Saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock has forged an unpredictable path to her place in the New York jazz scene. After growing up in a small town in Germany, Laubrock only picked up the saxophone at age 19 after moving to London. She supported herself by busking and playing in Cuban and Brazilian bands, and eventually completed a jazz performance degree at the Guildhall School. Laubrock became a prominent member of London’s forward-thinking musical community known as the F-IRE Collective, as her music began taking on new, abstract dimensions. Laubrock then met renowned drummer Tom Rainey as he passed through London, and the two began a musical and personal relationship that brought her to New York (they are both partners in bands and in marriage).
Laubrock plays with a host of groups throughout the city, from the collaborative trio “Paradoxical Frog” with pianist Kris Davis and drummer Tyshawn Sorey to guitarist Mary Halvorson’s septet to Anthony Braxton’s groups to her own quintet “Anti-House.” Recently, however, Laubrock has put together a new group called “Nor’easter,” her take on the classic brass band, which features Tim Berne on alto saxophone, Ben Gerstein on trombone, Dan Peck on tuba, and Tom Rainey on drums. This Friday, July 25th, 2014, Laubrock will bring this band to The Jazz Gallery for the second time with a host of fresh and wide-ranging original compositions. We caught up with Ingrid by phone this week to talk about her motivation for putting this group together, and how the group’s music works.
The Jazz Gallery: When you played at The Jazz Gallery last summer, this group was brand new and nameless. How did you come up with the name “Nor’easter?”
Ingrid Laubrock: I actually might get rid of the name again! I’m not completely happy with it. I kind of had to have a name for a grant application that I was writing—“quintet” sounded too lame. I wanted something that had to do with wind gusts and blowing air. But at this point, I think I’m going to scrap the name.
TJG: What drew you to putting together a group of almost all wind instruments?
IL: It was always interesting for me to hear brass bands. I grew up in a small town in Germany, and that was always a big tradition, but it didn’t necessarily interest me at the time. I have been to Brazil and heard brass bands—maracatu bands—and I played a bit in maracatu bands when I lived in England. And being in New York I hear a lot of Mexican brass bands and New Orleans brass bands. I’m fascinated by the sound of these groups, but I didn’t want to write music for a brass group in a traditional way. I wanted to explore all the textures that you can get out of these instruments.
This is a major reason why I chose the musicians I chose for the group. All of them are really great improvisors and interested in figuring out everything you can do with their instruments that isn’t traditional. I can write extended techniques, I can write interesting rhythmic things, I can write with microtones and other weird things; the musicians can play everything that I can think of. I also consciously didn’t want a harmony instrument, so the writing is very linear, very contrapuntal. I’d always composed at the piano because you have everything at your fingertips, but for this group I wanted to try and write just in my head and on my instrument. It was good to have a different approach for this music.
TJG: What do you find expressive about the sounds of wind-powered instruments?
IL: I see wind and brass instruments in the same realm as voices. The way that you can manipulate the sound of a note with breathing is really amazing. There are just so many ways in which you can change the sound of a blown instrument. I also really love how wind and brass instruments blend with each other, while each one still has a very characteristic sound. I feel that kind of blend you can only get with brass instruments and saxophones. If you put another instrument in the middle, it won’t have quite the same impact.
TJG: One thing I noticed is that, while you’re embracing wind instruments, you also try to make them not sound like themselves; sometimes I can’t tell which instrument is making which sound. What interests you about disguising instruments in this way?
IL: I like having instruments play multiple different roles in a group. I don’t want the tuba to always play the bass line, for instance. I like hiding instruments in this way, like how I like to hide the melody in the middle of an arrangement. I don’t want the music to sound generic. I don’t want to be lazy with my writing; I want to try everything that is possible with the group that I’m playing with.
TJG: You do have one person playing a non-blown instrument in this group: Tom Rainey on the drums. Do you use the drums to contrast with the sounds of the blown instruments, or do you challenge Tom to make the drums sound more like the others in the group?
