Ingrid Laubrock

Monheim Papers The Dreamer by Ariana Zustra
Ingrid Laubrock

It is physical, onomatopoeic, even intimate, when Ingrid Laubrock describes the relationship with her instrument, the saxophone. "I like the linguistic component of the saxophone. It is so very much like speaking or singing. And then you breathe into it. I love that it facilitates so many possibilities for expression," explains the jazz musician.

Now a 51-year-old musician, she used to think that the instrument simply looked cool when she was a teenager. Back then, she hung out with people who liked jazz. Through them, she discovered 'Kind of Blue' by Miles Davis, for example. Her uncle introduced her to jazz classics as a child and she used to listen to them on a record player, such as jazz sax player Cannonball Adderley (also featured on 'Kind of Blue'). "It was like a spiritual awakening," she recalls.

Laubrock was born in 1970 in Stadtlohn, a small German town in the Münsterland region close to the Dutch border, but above all a place she wanted to get out of as soon as possible. After finishing high school, she moved to London at age 18, simply because she wanted to live there. She had taken piano lessons since the age of eight and sung in choirs since the age of eleven. In London she started to play the sax and stayed in the capital for twenty years. "I loved living in London as well as all the different scenes I was immersed in. I tried to learn as much as I could. I also have so many friends and memories there, which I think about often – London will always remain a special place for me," she says. During her London years, Laubrock evolved into one of the most inventive improvisers and composers of the jazz scene. Her gift of lending the saxophone a voice of its own, of letting it speak, yes, even bringing it to life, has been stated many times. The SWR attested her “a very independent and unmistakable voice, which is able to adapt flexibly to the most diverse contexts”. It is remarkable that she is self-taught – throughout her life, she only had one year of saxophone lessons.

It is even more remarkable that she did not have to wait long for prizes and awards: Laubrock has received the "BBC Jazz Award for Innovation" as well as the SWR Jazz Prize, with the jury stating that she represents "one of the most creative and idiosyncratic artists in German jazz". The New York Times praised her album 'Contemporary Chaos Practices', recorded with the eos chamber orchestra, as one of the 25 best classical pieces of the year 2018.

Ingrid Laubrock
Ingrid Laubrock © Janette Beckmann for Monheim Triennale

With her creativity and love for experimentation, Laubrock is predestined for the Monheim Triennale’ programming and its organisation. After all, there are numerous jazz festivals in Germany, especially in the vicinity of this Rhine river city, but none of them have such a radically non-radical approach, a completely airy openness to styles, genres and ways of playing music. When Laubrock remembers the prequel in the summer of 2021, she gets carried away: "Nobody in Monheim is from the classical jazz scene or plays conventional stuff. It's really all about exchange," she says. That a workshop version of the festival could take place in the midst of the pandemic, as a sneak preview and anticipation of the big, official launch in 2022, is what she describes as ‘magical’ – "It felt like an island at the time," she says. By the way, ‘island’ fits very well as imagery since the festival takes place on a ship. The main venue is the ship "MS Rheingalaxie", which will moor at the Monheim jetty. That's right: I'm on a boat!

During the prequel in July 2021, Laubrock performed with the motto ‘Escalator over the Hill’, Carla Bley's title for her epochal jazz opera, which masterfully bundled free jazz, rock, world music and pretty much every popular music style of the seventies. In Monheim, this condensed into a brilliant collaboration of strong soloists: Norwegian experimental guitarist Stian Westerhus in a sonic encounter with Canadian jazz musician Colin Stetson on alto sax, who then grabbed his bass sax when Laubrock arrived on the scene with her lilting soprano saxophone rides.

We can expect a similarly iridescent show at the Monheim Triennale in June: Together with laptop-impro prodigy Sam Pluta, jazz drummer Tom Rainey, double bass player Robert Landfermann, piano player Cory Smythe and the progressive eos chamber orchestra, Laubrock will present a live performance of her piece ‘Dream Twice’ from her album ‘Dreamt Twice, Twice Dreamt’, released in late 2020. The work’s concept is entrancing: For ten years, Laubrock kept a dream diary, where she recorded what she calls her ‘craziest’ nocturnal experiences. For this album, she flipped through her entries of the past ten years and intuitively settled on five to serve as the basis for her compositions. "Dreams have always been food for composers because they open a door to something else," says Laubrock. "Before I started writing the music, I would meditate myself into the dreams to relive them. Hence the title of the album," she says. And also because she first composed the pieces as arrangements for a trio consisting of saxophone, keyboard and electronics, and subsequently redesigned them for a full orchestra. These are not simply arrangements of the smaller compositions, but new, completely independent pieces that are only loosely based on the others. "I often zoomed in on details and generated a large part from them for one of the orchestral pieces. The music was a bit like Russian matryoshka dolls that envelope each other in different formats, or like a map within a map, where you keep discovering new paths in the big picture on a small scale," she says, explaining her writing process, which is often inspired by hikes in nature. In order to do this, she likes to drive out of Brooklyn, where she has lived for the past 13 years.

