Review: Bill Laurance Project, Gateshead

The Snarky Puppy keyboardist is now a significant emerging talent, according to a suitably impressed Fred Grand, reviewing his Gateshead show

The somewhat disdainful epithet "cross-over jazz" doesn’t really cut the mustard when describing the music of keyboardist, composer and producer Bill Laurance. Co-founder of Grammy-winning jazz-funk sensations Snarky Puppy, he has musical interests so broad that his work defies easy categorisation. He is on record as saying that this new multi-faceted solo project is a realisation of the music he has been searching for ever since he first started playing, and its smart cross-fertilisation of jazz, classical and groove-based music doesn’t so much cross over as inhabit a decidedly post-jazz landscape of its own. Nearing the end of a three-week European tour in support of the new album Swift, Laurance was joined by fellow Snarky mainstays Michael League (bass) and Robert "Sput" Searight (drums), the West Side string trio, and a solitary French horn. I was keen to see how his very studio savvy music would stand up to the challenges of live performance, and despite a few reservations before the show I was left in little doubt at the end of the evening that Laurance is now a significant emerging talent.

Over the course of the two sets the respectably sized and largely twenty-something audience heard the bulk of the material from both Swift and its predecessor Flint. If I’ve any criticism of the albums then it’s only that they’re so meticulously produced that the solos occasionally feel like strategically placed window dressing. The opening exchanges of the hard-driving modal piece The Rush, one of several pieces significantly stretched and loosened by the band, soon confirmed beyond all doubt that Laurance is the real deal as an improviser. Perched behind a three-sided bank of keyboards, his head bobbed in perfect time to every groove, and as the music began to exert its irresistible pull the audience was soon bobbing along in gleeful sympathy.

Genre boundaries are very much part of Snarky Puppy’s appeal, and few bands are capable of transporting you back to the 70s heyday of jazz-funk with quite so much panache. There was enough of Snarky Puppy’s feel-good funk to keep the faithful happy - League’s solo on Neverending City polished the grit off some re-imagined Bootsy Collins licks, and some of the textures added by Laurance’s vintage Moog keyboards were unabashed kitsch. But throughout the course of the evening League thrived in this more expansive environment. Equally impressive on upright bass, he often worked in unison with the strings to carry the melody lines. December In New York laid bare Laurance’s debt to early 20c French Romantics, and its complex structure came into stark relief during a spellbinding performance. The Good Things showcased the core trio of piano/bass/drums and reminded me of the jazzier on-stage moments of Robert Glasper’s Experiment, while the motoric pulse of U-Bahn provided a breathless backdrop for an electric violin solo carrying strong echoes of Eastern Europe. The first set closed with the ska-inflected Smokers Castle, an old piece written in Bridlington while out on the road with League in a Chet Baker tribute band. Its spooky pitch-bends made me wonder if Laurance hadn’t taken a ride on the local ghost train before sitting down to write.

The second set opened with Denmark Hill, a reference to Laurance’s new south London abode. Relaxed sophistication was the name of the game, and his solo floated on the groove with the timeless grace of Jamal and Hancock. The Real One quickly shaped up as a very different kind of tour de force, this time redolent of George Duke and Headhunters-era Herbie, and Searight laid down some fiendishly complex time signatures. Red Sand took us to North Africa via the Orient, one of several pieces betraying Laurance’s increasing reputation as a composer of film scores and TV commercials. Yet few of the compositions heard during the course of the night were more cinematic than Fjords. It serves as the prologue to the new album but Laurance used it to close the set. Encapsulating the magnificent grandeur of some of the most rugged landscapes in Europe, it was a fitting climax to what had been a gripping show. Needless to say, it sparked a clamour for an encore from an enthusiastic audience who by this stage were simply whooping it up, and Laurance duly obliged with a delicate and sentimental dedication to his late Grandmother, Audrey.

If jazz is to continue to appeal to future generations then it needs people like Bill Laurance to renew its relevance. Although this particular tour is now all but over they’ll be popping up again at this summer’s Love Supreme festival. If you’re at all interested in contemporary music of a post-jazz bent then you should make it your priority to catch the Bill Laurance Project wherever you can!

Photo by Rose Freedman

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