Bill Laurance is a longstanding member of Snarky Puppy, and one of the original keys players. Often identified by fans for his sensual and sensitive playing, he also provides some of the band’s most amazing keys solos. In addition, he an accomplished song writer having penned some of the groups most memorable tunes like Ready Wednesday and 34 Klezma.
Bill also has established a very successful career on his own producing four studio albums and three live albums, two of which are reviewed and contrasted here: Bill Laurance Trio at Ronnie Scott’s and Bill Laurance with the WDR Big Band out of Germany. On the WDR disc, Bob Mintzer of Yellowjackets fame is the conductor.
These albums were selected due to the proximity of issuance, both coming out in the last 12 months and yet the distance between them musically. Of course the trio really emphasizes Bill’s virtuosity as well as the other feature players musicianship whereas the WDR Big Band album transforms each piece into a full orchestral sound focusing on the melodies. and the other players musicianship.
Here’s my take on the two collections indicating which album WDR and Ronnie Scott’s (RS) the track was performed on as well as which studio albums the tracks appear. Enjoy!
Chia (RS – Flint) starts with a bright Bill intro. It is exemplary of the trio’s ability to sound richer than three people. There’s a nice bass solo part way through by Jonathan Harvey. Bill follows with a very jazzy piece with his left hand playing a repeat bass while his right dances along with a wonderful jaunty segment. The tempo accelerates toward the end with the three hitting stride before closes out with the main theme and a beautiful fade out ending.
Swag Times (RS/WDR – Flint) starts off with a simple chord line but everything Bill plays sounds more complete than the individual notes or chords.
In the Ronnie Scott’s version the bass and drums pick up on the main theme while bill plays over the top. The bass throughout is a nice counterpoint for Bill. One of Bill’s great talents is adjusting volume and tempo to create a mood and he does that here with excellence playing the ride out to a silky smooth end.
With the WDR version, the piano is replaced in the opening by a full horn section for a different sound before the bass and drums kick in. In fact, Bill’s playing is more subdued here as expected. Throughout, the horns play much of the melody until a terrific alto sax solo from Karolina Strassmayer midway through. Bill follows up with a very jazzy Fender Rhodes segment and the total arrangement is a great package.
The original Flint album had Snarky Puppy’s Michael League (bass), Mike ‘Maz’ Maher (trumpet and flugelhorn) and Chris Bullock (tenor sax, clarinet, bass clarinet and flute) as well as Robert ‘Sput’ Searight now with Ghost-Note (drums and percussion) and an eight-piece chamber ensemble. In that respect the WDR version is closer in sound to the original. Similarly, the Live at Union Chapel record also featured a larger ensemble so this is the first time we get to hear the stripped down version of this tune.
Denmark Hill (WDR – Swift) has another cinematic intro from Bill followed by the horn section. A highlight is the sweet flute work that rides well alongside the keys. The horn section plays along with the harmony before a slight adjustment with lower end horns and flute harmony. The break is Bill soloing a very jazzy section before the the flute-led horn section pitches in. There’s a strong trumpet solo that follows and then the horns reenter with a feel like Snarky Puppy’s Sylva album. There’s a swinging tenor solo about midway through and the arrangement makes good use of the full WDR sound. Bill plays tag with the flute and horns to close out the track.
The original Swift album also featured Michael League and Robert ‘Sput’ Searight as well as an eight-piece string ensemble. So the lineup was the same as Flint, without the horns and this version is a strong built-up version of the original.
The Pines (RS – Aftersun) starts with the full trio and picks up pace with a swinging bass and drum accompaniment. This one from the Aftersun album simultaneously highlights the playing of all three musicians. Aftersun is Bill’s third studio album and was recorded with a scaled down group of Michael League, Robert “Sput” Searight and renowned West African percussionist Weedie Braimah. In that sense, the album was closest to the trio sound heard on Ronnie Scott’s.
This one is perhaps the best one to highlight Jonathan Harvey on bass and Marijus Aleksa on drums as they cruise along with Bill on the main melody. In fact, early on there’s a duo with just Bill and Jonathan and when Marijus comes back in he’s a perfect timekeeper. The midsection is a energetic ride before Bill breaks with a gliss and Marijus takes his first of two solos in this tune. Watch the video and you’ll see both Bill’s skills and the depth of involvement with the music. Marijus’ second longer solo comes the 7:30 mark and it’s a fun one to watch with a lot of cross handed movement. The unique fade is just Jonathan and Marijus.
Ready Wednesday (WDR – Flint, Tell Your Friends) is one of the first Laurance tunes on a Snarky Puppy album, Tell Your Friends in 2010. Bill also reimagined it on Flint in 2014 and Live at Union Chapel in 2016. It’s always a fan favorite to see live and has so many twists and turns from a dramatic opening and close to many time shifts and crescendos.
As such, this big band version really brings out the majesty of the composition, perhaps closest to a Snarky Puppy version but magnified by the size of the band. Bill starts with a classic yet unidentifiable solo opening with a solid build ending with the distinctive four note left hand melody to the band intro. Once the full horn led orchestra hits it’s off to the races. That is, until there’s a break for Bill to come back with the signature melody. Bill’s midway solo is amazing to watch as his hands move in a blur and he ends it with another gliss. This one definitely utilizes the big band treatment to maximum effect.
The final two minutes are a classic Ready Wednesday close with a soft and emotional Bill solo that always brings a hush to the audience no matter where or how big the hall. This one has Marijus playing with mallets to increase the dramatic affect.
