Bill Laurance – Swift
(GroundUp Music BL002. CD Review by Peter Jones)
It’s possible to get hung up on genre, especially with the jazz police lurking around every corner. When you hear Bill Laurance – when you hear Snarky Puppy, for that matter – you sometimes find yourself wondering whether it’s jazz. Might it be prog rock dressed up as jazz? Might it be essentially soundtrack music? Or ambient?
Such speculations are pointless, because they take your attention away from the music. The first track on this album, Laurance’s follow-up to last year’s Flint, is a case in point. With orchestral strings to the fore (there are eight string players on the album), you could almost imagine Prologue: Fjords on the soundtrack of the new Mad Max movie. And as with soundtrack music, distinctive melody plays second fiddle to mood. There’s more piano in evidence on the next track, the bustling December in New York, and the third (the title track) is an uptempo groove featuring Bill Laurance’s piano, Michael League’s bass and Robert ‘Sput’ Searight’s drums. It’s more Terry Riley-style serial music than jazz. In fact, the album is very much a product of these core members of Snarky Puppy: all three are credited as producers, and it was League who produced, orchestrated and conducted the strings and horns.
Denmark Hill is essentially a jazz trio track, with a lovely melody that sounds more Manhattan than London SE5. Red Sand starts out as synthi-prog but evolves into another soundtracky piece, and there is some plucky Michael League guitar. Another personal favourite is the gorgeous, hypnotic Mr Elevator.
Where Laurance’s own music diverges from that of Snarky Puppy is in the absence of solo horn instruments – specifically trumpet and saxophone. French horn and trombone make an appearance on The Rush, but only to provide orchestral colour to a certain passage in the tune, rather than to play solos. This approach makes the album a somewhat smoother listening experience than you get with Snarky Puppy. The danger with smoothness, of course, is that it can teeter into blandness. The energy and inventiveness, the command of dynamics, the sheer drama, are what give Snarky Puppy’s live performances their intensity. However, as a recording, played quietly, Swift is quite capable of melting into the background. Nothing wrong with that, of course, if you think of it as ambient music.
Having spent a decade writing Flint, Bill Laurance, to his great credit, made a decision to write this album within a self-imposed deadline of four months, while he was on tour with Snarky Puppy, and then record it immediately. It is a rich, fascinating piece of work, and when you play close attention to it, and don’t treat it as background, its melodies and groove hook themselves into your brain and don’t let go.