Live review

Bill Laurance & The Untold Orchestra at Union Chapel (EFG LJF 2021)

Bill Laurance & The Untold Orchestra
(Union Chapel. 20 November 2021. EFG LJGF. Review by Rob Mallows)

Bill Laurance photograph: PR

As homecomings go, this one was a rip-snorter!

Bill Laurance – who started his career as Snarky Puppy’s keyboardist but has over the last six years garnered more renown arguably as a solo artist – told an anecdote he had shared with the audience at his last Union Chapel show, six years ago now (which this reviewer was also at): he went to Primary School close to the Chapel. The sports centre where he did PE was just around the corner. He used to walk past this chapel every day. Now, he was playing here again.

He really was on home turf. And it was, evidently, very good to be back.

The audience – judging by the standing ovation at the end (though, that might just have been the audience collectively standing up to recover from 90 minutes of being sat on the hardest of wooden pews in this active, but notoriously uncomfortable chapel) – also agreed.

This show on the penultimate night of the Festival offered a double bonus for gig goers, for many of whom, one imagines (as with one of the people I chatted with in the queue), this was their first proper gig after the pandemic. 

As such there was something of a collective catharsis about the whole evening, on stage and in the pews, with Laurance noting that for musicians and support staff the lockdown had been a really, really difficult time, and thanking the audience from the bottom of his heart simply for being there.

As all good artists do, he had made adversity his muse during the pandemic and tonight’s show was also the world premiere of tracks from his new EP, Zeal. The title communicated his keenness to make the best of a bad situation and come out with something worthwhile.

His partners in this were The Untold Orchestra – a Manchester-based ensemble of whom, up to that point, I had heard nothing, but were revelatory. The tracks were recorded by each musician in the orchestra individually, and mixed remotely, making this something of an aural artefact of one of the biggest crises to hit the music scene in decades, if ever.

That set, there was an optimistic note to the new cuts which belied their origins. The title track Zeal highlighted, with its soaring, lushly expressive strings, the value that the orchestra provides in augmenting the core sound of Laurance’s trio (his live bassist Max Luthert and drummer, the super-impressive Marijus Aleksa). Gorgeous and emotionally empowering, this new composition was, Laurence said, a testament to human persistence in the face of adversity. And there’s been plenty of that to deal with.

Playing a mixture of songs from the new EP and his ever-growing back catalogue – including crowd favourites FlintThe Pines, and the title track from his last studio album, Cables – what marked out this gig from his last Union Chapel show was the relative lack of electronic augmentation (aside from a small mixing desk next to the piano): no synthesisers, no Roli flexible keyboard. Just a piano and a cleaner, more stripped-down sound, all the better to showcase Laurance’s knack for delivering compelling hook after compelling hook. 

From where I was sitting – just behind Laurance, to his right, with a perfect view of his keyboard and hands – one could see just how intricate and daring a keyboardist he can be during his solo excursions on a track like new cut, Balm. The joy on his face, eyes closed as he played, was that of a man who has already scaled many heights (such as his numerous Grammy wins with Snarky Puppy) and, looking out, still sees plenty more peaks to explore.

Throughout the gig he displayed his humility and thankfulness for simply being back on stage, and for the joy of sharing it with such great musicians. That positive feeling thoroughly transmitted itself to the audience. And, evidently, to the other musicians on stage.

Each member of The Untold Orchestra – particularly leader Simmy Singh – was clearly having a whale of a time, and the ensemble playing was faultless (as was the sound quality overall in this cavernous space). Luthert and Aleksa, too, had plenty of opportunities to shine, with the latter particularly giving it everything he had, and more, on some rat-a-tat soloing of the highest order.

Overall, it was a joyous celebration of what we’ve missed for much of this last 20 months. Music. Togetherness. Creativity. And joy.

The first short set was just the core trio, a low-calorie hors d’oeuvre to the full-fat main event, and while it was less impressive – visually and aurally – than the main show, it was a good reminder that Laurance’s jazz chops are in full working order. His joy at being back driving a piano, in front of paying customers, shone through every note.

LINKS: Bill Laurance website

The Untold Orchestra website

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