REVIEW: The Bill Laurance Quartet at Ronnie Scott's

Bill Laurance

The Bill Laurance Quartet 
(Ronnie Scott's, 16 March 2016, third night of three. Review by Rob Mallows)

Like the fifteen free-hanging orange light bulbs which decorated the Ronnie Scott’s stage last night, Bill Laurance’s music glowed with high-wattage intensity. This was the sort of bravura, energetic performance which demonstrates the power of instrumental music to move the soul.

A fortnight after the world of rock music lost one of its most prodigiously talented keyboardists in Keith Emerson, watching Laurance and his band put on a faultless show led me to make a connection. To be clear, Ronnie Scott’s is not Shea Stadium; and Bill and his bandmates Richard Spaven on drums, Felix Higginbottom on keyboards and percussion, and Chris Hyson on bass, presumably manage to tour quite happily without four massive articulated trucks with their names on the roof.

No, what I was thinking of was something different: the sheer showmanship and readiness to explore sounds which Emerson demonstrated in the seventies in rock, and which Laurance is seeking to do with his crossover jazz. While no keyboards were harmed during the gig, what there was on stage from Bill and the band was a readiness both to entertain and to stun the audience in equal measure with the percussive complexity of their sound.

Whether in their solos, or when bringing a tune to a soaring crescendo, the Bill Laurance Band displayed the musicianship and creativity that has put new album Aftersun at the top of the iTunes jazz charts and - along with his regular band Snarky Puppy’s fulsome output - given jazz a funky shot in the arm that can only be good for the genre.

Bill Laurance is also the consummate showman-keyboardist, happy to go way beyond the accepted role of piano in jazz (though Laurance’s music is far too genre-bending to be limited to this term) in the same way Emerson took the keyboard from the side of the stage to the front, and cranked it up to eleven. Press photos showing Laurance astride two banks of keyboards reinforce this idea of a musician happy to grab any new instrument that can generate the sounds required.

A technically superb pianist, Laurance uses synth technology to to squeeze all the possible musical juice out of the black and white keys in front of him. Whether on a Fender Rhodes electric piano, emulator synth or the fantastically left-field ROLI Seaboard Grand flexible keyboard - which provides a whole gamut of new sound ideas to play with - Laurance has at his command both melody and harmony in spades.

The performance showcased sounds from Aftersun and Laurance's two previous albums Flint and Swift (REVIEWED), ranging from bommbastic jazz-fusion to the lightest of ballads. Tracks like Cheer demonstrated the lushness of Laurance’s chord choices. This was hyper-intense music, driven by the percussive angularity of Spaven’s drums and Hyson’s simple but disarmingly effective bass. There was a definite dance, trip-hop vibe in tracks like Ablaze - for which audience member and musician alike should, Laurance laughed, “be out of yourself” to full appreciate; while title track Aftersun had a film soundtrack quality, eschewing keyboard acrobatics for harmonic gloss.

The rest of the show was a musical Grand Tour on which the audience enthusiastically hitched a ride. The Pines was straightforward jazz, with strong block chords from Laurance providing a counterpoint to Spaven’s evident desire to fit in as many meter changes as possible into one drum solo. The Good Things resolved from a cavalcade of exquisite trills and arpeggios into a maelstrom of thunder-heavy power chords and musical sturm und drang. In contrast, crowd favourite Red Sand - featuring Felix Higginbottom’s virtuosity on frame drum and all the other instruments in what must be the fullest stocked of percussion cupboards - was all about lush, Stevie Wonder-esque keyboards and funky joyfulness.

This was compelling music fully deserving of three sold-out nights and rapturous applause from an audience only too ready to stand up in appreciation of what they’d heard. At times the show had the vibe of a top DJ set, Laurance’s head bobbing up and down as he tweaked each control knob to get exactly the sound he wanted. Had he had on stage a church organ, one suspects Laurance would definitely have had all the stops pulled out, such was the power of these sold-out shows (which will be released on vinyl later in the year).

Support was provided by the Tim Thornton Quartet, their straight-ahead jazz providing a palate-cleanser to the intense sounds that followed. Bassist Tim Thornton’s unobtrusive but undoubtedly peppy bass was accompanied by James Gardiner-Bateman on alto sax, Chris Draper on drums and keyboardist Ross Stanley.

Playing mostly Thornton’s own compositions - such as the moody Red Eye, its slight soporific feel perhaps reflecting its origins on a long, uncomfortable overnight flight, and Beyond The Country, his tribute to the late Charlie Haden - the Quartet offered up lush breaks and complex solos by the pound, with Thornton making the most of the sustain on the deepest of notes to give each tune much-needed oomph.

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