Ingrid Laubrock is an increasingly significant figure in the Brooklyn jazz scene both as a player and a composer. Between her last intakt-records release and this new one, she’s been a part of recordings from the likes of Mary Halvorson, Tom Rainey, and Taylor Ho Bynum ranging from off-the-cuff improvised sessions to various chamber/big band variations. Like Roulette of the Cradle, Serpentines is an amalgam of a lot of powerful improvising voices, and again Laubrock has constrained her companions enough to prevent over-playing, while also allowing each musician’s personality to shine. Perhaps this group lacks a sliver of the distinct ensemble sound that makes the Anti-house so successful, however, Laubrock’s unpredictable compositional strategies impress once again.
The record truly kicks off in the middle of nowhere; in a seemingly random order the instrumentalists pop off little bites of noise. At first, these ideas are essentially just single notes, but as the song pushes forward the ideas get more extensive, slowly approaching a counterpoint effect. Laubrock does well to give the track a sense of life, despite the abstract nature. Sometimes large spaces will come up between notes making for a sense of ambience, but then ideas will gradually drift closer together approaching a more chaotic sound. In part 2 of the “Pothole Analytics” piece, all of the sparse ideas come together full force. Fast lines from everyone clash and twirl, with certain noises piercing through the static middle ground and others just adding to the chaos. There’s still an element of constraint, which we really see in Tyshawn Sorey’s offerings. Rather than laying down a specific meter with a typical cymbal/snare-drum combination, Sorey’s paints around the kit, referencing the players around him without playing fast, complex lines. After spending the first couple minutes in chaos, the track cools down finding a rest stop not unlike the beginning of the whole piece.
From this point on, the tracks get a lot longer. At its start, “Chip in Brain” sounds like it’s going to be a drawn out version of “Pothole Analytics.” Again the focus shifts between different instruments, but from the very beginning there’s an emphasize on long tones, making the piece much less sporadic. To add to this effect, Sam Pluta supplies drones with the help of Dan Peck on tuba. After the spacey start to the track, Peter Evans begins to become the guiding force. Ever so gently, Evans’ breath attacks become melodies with soaring high notes, bending up to atmospheric heights. There’s somewhat of a pulse that the whole ensemble breathes with resulting in a starkly capturing experience. “Squirrels” is much more of a ‘head’ oriented track, but Laubrock doesn’t outwardly state the main melody. Instead, her and Evans improvise together, before the rhythm section slowly comes into play to announce the meter. This blending aspect of Laubrock’s compositional strategy really shines as she touches upon traditional structures, without making them too obvious. Also, considering the previous material, it would be a bit out of place to immediately jump into a really precise playing style.
This tune does touch upon my only real reservation on the record—that it to some degree lacks a standout ensemble sound—and I think part of the issue is the difficulty with finding a way to sensibly incorporate Sam Pluta’s electronics into more structured chamber jazz composition. Pluta obviously adds a lot to the texture of improvised portions, but it’s hard to see him playing a “head” of a chart. On “Squirrels” we see all the instrumentalists having some sort of job during the head of the piece, but the only way to incorporate Pluta is to drop down to complete silence for his solo. Of course, because the front of the record is so spacey, it makes sense to give even the most active piece a break in the middle, but perhaps finding a way to include electronics into the band’s more structured melodies could make for an even more standout experience.
The title track wraps things up by reprising some of the general ideas on the record. Again the huge group improvises all at once, with individuals coming forward at points before the sparse use of space returns eventually leaving the listener in silence. Serpentines is another glance at Laubrock’s incredible compositional abilities. By emphasizing space with such a powerful group of players, Laubrock provides plenty of contrast to combat the more intense moments. Also, Laubrock’s ability to blend between these playing spaces makes for a cohesize experience from start to finish.
Laubrock’s really one of the best composers around.