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Saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock Blurs the Lines

Where classical, improvisation and composition meet

Ingrid Laubrock
Ingrid Laubrock

On June 4, Ingrid Laubrock premiered her first large-scale orchestral composition, Vogelfrei, a densely atmospheric piece inspired by the intricate maze of above-ground electrical wires that power the rail network in Moers, Germany. The piece, which was performed by the American Composers Orchestra at the Miller Theatre at Columbia University, was commissioned by trombonist, author and educator George Lewis for the second installment of the Jazz Composers Orchestra Institute Readings, a collaborative effort between the ACO and the Center for Jazz Studies at Columbia that fosters connections between the classical and jazz avant-gardes. “I’ve always loved having several layers of sound that seem to coexist and not necessarily touch, and then have them eventually touch,” Laubrock says of the piece.

The intersections of jazz and classical music are fruitful territory for the Brooklyn-based saxophonist and composer, who at 42 has released six albums as a leader and collaborated with avant-garde icon Anthony Braxton, pianist Kris Davis, drummer Tyshawn Sorey, guitarist Mary Halvorson and drummer Tom Rainey (also her husband), among many others.

For the JCOI commission, Laubrock documented her sensory experience with the rail system in Moers through a series of photos, taken in 2012 while serving as artist-in-residence at the city’s annual jazz festival. Laubrock’s taut compositional sensibility harnesses the mechanistic texture of the region, a severity that is thrown into sharp relief by a pastoral influence that springs from her rural hometown, a village with a population of about 500 outside Münster. Born into a musical family, she studied classical piano growing up and briefly switched to alto saxophone as a teenager, a move that was sidelined shortly thereafter when her instrument was run over by a bus. “Until the bus company finally paid, I couldn’t buy another one,” she says.

“As a kid [my hometown] was great. We had so much freedom,” Laubrock recalls. “But when I was a teenager, I just had to get out.”

Laubrock was isolated from the progressive German jazz scene of the 1970s; her first exposure to jazz came from listening to the avant-garde radio broadcasts that were popular in Europe at the time. The day she finished high school, Laubrock moved to Berlin, and in 1989 relocated to London. In London, she taught herself basic saxophone technique using an exercise book and began playing in the city’s underground transportation system. Soon, Laubrock graduated from fundamental theory to her own compositions, having discovered London-based saxophonists Evan Parker and Jean Toussaint. As a policy, Toussaint did not take on beginning students, but he agreed to an introductory lesson when, says Laubrock, he saw her passion and commitment. “He would play at me for hours and I would copy him. It was a lot of interaction and we would do a lot by ear,” she remembers.

Laubrock eventually became an active player on London’s avant-garde scene, and in 1998 released her first album, Who Is It?, on the Candid label. In 2006 Laubrock met Rainey, who was playing at the Cheltenham Jazz Festival with a mutual friend. At first Rainey didn’t realize Laubrock was a musician. He later heard her 2007 album Forensic and was struck by her compositions, arranging and improvising-but it was her sound he fell in love with. When they jammed together for the first time in Rainey’s apartment, the connection was undeniable. “It was one of those instances where you meet somebody and you play with them and the first second you play you feel a connection,” Rainey says. “There was nothing I could do or couldn’t do that would affect how good this felt.”

In 2008, Laubrock and Rainey moved to Brooklyn, where they currently reside, touring together frequently. In New York, Laubrock found kindred spirits in Kris Davis and Tyshawn Sorey through another impromptu jam session. This led to the formation of their acclaimed trio Paradoxical Frog. “The three of us had an instant connection: There was a real sound to the group, and we were only improvising,” says Davis, who has performed and recorded with Laubrock extensively outside the trio project. “We share a similar aesthetic regarding harmony, rhythm and form, which blends not only into our own compositions but into an improvisational language. I think she is one of the most creative, innovative composers of our time.”

Laubrock plans to continue bridging the gap between jazz and classical in the future, starting with another orchestral piece for Braxton’s Tri-Centric Orchestra, scheduled to premiere at Brooklyn’s Roulette in September alongside compositions by Braxton and Taylor Ho Bynum. In addition to her non-stop performance schedule, in September Skirl Records will release Lark, a free improvisation album featuring Laubrock, Rainey, Davis and Ralph Alessi. “I work in both directions,” Laubrock says. “I love improvisation, but I also love imagining large scenarios, so I’m trying to stretch in both ways and learn in both ways.”

Originally Published