The approach of using dreams as the basis for compositions is typical of Laubrock's general approach to music: to free herself from structures, from the all too conscious, the controlled, and instead to allow for the unexpected, use subconscious impulses as stimuli and embark on new paths. This freedom, this flow is audible in the album’s virtuosity. The musicologist Wolfgang Gratzer wrote in the magazine Jazz Podium that her listener is confronted with ‘the unheard of’ and furthermore: "This lively music is not based on a tried and tested recipe, it proves itself in astonishing progressions. Repeated listening is particularly worthwhile in this case, especially as the foundations of stirring sound and noise details proves to be rich."

The song titles alone make you want to dive into these sound seances: ‘Snorkel Cows’ is the musical interpretation of a dream where Laubrock found herself in a farmhouse in the countryside complete with a huge pool where cows swam around, their nostrils repeatedly floating to the surface of the water so that they could breathe. ‘I Never Liked That Guy’, on the other hand, transports us to the middle of the North America’s wilderness in a scene from a western movie. In the dream, one of her acquaintances shoots someone else, blows away the gun smoke like a cowboy and hums this phrase: "I never liked the guy anyway." Laubrock laughs at this nocturnal cricket: "I woke up and was puzzled because this dream made no sense to me at all. We're all colleagues and the person who got shot is the nicest person imaginable!"

Ingrid Laubrock
Ingrid Laubrock © Janette Beckmann for Monheim Triennale

Laubrock also acts out her ingenuity and expertise in various bands, ensembles and projects: 'Ingrid Laubrock's Anti-House' features some of her favourite musicians from the New York creative scene, such as Mary Halvorson, John Hébert as well as her husband Tom Rainey. The latter is also an important collaborator in other formations, such as the Ingrid Laubrock/Tom Rainey Duo, Ingrid Laubrock's ‘Sleepthief’ or ‘Perch, Hen Brock & Rain’. With 'Ingrid Laubrock's Ubatuba' she fulfilled her dream of playing in an all-brass formation.

Laubrock is a star within her niche.. Hard to believe, or moreover hard to stomach, therefore, that she has also been confronted with sexism in the course of her career. "When I was 18 or 19, I didn't even have to play a note and some people already assumed that I couldn't play. They would think I didn't have enough stamina. Funnily enough, those people have no idea how much stamina and how much breath you actually need. There is a lot of prejudice," she says. But she is pleased to state that this is gradually changing. "Fortunately, there are more female sax players nowadays. But as soon as a female musician plays another instrument than, let's say, flute, violin or piano, she still has to struggle with clichés. They still have to tear down these prejudices! And they will – great female musicians will make it happen."

Laubrock can hardly wait for the exchange with her colleagues – both at the Monheim Triennale and at other performances scheduled this year. After all, as a creative artist for whom immediate, vibrant exchange with other artists is the heartbeat of her music, she suffered from the isolation caused by the pandemic. "It was crazy: I suddenly had no desire to compose. There was just nothing! For an entire year. But generally I always write when I'm not on tour. The fact that I didn't know who or what to write for, because I also didn't know when I would be allowed to be in a room with people again with whom I could perform the music, robbed me of my inspiration," she says. When you experience Laubrock live, with her energy, her groove, you can imagine how much she must have missed these instants of connection, which can feel telepathic, as she puts it. That is why digital alternatives were out of the question for her. "I didn't even want to start with that: To record something all alone at home and then send it to someone by mail and have them play to it alone as well and then send it back to me as an overdub – that's not how things works for me," she says. To keep busy, she recorded sessions with her husband every week and uploaded them to Bandcamp, which have now become a reflective document of the pandemic. But of course this could not substitute the vibrant feeling of a concert. She is all the more relieved that an up-close cooperation is possible once again. And her muse is back: The melodies have just been pouring out of her, as if all the music that had been held back was now breaking free. "I'm back to writing non-stop, it feels great!" she says, beaming. 'Dreamt Twice, Twice Dreamt' may be made of dreams – but finally being able to experience it live on stage at the Monheim Triennale in June 2022 can fortunately be called a reality.

Artist Page Ingrid Laubrock