Album reviews

Bill Laurance & Michael League – ‘Where You Wish You Were’

Bill Laurance & Michael League – Where You Wish You Were

(ACT ACT 9961-2. Album review by Rob Mallows)

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For a duo album by two of the most prominent members of jazz juggernaut Snarky Puppy, this is about as far as you can get from the sound which has made them both famous – and laden down with Grammys – as you could imagine. But that’s no bad thing.

With just stringed instruments (Michael League) and piano (the UK’s own Bill Laurance) – and no bouncy rhythm section, stabbing brass, or obvious effects – the two musicians are out on a bit of a musical limb, relying simply on melodic and chord choices to get them through.

But when those choices are made by League and Laurance – musicians who, with the other members of the collective, have given jazz a steroidal shot in the arm over the last decade – that’s enough to produce a cracking album, albeit one that resides on a different sonic continent than their regular output.

In the opening eight bars of the first track, La Marinada, the listener gets an aural surprise – the distinctive and deep twang of an oud with its sonic-boom low-end weaving its way in and out of Laurance’s light touch playing. Textually interesting, if a little underwhelming as an opener. League plays the oud like an oud player wouldn’t, or maybe shouldn’t, and that in itself makes this instrument’s sound, which I would normally run a mile from, more interesting.

More of the Marrakech-meets-Monterey vibe on Meeting of the Mind, which is dominated by string bends and close mic’ing picking up every finger scratch and swipe of League’s left hand; Laurance’s playing feels a little in the background here, but it’s suitable nonetheless, providing a cooler, more western counterpoint. 

Round House moves away from the Med into more straightforward jazz duo harmonising and what’s noticeable – aside from the dense, bloated sound of League’s acoustic bass – is the humming, sucked-in breadth and slapping fingers of the bassist working his socks off to lay down a great platform for Laurance to kick off the shackles and get up and running. It’s at this point the album starts to bloom, particularly when League himself solos, giving his fretless fingerboard a super-intense workout.

Kin, a Laurance composition, feels like a track that could have been on his recent solo albums; League is a background presence on acoustic bass, and the track is replete with the characteristic changes in volume and attack, rippling runs and sustained notes that are a noticeable feature of Laurance’s playing.

Tricks has quite the dirtiest bass sound I’ve heard in a while – my speakers are still recovering – with every wind of the string evident in League’s low-end playing, some rather chatty staccato piano providing a slightly distorted sonic counterpoint. The middle section jumps and tumbles like a car falling down a mountain, and is a masterclass of why this album doesn’t need any other instrumentation. The textures are just wonderful. A real gripper!

Ngoni Baby, for a song with an African-sounding name, gives off something of a Japanese crossover vibe, while Bricks is another up-tempo, oud-focused composition leading into the title track, Where You Wish You Were. The melody has melancholy shot through it, and Laurance’s piano is tempered and … then fades out. Only 1 m 35 seconds for a title track seems an odd choice.

Last track Duo is what you’d expect, and provides a subtle denouement to an album which, over eleven tracks, works because it is defiantly not a stripped down Snarky Puppy, but one which makes a virtue of the limitations imposed by the number and timbre of the instruments played. For my tastes it’s perhaps a little too oud-heavy, but that’s a quibble in what is overall a very pleasant listen. 

The super rich production too – every molecule of air vibrated by the strings seems to pop out of the speakers – is also a great choice, creating a ‘live’ feel to the album, like you’re sitting next to the two of them in the studio. 

Won’t be to every ‘Puppy fan’s taste. But give it a go. Kick back and listen, and leave the groove for another day.

Where You Wish You Were is released today, Friday 27 JanuaryPURCHASE FROM PRESTO MUSIC

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