As a saxophonist, Ingrid Laubrock has formidable chops, borderless ambitions and an often devious sense of humor. While she’s been increasingly sought after for prestige big band gigs in the last couple of years, her own compositions up til now have been mostly for small groups, heavy on the improvisation. This blog characterized her 2016 album Ubatuba as “free jazz noir.” Her latest release, Contemporary Chaos Practices – streaming at Bandcamp – is her most ambitious project to date: two lushly invigorating, Braxton-esque pieces for orchestra and soloists. Those looking for bouncy hooks and swing won’t find it here, but as far as grey-sky massed improvisation, vivid unease and wry humor are concerned, this album is hard to beat.
One big innovation here is that Laubrock employs two conductors. Eric Wubbels conducts the score, while the conduction of Taylor Ho Bynum guides the improvisational aspects of the performance. A big whoosh from the 42-piece orchestra kicks off guitarist Mary Halvorson’s insistent pointillisms as the first segment of the epic four-part title piece gets underway, quickly echoed by the full ensemble: the hammering effect is very Louis Andriessen. Echoey, after-the-battle desolation alternates with massive upward swells; hushed flickers interchange with assertive, massed staccato. From there, a big, portentous heroic theme gets devoured by a flitting swarm of instruments: the effect as funny as it is disconcerting.
The first two movements segue into each other; the third begins with Messiaenic birdsong-like figures, then Jacob Garchik’s trombone kicks off a deliciously off-center, frantic chase scene from the whole ensemble. Led by dissociative figures from the strings, the calm afterward foreshadows the eerie resonance of the coda, awash in enigmatic low brass while Kris Davis’ electric piano flickers and flutters like the celeste in a Bernard Herrmann horror film score.
The album’s second piece, Vogelfrei, begins lush and still, Davis’ muted, ghostly piano signaling a droll exchange between strings and low brass. The intricacy of the interplay, right down to the tongue-in-cheek whistling of the strings amid a slowly emerging, lustrous melody, may be more thoroughly composed than it seems. Comedic moments – Halvorson’s guitar detective hitting a brick wall and then collapsing, and a yes-we-can/no-you-can’t smackdown – liven an otherwise persistent disquiet. A sepulchral choir of voices enters as the instruments build to a crowded skatepark tableau, which disappears only to pop up again.
Davis’ brooding neoromantic figures echo over a distant whirl and bustle, followed by a couple of slow but vigorous upward crescendos. Moments of bittersweet melody fall away one after the other, fading down and out with a long shiver from the strings a la Julia Wolfe.
Laubrock’s New York home these days is the Jazz Gallery, although she also likes to explore the fringes, both literally and figuratively. Her next gig is on Jan 31 at Holo in Ridgewood with a like-minded cast of improvisers: guitarist Ava Mendoza, microtonal violinist Sarah Bernstein, bassists Adam Lane and Brandon Lopez, and drummer Vijay Anderson. It’s not clear who’s playing when or with whom, but the lineup is worth coming out for whatever the case might be. Showtime is 7 PM; cover is $15.