstein is someone who I’m always happy to play in a band with because he’s got such a strong force and such a natural energy. I feel he’s very connected to nature, which comes out in his playing. He will go and stand under the George Washington Bridge and play for four hours, so he has this kind of energy; he goes into nature and plays a lot. He spends time making art projects; I was just listening a piece he made, it’s a Stravinsky piece [“Movements for Piano and Orchestra”] that he transcribed and played on trombone, just for himself. He’s got this unlimited energy for music.
And Tom is obviously somebody I’ve been playing with in so many different projects. He’s a great shaper of music, like he gets super-involved in the composition. He’s a great composer without writing notes, if you know what I mean; he totally arranges on the spot, and his timing for when to come in and when to stir things into a different direction is actually very instrumental to a lot of my music.
TJG: Do you write out drum parts?
IL: Sometimes. For this group, less so. In this context, there will be moments where I write “tacet,” where I don’t want him to play or something. In other groups, like for Anti-House, I have occasionally used the drums as an instrument in terms of “You have five pitches and you’re using these five pitches.” But I don’t really write grooves or anything like that, because I feel like he’ll always come up with something a lot better than I would. I might hint at a certain direction and he’ll turn it into something better, usually [laughs].
TJG: Some reviewers have described your music as “complex.” How do you feel about that label?
IL: I think some of it is. Obviously the first track on the record, “Any Breathing Organism,” that one is obviously not complex at all: it’s just three pitches, three other pitches, and there’s hardly anything there, some different note lengths, but they’re all very slow.
But tunes like “Hall of Mirrors,” “Hiccups,” and “Hypnic Jerk” do have a lot of writing. I’m trying to avoid repetition, so I try to contract and expand and turn things on their head, and I’m basically using a bunch of techniques that would be prevalent in 20th-century classical music or new music, so those are a little more complex. “Hall of Mirrors” uses a lot of quarter tones, and I was going for this warped melody distorted by the use of quarter tones.
So, yes, there was a great deal of thinking that went into it and a fair amount of writing—they’re not snippets. But I do both; it just depends on what I want. There are tunes where I just want a short bit of writing and a bit of improvising.
TJG: As a composer, what strategies do you use to prevent yourself from repeating yourself?
IL: One thing that helps is, if you write for different musicians, you inevitably come up with different things. For this particular band, what was different for me is that I decided to write this mainly on the saxophone or in my head, rather than on the piano. I’ve always gone back to the piano, and in my other quintet, Anti-House, there’s Kris Davis and Mary Halvorson, so with guitar and piano there’s the possibility of layering a lot of notes. but in this band you don’t.
Because I was not using the piano, I was trying to imagine the music and then write down the jist—basically do it on paper mostly and partially on the saxophone—so I feel like the melodies are different. The whole process was a different one for me this time.
TJG: Was there a lot of revising after the fact?
IL: Not so much, actually. Of course, this is something I do in general anyway: I tend to write the music without a computer and then in the end I put it in, because it’s good for making a chart. Once I hear it on the computer, I do make revisions and I do tweak it, but I try to get the bulk done without the use of the computer because it helps my imagination. It helps me not to ignore my imagination, basically.
TJG: You mentioned Ben Gerstein’s Stravinsky transcription. What else has been creatively inspiring for you lately?
IL: I’ve just listened to lectures online of Stockhausen dismantling his piece “Mantra.” It’s amazing, it’s unbelievable. I can’t say I understood everything and I’m kind of revisiting the piece now. It’s so in-depth and it’s such a wonderful universe that he created.
Then I revisited a bunch of maracatu from Brazil, a kind of music from Recife in Brazil. It’s music I used to listen to a lot and really loved the rhythm of. It’s one of those things that was super-great to revisit and invigorating in a way.
Ingrid Laubrock celebrates the release of UBATUBA (Firehouse 12 Records, 2015) at The Jazz Gallery on Saturday, February 27th, 2016. UBATUBA features Laubrock on tenor saxophone, Tim Berne on alto saxophone, Ben Gerstein on trombone, Dan Peck on tuba, and Tom Rainey on drums. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 p.m. $22 general admission ($12 for Members). Purchase tickets here.