“It’s what I’ve never seen before that I recognize.”
- Diane Arbus
Drummer Tom Rainey and saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock could not have formed a more perfect union—husband and wife and artistic colleagues—and it’s one that keeps expanding, collectively and individually.
Rainey arrived in New York in 1978 and immediately jumped into the downtown scene. I encountered his music in the ’80s at the Knitting Factory, where he played with New and Used, Tim Berne, and Mark Helias. A drummer’s drummer, he can master any situation. His pared-down, awkward, quirky/jerky, animated approach appears deceptively simple. At times his hands, arms, and body seem to be leading the way, independent of his mind/heart, resulting in pure emotion, joy, wit, and a variety of tempi, sound, movement, and feeling.
Laubrock came to New York in 2009 via London, where she first picked up the saxophone, led her own bands, and, among other things, played Brazilian music. Once in New York, she started her own band, Anti-House, with Rainey, John Hébert, Kris Davis, and Mary Halvorson. We met at a Braxton/Walter Thompson concert a few years back. I took her to meet Braxton who said, as he does to most musicians, “I’ve heard about you. We must play sometime.” They eventually did. I caught her at the Jazz Gallery the next evening and was completely blown away. Her abilities on tenor and soprano are astounding.
I sent the two some questions. Here are their answers:
Steve Dalachinsky (Rail): What do you see as the future of this music?
Tom Rainey: I suppose the future of this music will continue as it always has: by musicians with talent and imagination, absorbing past innovations and expressing a personal musical viewpoint that is relevant to their generation, under the most trying of economic circumstances.
Ingrid Laubrock: There will always be talent, curiosity, and imagination. I think younger musicians will be assimilating their influences, coming up with their own take on things and moving things in a different direction, the way it always has been done.
Rail: How do you see your approaches to the work as both leaders and side-people in so many diverse projects?
Rainey: Musically, I don’t think of the approach of leader versus sideman as being all that different. Either way it’s a collaborative process. The differences lie more in the logistics and taking responsibility for the project financially and promotionally.
Laubrock: As a leader and composer I get to hear my own artistic vision put into practice, which is particularly exciting. Imagining, writing, rehearsing, and producing your own music is artistically very fulfilling. But I also love being a side-person. My colleagues who hire me all have very personal approaches, which are great and interesting challenges. We learn from each other while we explore each other’s music and vision.
Rail: Ingrid, in regard to your work with Braxton and other pillars of the musical community, how have these things affected your freedom and restraint while dealing with your own individual languages?
Laubrock: Working with Anthony Braxton is always mind-blowing. He is a genius and incredibly deep, innovative, and risk-taking. He thinks bigger, artistically speaking, than anyone I know, and has always done so. His approaches and systems have made my music bigger and made me think deeper. All the musicians I work with now teach me something. I feel blessed to be part of a wonderful community of virtuosic musicians who are very creative and have something to express that is very personal.
Rail: What effect does not being from New York have on your individual musical styles, tastes, ideas, and the way you interact with each other, your bandmates, and the New York community? Also, briefly tell me a bit about your musical backgrounds.
Rainey: Growing up in Santa Barbara, there certainly was no jazz or improvised music scene to take part in, but from the age of fourteen until college I rehearsed with my high school stage band every day, as well as with the school orchestra. Outside of school hours, I would rehearse and gig with my rock band. Playing big band music led me to other forms of jazz, which led me to more adventurous improvisation, and so on. Almost everyone I have worked with in New York came from somewhere else with the desire to find a community of like-minded musicians, even if we didn’t know exactly what that would be.
Rail: You (Ingrid) lived in England and played straight-ahead jazz for awhile. How did this help shape your eclectic vocabulary and ideas on composition and improvisation? How did this come about?
Laubrock: I grew up in a tiny village in Germany and moved to the U.K. when I was eighteen years old. My parents were very dedicated and freethinking amateur musicians who exposed me to classical music and encouraged me to find my own way. They have always supported me and instilled a hunger for learning and exploration in me and my siblings, yet also made sure there is a respect for tradition and depth. I started playing in London and worked my way through different genres of music, learning on the job and along the way. I didn’t switch styles so much as slowly and steadily move into new musical areas, and I am still grateful for everything I learned from the different types of music I explored and the musicians I did that with.
Rail: Can you both speak to the question of composition versus improvisation and how you mix the two?
Rainey: I cannot speak to that, as I’ve given up composition years ago on doctor’s orders.
Laubrock: I do both a lot and the two inform each other constantly, though not exclusively. A lot of the improvisation in my music is open, meaning there is no given framework such as chords, forms, or pitch cells, for example. Those improvised parts are often nestled in substantial amounts of composition and there is often composition sneaking in underneath the improvisation. The musicians who play my music are expert at weaving the various strains together.
