Live review

REVIEW: Bill Laurance at Saffron Hall, Saffron Walden

Bill Laurance
Photo credit and © Monika S. Jakubowska(*)

Bill Laurance
(Saffron Hall, Saffron Walden. 30 March 2019. Review by Richard Bateman)

It is a mark of the ever-increasing confidence and momentum behind Bill Laurance‘s solo career that his list of supporting personnel gets shorter and shorter. It’s only five years since his début, Flint, appeared with a veritable chamber-ensemble of strings and horns in addition to the core trio of Laurance and Snarky Puppy bandmates Michael League and Robert ‘Sput’ Searight; yet Cables – Laurance’s fourth solo album, which launched on March 29th – features a cast-list of one: the pianist himself. On his current European tour the set-up is the same. Just him, a piano, and – as he himself put it on stage at Saffron Hall – ‘a bunch of machines’.

Bill Laurance
Photo credit and © Monika S. Jakubowska (*)

Does he get lonely without a band? ‘You know what: I love it! It’s really liberating’, he says from early on in the set. Does the audience miss the band? No, happily. A pianist as skilful as this is always worth seeing alone, and Laurance avoids the trap of repetitive sonic monotony through judicious, and never overwhelming, use of those machines. Proving the point, the beautiful, delicate Ebb Tide – the first song of the evening from the new album – needed only the most gentle of reverb effects and one single sample to effortlessly evoke both the sea and whale-song, with gentle glissandi complementing the more conventional right-hand improvisation figures.

Bill Laurance
Photo credit and © Monika S. Jakubowska (*)

Laurance’s tunes are indeed relatively simple, with many being based upon an initial ostinato figure (which can often be as straightforward as two-alternating notes, as heard on December in New York from his second album Swift (reviewed), which opened the set, and Constance from the new album); yet they are also ear-ticklingly catchy and, somehow, reassuring. A kind of aural warm-bath. The manner in which he builds and develops his tunes out of these opening riffs meanwhile harks back to the methodology of the Count Basie Band, as does the kinetic, propulsive energy that then develops, whether through a blur of hands on the keyboard (the boy has serious chops) or a continuous layering of samples one atop another.

Sonically, however, the particular synth sounds and samples also give Laurance’s music a degree of kinship with the work of pop bands such as Air and Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark. Kinsmen, a tune responding to the WhatsApp-based rediscovery of old school-friends, evinces this most clearly. Likewise the quasi-symphonic set closer Cassini, which outlines the take-off, journey and final reckoning of Nasa’s recently-ended probe-mission to Saturn in (appropriately) a tour-de-force combination which one might choose to think of as Laurance and the machine.

The least-effective part of the evening was the Brexit-based improvisation, which, other than containing the slightest suggestion of a morse-code ‘SOS’ in the left hand (or perhaps I was projecting that), did little that bore relation to its stated subject, though it did not linger long before eliding into the beautiful closing section of The Curtain from Snarky Puppy’s 2015 collaboration with the Metropole Orkest.

No matter, the rest of the evening was a stimulating, melodious delight. Laurance is a most agreeable stage-presence, and 90-minutes in his solo company passed in a happy whirl, rounded off in some style with a most unexpected but supremely well-executed encore cover of House of the Rising Sun.

Bill Laurance
Photo credit and © Monika S. Jakubowska (*)

Credits also to: James Heather who provided sterling support with his own opening piano set; the sound and lighting crew, both of whose outputs were unobtrusively excellent; and to Saffron Hall itself, a venue new to this author, a very well-appointed concert hall in its own right and a frankly astonishing facility to find in the middle of a secondary school. Lucky indeed are the kids who go there. Do visit if opportunity affords.

Laurance now moves on to Leeds, Liverpool, Gateshead and Bristol before then heading across the North Sea for a stint in the Netherlands. Catch him if you can.

Bill Laurance
Photo credit and © Monika S. Jakubowska (*)

(*) Monika S. Jakubowska’s photos are from the preceding evening 29 March 2019 at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London

LINK: Peter Bacon’s preview with tour dates

Categories: Live review

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