The Good Things (RS/WDR – Flint) is another tune that appeared on both albums drawn from the Flint mid-sized ensemble album so good potential to go large or small. Bill introduces the Ronnie Scott version with and plays with a very introspective feel. What’s remarkable is how the playing feels very simple in Bill’s hands but also like multiple players at the same time. This one goes down like a soothing tonic. At the bridge, Jonathan’s playing with Bill is spot on. The Good Things has a distinctly classical feel to it as well. Jonathan’s bass is well heard on the build up towards the end.
The opening on the WDR feels true to form since it’s primarily Bill until the flute entry which playfully exchanges with Bill in the intro and in and out of the duration. It’s nice when the full horn section plays the melody with Bill. For much of the first half the big band plays in a subdued role but as the piano builds the band gets pulled with it. The bottom end horns in the final section are a great counterpoint with the terrific saxophone solo at the final third of the song with a full horn fanfare to bring it to a crescendo and then back down to a mood filled fade.
Golden Hour (RS/WDR – Aftersun), in the Ronnie Scott version, is a slower paced tender tune. It is kicked off by Marijus with using one brush and one stick before Bill jumps in and glides though the dream-like sequences. Bill’s left hand and the stick hand of Marijus keep time with the harmony throughout.
On the WDR version, a trumpet solo opens up before Bill picks up the main melody with the horns accentuating him. The horns another texture to the song although both versions reflect the original Aftersun version. About halfway through there’s a muted trumpet solo. The main theme takes us along a smooth ride to the twilight ending.
Money in the Desert (WDR – Flint) has the horns herald in the main theme and the electronic keyboard and Bill play along for the ride. The drumline is march-like. This one is definitely a horn highlight session with some slick lines around the 1/3 mark – it highlights the composition and the overall group, rather than Bill’s playing in particular.
The arrangement offers an electronic keys short solo by Billy Test followed shortly by a nice extended tenor sax solo by Paul Heller. Bill and Billy take the band to the outro.
Red Sand (RS/WDR – Swift) is a personal favorite and was played on both albums here as well as Live at Union Chapel.
Bill starts the Ronnie Scott’s version with a main theme variant before jumping into the more uptempo harmony. The Marijus march rhythm fits perfectly. Jonathan’s bass here is more pronounced offsets the piano very nicely. In fact, he takes a bass solo halfway through at the bridge with some very cool sounds. The closeout has Bill’s classic two handed work swinging and and shaking it up to the end. It’s a true cacophony of sound seemingly impossible from a trio.
The WDR version starts in the traditional way but the horn lines come early on the main theme. The horns playing the theme give it a regent swinging feel. Johan Hörlén has a nice turn on an alto sax solo. Bob Mintzer steps out of the conductor role to take a turn on tenor solo, a throwback moment.
Madeleine (RS – Aftersun) has a rolling with Bill trilling keys early on. The rhythm is very tight and strong against the main theme. The slowed down break has some fine interplay between Bill and Jonathan with some very speed laden bass lines. After the break there’s some furiously fierce playing and the audience shows appreciation.
The Rush (WDR – Swift) begins with Bill and drums only with a spritely piano line and extended intro. The horns enter with a muted tone after a while and play an alternating theme before Bill comes to interplay with them before getting back to the head. From not quite the midpoint the band hits full stride alternating with Bill plus the band synchronized to the band playing off Bill’s lead. About 2/3 through, there’s a cool extended trombone solo with punch filled horns at the back end. This tune really swings from start to finish.
Note: No individual video or audio link was found for this tune but you can watch it starting at the 11:25 mark of Part 1 of the video link below.
Never Ending City (RS – Flint) has a twinkling piano opening, characteristically slower-paced and temperamental and accelerates with Jonathan coming in with some distinct interspersed bass notes. By the time it reaches full speed, it’s rollicking along with Bill’s playing very prominent in the foreground. His playing is often characterized as “cinematic” and that’s definitely the feel here. Marijus’ play is certainly toe-tapping and torso rocking. By the quick stop end, it’s the feeling of a joyful ride.
Swift (WDR – Swift) starts with Bill playing the main theme with baritone horns following. By the time the full horn section kicks it it sounds like an epic adventure. There’s a nice flute line overlaid on top of Bill’s playing. Mattis Cederberg steps up with a trombone solo followed by Karolina Strassmayer with a soulful sax solo. After a build it breaks back down to Bill tenderly soling to the end with a punctuation mark!
The Real One (RS – Swift) closes out the Ronnie Scott’s album and starts with a trilling piano solo when the drums enter with a choppy march- like rhythm. The acceleration to the main theme is graduated and about 1/3 through the transition is to a swinging jazzy section with some deep bass work. There’s a piano section where there’s some dancing on the keys in many different sequences. The last sequence is both hypnotic and engaging and nice ending to a great album.
Watch the Live Performances
- Bill Laurance, keys
- Jonathan Harvey, bass
- Marijus Aleksa, drums
WDR Big Band
Bill Laurance, Composer and Piano
Bob Mintzer, Conductor and Arrangements
- Johan Hörlén
- Karolina Strassmayer
- Paul Heller
- Olivier Peters
- Jens Neufang
- Ludwig Nuss
- Andrea Andreoli
- Andy Hunter
- Mattis Cederberg
- Wim Both
- Ruud Breuls
- Rob Bruynen
- Andy Haderer
- Billy Test, nord synth
- John Goldsby, bass
- Hans Dekker, drums
- Bodek Janke, percussion