Rail: How does being life partners as well as musical partners help keep you engaged in both your personal and musical relationships, and is there a crossover creatively, or is there a complete disengagement from one another? And how do conflicts, e.g. a fight before a gig, affect you?
Rainey: I’ll agree with whatever my beautiful wife has to say on the matter. Seriously, when we are rehearsing and performing together I’m not relating to Ingrid as my wife any more than I would be thinking of her as a saxophone player at the dinner table.
Laubrock: I feel similarly that way. We are a good team I think.
Rail: Who/what are some of your influences/sources?
Rainey: It’s a long list, but here is a short alphabetical sampling: The Beatles, Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, the Mahavishnu Orchestra, György Ligeti, Charles Mingus, Sonny Rollins, Igor Stravinsky, and especially all the drummers that played with the above.
Laubrock: In terms of composition, and in no particular order: Anthony Braxton, Muhal Richard Abrams, Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus, and Henry Threadgill have had a big impact, and so have Ligeti and Morton Feldman, but there are many many others. As saxophonists, John Coltrane, Sam Rivers, Anthony Braxton, Steve Lacy, Wayne Shorter, Evan Parker, Lol Coxhill—the list goes on! I listen to all sorts of music. Sometimes I spend a long time just listening to one piece or one artist, there are other times where I look for lots of different input. Most important of all these days, all the musicians I play with are a big influence, in particular Tom. I also love to hear live music, which often affects me in a different way than recorded music does.
Rail: What do you think (your) music can or cannot do to help change and shape society? Any long- or short-term effects?
Rainey: I’m just happy when someone remarks that they felt better after listening to our music. If we could have that effect consistently then I suppose that’s something.
Laubrock: I am hoping that it opens the listeners’ minds and inspires curiosity. I definitely hope to reach something deep inside my listeners.
Rail: There is a lot of music and art in general that comes from the head/technique/spirit. How would you define inner necessity? How much of a role does it play in your music? And do you think music should come more from the gut, the soul, the head, or all of these, or does it depend on the compositional and improvisational format/elements? Do you think it is important for folks to FEEL or GET what is happening, or is it okay if one just listens and takes in the music’s nuances and complexities without either of those two ingredients?
Rainey: I don’t have any strong opinions about the head to heart ratio in art. I just assume that everyone is expressing and entertaining themselves in a manner which suits them. I know that I’ve been moved by music that was performed by someone who has absolutely no academic relationship with the art form whatsoever, and by the same token I’ve been equally moved by a composer or performer who organizes their art through a very intellectual process. It’s all just music, best to be consumed, devoid of expectation.
Laubrock: I completely agree with Tom on that. There is no one way of doing anything, which is the beauty of it all.
Rail: What upcoming projects do you both have together and individually?
Laubrock: My latest CD, Serpentines, has just been released on Intakt Records. I was lucky enough to put a septet of some of my favorite musicians together and compose for it. It’s a strong cast of players from a variety of backgrounds: jazz, new music, electronic music, and free improvisation. The lineup is myself on saxophones; Peter Evans, trumpet; Miya Masaoka, koto; Craig Taborn, piano; Sam Pluta, electronics; Dan Peck, tuba; and Tyshawn Sorey, drums. Our launch concert is at Roulette at 8 p.m. on December 15.
Rainey: I’ll be performing with Barry Guy for the first time, in Europe, this December. My trio with Mary Halvorson and Ingrid will be performing our seventh annual December 30 gig at Cornelia Street Cafe. In January I will be recording the second CD of my band Obbligato for Intakt Records.
Rail: Do you believe in the muse?
Laubrock: I believe in it, but I also know that there is usually a lot of hard work behind any piece of art.
Rainey: I believe in the MOOSE.
Poet/collagist STEVE DALACHINSKY was born in Brooklyn after the last big war and has managed to survive lots of little ones. His book The Final Nite (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2006) won the PEN Oakland National Book Award. His most recent books are Fools Gold (Feral House, 2014), A Superintendent's Eyes (Unbearable/Autonomedia, 2013), and Flying Home (Paris Lit Up Press, 2015), a collaboration with German visual artist Sig Bang Schmidt. His latest CD is ec(H)osystem with the French art-rock group, The Snobs (Bam Balam Records, 2015). He is a 2014 recipient of a Chevalier de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. His poem "Particle Fever" was nominated for a 2015 Pushcart Prize.His most recent books are Black Magic (New Feral Press, 2017) and Frozen Heatwave, a collaboration with Yuko Otomo (Luna Bisonte Prods, 2017).