IL: Sometimes I do use the instruments in a more traditional manner, like with the tuba playing a rhythmic bass line supported by the drums. But Tom is such a master at making up sounds. He never falls back into the same patterns and is incredible at coloring and shaping and moving the music along. Because of that, he can slip into the role of a saxophone and play long sounds on the drums. I’ve found that Tom is one of the drummers who gets most involved in terms of shaping the form of a composition, and so can slip into many roles depending on where the music wants to go.
TJG: In a lot of your music, not just for this group, I find it hard to find where the preconceived sections end and the improvised sections begin. How much direction do you give the musicians in the improvised sections? Do you suggest the kind of sound or character of the section, or do you let the players feel it out?
IL: In general I don’t give many directions because I think that takes away the fun of playing with great improvisors. Sometimes when I play with more classically oriented musicians I’ll write directions because those players like that, but I don’t feel the players in this group need it. They can shape the music differently every time.
But there’s certainly a lot of written material that creeps in underneath improvised material, so you may not know what’s actually written down until that theme finally snaps into place. I also like having several layers of things happening at the same time, including improvised and written stuff.
TJG: Do you at least specify the larger form of a piece, in terms of who improvises when and how the written material enters, or is that larger form improvised as a group?
IL: That really varies. There are some pieces that have really open bits and have written parts that may or may not come in and sections that can be played as many times as the players want. I definitely give players the authority to shape the composition the way they want to. They’re all great composers, so I like seeing what they can come up with.
But there are other tunes that definitely have a fixed overall shape: we know that there’s a particular beginning, middle, and end. A lot of times in these pieces the written material is quite long and the improvisation happens on top of it. I like creating form with varying density, rather than harmony; I like hearing something multiple times with different densities of sound. I think this helps keep a phrase abstract, even if you’ve heard it a few times.
TJG: So it’s a bit like looking at a statue: you get new sensations when looking at it from different angles, though it’s still the same object.
IL: Yeah, sort of. I feel I need that sense of change that comes when playing improvised music, that the material is malleable.
TJG: To continue the analogy, do you see the written material not as a finished structure, but a lump of clay that’s not fully formed and can be molded by the other players?
IL: There isn’t a lot of gestural writing with this group where people can shape the phrases in their own way. When we hit the written material, it’s played pretty strictly. But the whole shape is a bit more malleable because there’s a lot of space in between the fully composed parts where the players can mold the piece in the way they want.
I think that the pieces can work in many different ways. Sometimes we can improvise for a long time and make something happen and there’s no need to go into the written part; I don’t think of the improvisation as connective tissue anymore. But I also don’t want the improvisation to be a complete detour. I do like when players explore the different musical ideas that each piece presents.
TJG: Do you prefer when players improvise something that seems to organically grow out of the written material or when they help create form by juxtapositions and contrast?
IL: I think both work. I think putting seemingly unconnected things next to each other works because it creates a new section through contrast. I love when the players take the piece to a place that I maybe wasn’t expecting. But because all of the players in this group are experienced composers and bandleaders, I think most of them subconsciously have somewhere they want to go in mind. And this is why I don’t necessarily want to have the improvisation fixed in any way.
I find it very interesting how different players abstract musical material and do their own thing with it. Some players think very motivically and will clearly play around with the written material. Others think more in terms of the overall sound and feel of the piece. It’s just fascinating to see how different people’s brains deal with limited material, rather than giving them too much.
Ingrid Laubrock and Nor’easter will perform at The Jazz Gallery on Friday, July 25th, 2014. The group features Laubrock on tenor and alto saxophone, Tim Berne on alto saxophone, Ben Gerstein on trombone, Dan Peck on tuba, and Tom Rainey on drums. Sets are 9 and 11 p.m. $22 general admission, $10 for Members, and free for SummerPass Holders. Purchase tickets here.