REVIEW: Bill Laurance and the WDR Big Band at the Queen Elizabeth Hall (2018 EFG LJF)


Bill Laurance
Photo creit: John Watson/ jazzcamera.co.uk

Bill Laurance and the WDR Big Band
(Queen Elizabeth Hall. 25 November 2018. EFG London Jazz Festival. Review by Rob Mallows)


Bill Laurance is a hot property at the moment. A principal member of the double-Grammy-winning juggernaut Snarky Puppy; three self-penned albums under his belt and a fourth on the way; a solo piano tour on the stocks for next year. What does he do next? Gives his tunes to one of the world’s great big bands, the WDR, and says: see what you can do!

They rose to the challenge and with lead arranger and WDR principal conductor, saxophonist Bob Mintzer, in charge this show hit most of the right notes, even though a couple of tunes weren’t wholly suited to the bigger sound on offer.

Laurance had the look of a small child about to open his Christmas presents as he arrived on stage. He had a lot of new toys to play with. Four trumpets, four trombones, five saxophone and flute players, to be exact. Brass is a new sound to those familiar with Laurance’s solo work, and it was clear from opening tracks The Good Things and The Rush that the band gave a seismic boost to these well-crafted compositions, particularly the deep cut-through of the trombones. Under Mintzer’s guidance, the WDR Big Band purred like a precision-engineered BMW 7-series on the autobahn, effortlessly adding tonal depth and heft.

Laurance’s compositions are relatively straightforward, and that’s not a criticism; it is their simple beauty the captures the ear and the soul and uplifts. So, the ostinato riff at the heart of Swift is as catchy as a team of Romanian jugglers, and required only minor embellishments by the WDR to make it burst into technicolour.

Aftersun, a tribute to scientist Carl Sagan, was one of the tunes that didn’t benefit much from souping up, given its rather languid feel, although Paul Shigihara’s guitar solo – his most noticeable contribution in an otherwise understated contribution – was a tremendous garnish.

Across all the numbers, the soloists were fearless in taking Laurance’s chord progressions and punching through to give them a twist. A particularly loud cheer was given twice to alto sax player Karolina Strassmayr; in part, one suspects, through her being the only woman on stage. She didn’t need this slightly patronising boost however, as her solo on Swag Times simply kicked ass.

While somewhat overshadowed by the massed ranks of brass, the rhythm section was subtly in the pocket throughout the show, in particular bassist John Goldsby – he did little that was spectacular, but he did it spectacularly well.

Bob Mintzer directing the WDR Big Band
Photo credit: John Watson/ jazzcamera.co.uk

The second half opened with Laurance alone at his keyboard, inspired by a recent meeting with Herbie Hancock to just be in the moment and start playing, and see where he ended up. While it was impressive to see him compose on the fly, it was also a relief to see him shift into playing Chia. Denmark Hill, a paean to the suburb of the same name, is a lovely, slightly melancholy track that didn’t really need a lot of brass embellishment, but what it got, helped.

Ready Wednesday – already jaunty as hell – did work very effectively with the WDR turbo fully open, and final cut Last Time’s simple trip-hop rhythms and basic piano riff was amplified, even maybe overpowered, by the addition of 13 brass players in full effect.

There was – as was perhaps inevitable, given it was the day of the Brexit Council decision – a 'Remain' message from Laurance that was cheered and lapped up by the rather homogenous London audience. But it was ultimately all about the music.

I like performers who play with a smile, and you couldn’t help but like Laurance’s excited, wide-eyed performance. A top-notch keyboardist and composer of artful jazz-electronica who knows how to write commercially savvy, lyrical tunes that purists might scorn, Laurance understands that first and foremost, his job is to entertain. He did, and deserves his success for that reason alone.

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