Puppy keyboardist shows quality of his playing, covering all the musical bases.
Not content with winning two Grammy’s, the global phenom that is Snarky Puppy has also become a musical nursery supporting a number of breakout careers for the individual players in the group.
Brit Bill Laurance is the brightest star in the Puppy graduate firmament right now. His new album Aftersun, his third during his time with Snarky Puppy, shows off his undoubted talent and his capacity to create - in the words of the accompanying press release - “genre-bending” music.
That last point is crucial. This album will be filed under “jazz” in record shops and online stores, but that’s too restrictive for Laurance. Indeed, it’s lack of pin-down-ability is one of the album’s strengths. He clearly doesn’t want to be defined by any one genre; indeed, such is the unique sound he’s creating at the moment, one would think he’s seeking to create his own genre: ‘JazzDanceClassicalFunk anyone?
His work with Snarky Puppy is clearly a jumping-off point, however: the presence of the Puppy’s Michael League on bass and Sput Searight on drums provide a familiar soul-funk groove for the semi-improved tune structures provided by Laurance. The most telling contribution across all the tracks is from percussionist Weedie Braimha, providing the sturm und drang dance rhythms on many of the tracks.
Opening track SOTI illustrates this point. The drum and percussion sound is a trance-like, dance rhythm, with a simple but funk-filled bass and block chords on the keyboards, over which Laurance demonstrates gorgeous classical-like runs up and down the piano together with inventive chord choices on the synth, bringing in the jazz element. So, very much a musical hot-pot, everything in one dish and lip-smackingly tasty.
The Pines couldn’t be more different. Soulful in feel, with a simple funk bass and swing drum beats, it again combines genres wonderfully well with a contemporary twist that is nevertheless unmistakably jazz. Laurance develops some lovely patterns and fills around a simple but joyful melody, demonstrating his tremendous dexterity and readiness to mix complexity with simplicity in equal measure.
Time to Run adds in another element - African rhythms with a dance vibe - over which the electric piano introduces a mournful, minor key tone present throughout the track, which nevertheless still buzzes with life and movement. Elements of Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock are evident.
Madeleine is a straightforward melody which sounds rather like the opening tune to a new BBC Swedish Drama series over a thumping dance drum beat. The simplest tune on the album, it’s perhaps the strongest and most interesting as it develops, with some synth and bass pyrotechnics in the middle section.
Bullet again searches for inspiration in African beats - not altogether successfully, however. Title track Aftersun presses on the brakes for a slower tempo and shift of mood on the electric piano, the track is buttressed by soft drum beats and introspective bass lines. It builds up tensions across its six minutes while never breaking sweat - a fine showcase for Laurance’s synth skills.
First Light demonstrates Laurance’s preference for the vocoder as another arrow in his quiver of sounds. An urgent bass line and block chords create an electronic merry-go-round, making this a fun track, if lacking in anything particularly inventive. Golden House is another 90 degree turn - a jazz ballad with brushed drum strokes breaking the hushed atmosphere of a late-night club, while Blaze moves down the road to the local reggae bar for a rum-tinged tour on the hammond organ around some funked-up melodies.
Laurance is a consummate performer - he played Ronnie Scott’s in mid-March - and clearly has itchy composing fingers which need to find an outlet: Aftersun is his third album in two years, notwithstanding his own Snarky Puppy responsibilities. This album was deliberately improvised at short notice over outline compositions. In retrospect, a little more time spent at the composing keyboard might have provided a stronger overall album, which at the moment is slightly let down by a couple of tunes which feel a little rough around the edges.
Nevertheless, this album is very entertaining and should attract new listeners as well as provide succour to those Snarky Puppy fans awaiting the new album.
Bill Lawrence is ploughing his own musical furrow and doings so successfully. His star will continue to rise, propelled by albums such as this which are destined to shift plenty of units. A fourth album can’t be far away, and will be worth looking out for.