After thirty years as a sideman, working with the likes of Nels Cline, Tim Berne, and Fred Hersch, drummer Tom Rainey released his first record as a leader in 2010—a fully-improvised trio date with saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock and guitarist Mary Halvorson. This month Rainey celebrates the release of his fourth album, Combobulated, his third release on the Intakt label, featuring his trio with Halvorson and Laubrock. A momentary gap opened up in Rainey’s schedule, so we seized the opportunity to talk on the phone about the new album.
Tom Rainey: I’m in Scottsdale right now, playing tonight with Nels Cline’s band. Today is the first day of his tour. I actually met Nels in LA yesterday, and we drove to Phoenix last night. We’ll mostly be moving every day to different cities now.
The Jazz Gallery: Has it been intense for you, with the release of your new album, Combobulated, and also getting ready for this tour?
TR: Not really, we’re just doing the concert at The Jazz Gallery, and there’s not a lot of conflict right now between my trio and the other things that I’m doing. It probably won’t happen until next year, but we’re planning a tour in early 2020. Everybody’s busy doing lots of different stuff, so we just get together when we can get together anyway.
TJG: Do I have it right that Pool School, released in 2010, was your first record as a leader?
TR: Yeah. I don’t remember the dates so much, but Pool School was the first thing I ever put out as a leader. I’ve been involved with projects that were more collective, but this was the first thing I ever called “mine.”
TJG: Were you waiting for the right people to come along?
TR: You know, I’ve always been, and still am, pretty creatively satisfied just by doing all the things I do, things I’m not necessarily leading. I never felt a big need to have a band. But when Ingrid and I started playing together, that was a big part of the incentive to create more situations where we could play together, and that was part of the impetus for putting together this group. After a couple of gigs, I knew the musical chemistry had the potential to go a lot of different places.
TJG: The first album was from 2010, the year you and Ingrid got married, correct?
TR: Oh yes, I guess it was.
TJR: It seems remarkable that you would release your first album as a leader, which features Ingrid, in the same year you got married. Maybe it didn’t strike you as serendipitous?
TR: To be honest with you, that never occurred to me. I’m not great at recalling dates of when this or that happened, I don’t seem to organize myself in that way. I don’t remember the year I got married [laughs]. That connection didn’t strike me at all.
TJG: So were were you playing regularly with Ingrid before you began working with Mary?
TR: Actually, we weren’t playing duo at all. The only time we played together was a project we did in England, a large ensemble, a nonet, of all her original music. So my first experience playing with her was performing her music. The other things came about after we did that.
TJG: Your three prior albums in this trio configuration with Mary and Ingrid are Hotel Grief, Camino Cielo Echo, and Pool School. Talk to me a little about how the music of this trio has morphed over time.
TR: It hasn’t consciously shifted, but we’re all doing different things. If we go a year and haven’t played much with each other, a lot has still transpired in our musical lives over that time, so I’m sure it has an impact on how we sound as a band. As the drummer in the band, it always seems like it’s changing, even from day to day. It isn’t as if we have set pieces that we get into and become tired of, and then do other set things. We’re really improvising. The music changes naturally, because we’re all committed to the improvisational aspect of it, rather than turning it into a fixed thing. I’m sure the music we play at The Jazz Gallery won’t really sound like the record. It will sound like our three personalities, but the overall sound of the music, I’m sure, will be quite different. It always is. I don’t know how to chart these changes, to be honest with you, but it happens naturally all the time.
TJG: Since the music is a reflection of where you are at a given time, can you tell me about the circumstances of your musical life when the trio began?
TR: It’s just like it was at the beginning, I was doing what I’ve been doing since I was in high school, playing in different bands with different friends, somehow or other making a career out of it. When Mary, Ingrid and I first started playing with each other, I was playing a lot with Mark Helias, Tony Malaby, Tim Berne, those were my creative circumstances.
TJG: And when you recorded the most recent album, what was going on for you?
TR: We were on tour. That was one of the last concerts of the tour, about a year and a half ago. The gig happened to be at a recording studio in New Haven, Firehouse 12. They record all their concerts, and have good recording facilities, a nice board, a good-sounding room. When I heard the gig back, I started to imagine an album. Our previous record was a live record, and I didn’t want to put out another live record, so since we performed in a studio, I had a lot of leeway in terms of how I could edit the music. I employed Dave Torn to edit, mix, and master it. I wanted to make it into a studio record, even thought it was a live record. I’m not making a secret of it: It was recorded live. But by listening, I don’t think you would necessarily know that it is a live record.
TJG: I’ve been listening to it a lot, and I was struck by the editing and processing applied to many of the tracks. It made me wonder, was this free, was this a studio album, was it a live performance… it’s not easy to tell.
TR: The music’s all improvised, but we tried to shape it into something that sounded a little more compositional. David helped with that too, we collaborated on that.
TJG: In this trio, it’s all free from top to bottom, right? You never plan ahead?
TR: That’s right. All the music we’ve performed and recorded has been completely improvised. If we’re in a studio, and if I think we have a lot of a certain kind of energy, I might suggest “Let’s do something different.” If we have a lot of aggressive energy, I might suggest we do something more calm, or vice versa. But there’s very little of that. We mostly play and let it unfold.
TJG: Do you have a vision for how this trio will continue to unfold?
TR: Well, the next step is to play at The Jazz Gallery on the 22nd. We’ll see what unfolds after that [laughs]. It’ll be a while, at least a year, before we have some serious amount of work again. The way it stands right now, the next thing will be to go on tour in January 2020. We’ve gotten good responses, so I’m fairly confident we’ll be able to log a decent tour.
TJG: Cool. Last question: I love the album art on Combobulated, and the art for each of the trio albums as a collection. They look great together. Did you have a hand in choosing the art for this album?
TR: I totally did, I’ve had a say in all of the trio album artwork. And Intakt does a good job when choosing covers, making it visually look like a part of the same group. An artist friend of mine, Christine Reifenberger, has done all of the Intakt records–not Pool School. I asked if she’d be interested in supplying some artwork, and she was generous enough to let us choose. So she sent me some stuff, I picked what I liked, Intakt picked stuff they liked, and then I tried to convince them that the stuff I liked is better. They usually go along with it [laughs].
The Tom Rainey Trio celebrates the release of Combobulated (Intakt) at The Jazz Gallery on Friday, February 22, 2019. The group features Mr. Rainey on drums, Ingrid Laubrock on saxophones, and Mary Halvorson on guitar. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. $25 general admission ($10 for members), $35 reserved cabaret seating ($20 for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.