Bill Laurance

Bill Laurance’s ‘Cables’ – Soothing sounds for the wireless age

Bill Laurance’s new album ‘Cables’ is about the dramatic impact of technology on humanity, further confirming his status as a musician with a message. At his recent solo gig at the ‘s Hertogenbosch Verkadefabriek in Holland, Bill offered the audience a glimpse into his concerns and inner life and enriched his acoustic piano playing with beats and electronic textures. To spine-tingling results.

I’m not going to say much about Bill’s impeccable playing and mastery of dynamics, touch and composition. Give ‘Live At Union Chapel’ a spin. It’ll tell you all you need to know. Except for one big difference: on ‘Cables’ and in ‘s Hertogenbosch, he created a musical universe that is entirely his own. Completely on his own. As a bonus, the concert made me appreciate the intricacies of ‘Cables’ on a deeper level.

‘Cables’ is Laurance’s fifth solo record and it’s completely in sync with the times. With themes that range from coping with loss and grief and the healing power of time (Constance), to climate change (Ebb Tide) and the exponential growth of technology (the melancholic, dystopian title track).

It’s funny then that, as Bill ponders our increasingly wireless age, ‘Cables’ is his hardest album to connect to. Of course, in music, the hardest ones are often the most rewarding ones. The same is true of ‘Cables’.

A man and his machines

On ‘Cables’, Bill made the lines between the analogue and the digital blurrier than ever. More impressionistic and searching than before. You won’t find instantly gratifying grooves like Swift (‘Swift’, 2015) or Madeleine (‘Aftersun’, 2016). There’s a wealth of melody and texture, but it doesn’t smack you in the face. It all unfolds slowly. There is no band. No Michael League or Robert ‘Sput’ Searight to help out on bass or drums. Just one man and his battalion of instruments and machines.

“Technology. Is it something to celebrate or something to be aware of?” was one of the issues Laurance shared with the small seated audience at the Jazz Factory, Verkadefabriek in ‘s Hertogenbosch. In his case, professionally at least, it’s both. Technology and artificial intelligence may become dangerous when we lose control over them. But Bill was is in total control – even though he had to shift through dozens of manuals, which kept him away from his piano. “It was worth it”, he added. The audience agreed.

When Bill gradually introduced his electronics to the set (he tweeted a video of his set-up), it became clear it would be a splendid collaboration. The machines, always triggered manually, beautifully enhanced the sounds of Bill’s Yamaha grand piano. He managed to control them all in octopus-like fashion.

But that’s professional. If not handled well, our relationship with technology and big data can move in the wrong direction. A sentiment Laurance seems to express through the song HAL, which refers to HAL 9000, the infamous computer aboard the Discovery One spacecraft in Stanley Kubrick’s ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’. While at first HAL is a benign tool with human-like intelligence, it eventually turns against the astronauts and kills all but one.

On ‘Cables’, space exploration is even more explicit on the dramatic closing track Cassini, which was inspired by the Cassini-Huygens mission of Saturn and its ‘grand finale’, where the Cassini probe flew into the atmosphere of Saturn and the signal was lost forever. By then, the probe had made close to half a million pictures.

Back to planet earth. When Bill introduced Ebb Tide, he said it firm and clear: “Climate change is real.” It’s a song inspired by the flow of the tide and the fragility of our planet. Bill explained how a certain delicate part reflects the shimmering sand ribs of the coast that are exposed once the water has fallen. Making that mental image for myself was more powerful than any projection could be.

The beauty of nature has inspired Bill since the early days of his solo career – it’s only five years since debut album ‘Flint’ was released. Chia and Gold Coast, The Isles and Fjords, The Pines, First Light and Golden Hour, … Other titles, like Never-Ending City, U-Bahn (the Berlin underground), Denmark Hill and wintery December in New York reveal an equal fascination for the brick and concrete marks man made on the planet. Bill was happy to admit: “I love the countryside, but I’m always on my phone.” A discrepancy I think a lot of people can relate to today.

Introducing The Keeper, ‘Cables’’ lead-off track, Bill shared the most heart-warming message of the evening: “This is about the significance of persistence. Carrying on is fundamental. Keep searching and you will find what you’re looking for.” He knows.

Musical call to arms

It’s telling that when, earlier today, Snarky Puppy released the first ‘Immigrance’ bonus track, Embossed, it came with a special statement from its creator … Bill Laurance:

“Embossed is a reaction to the social, political and environmental anxiety of the times. It’s a musical call to arms, asking the listener to engage both as an individual and as a member of larger movements for change.”

With Brexit, struggling human rights, climate change, a polarizing ‘leader of the free world’ and misinformation on a massive scale, these are troubled times. Some people bring both consolation and awareness to the world through beauty and art. These people are rare. Bill Laurance is one of them.

In 2017, I talked to Bill Laurance about the meteoric rise of Snarky Puppy and about his plans as a solo artist. Enjoy the interview!

Want to buy Bill Laurance’s music? Head over to Bandcamp.

Obsessions and fixations // Playlist for a friend

A little while ago, a friend sent me a playlist filled to the brim with goodness. And I couldn’t resist the urge to return the favour, thinking: “Wait a minute, if he likes that, he might like this.” Right, like a streaming service, but without the big data and clever algorithms.

This list covers both long-standing obsessions and recent fixations. I’ll try to explain what’s going on. And as you can tell, I got more elaborate as I worked my way down the list. Enjoy!

Wire – ‘Pink Flag’

To kick off a playlist with an entire album, 21 songs in total. Yeah, what self-proclaimed genius came up with that? Well, I did. But I admit it’s not nearly as unconventional a move as Wire’s first outing. ‘Pink Flag’ remains a puzzling, abrasive and expertly sequenced work of art, far greater than the sum of its parts. So I won’t chop it up.

Essential reading: ‘Wire’s Pink Flag’ by Wilson Neate (33 1/3, 2009)

Breastfist – A Lickin’

This is the crossroads where funk, pop, absurdity and strange pronounciation meet. The hilarious Breastfist is currently signed to Snarky Puppy’s GroundUP label, also home to Sirintip, Becca Stevens, Charlie Hunter, Bokanté and David Crosby.

Further listening: Dread Fruit, a nutty homage to the ‘pleasure textures’ of raisins, prunes and figs (“I’m gonna put you on a cheese”).

Circle – Tulilintu

If Breastfist feels like a Scandinavian band to me, it’s probably because something – I don’t know what, a straight-faced sense of humour maybe – connects them to the Finnish Circle, not be confused with short-lived jazz supergroup of the same name (Chick Corea, Dave Holland, Barry Altschul and Anthony Braxton).

You could never blame Circle for a lack of intensity. I catched the band live. First with fellow-countrymen Magyar Posse and Pan Sonic in Ghent (2007), later with Isis and Keelhaul in Antwerp (2009). I felt like being hit with a hammer twice.

Tulilintu, a portion of Circle’s ode to the New Wave of British Heavy Metal (NWOBH, see Saxon, Diamond Head, Def Leppard) ‘Tulikoira’, was released in 2005 and features Mika Rättö manically screaming and barking amid a raging guitar blizzard.

Plini – Inhale

Australian guitar wunderkind Plini strikes the balance between technicality, melodicism and dynamics, ranging from ambient prog to jaw-dropping shredding. Better take a deep breath.

Mission of Burma – Academy Fight Song

The first single by these Boston art punks (1980). A combative song about not fitting in, and not wanting to either.

Keith Jarrett – Mortgage on my Soul [Wah-Wah]

Jarrett puts out an assault to brutal he can’t even hear himself hum along. The groove established by a band of serious A-listers (Dewey Redman, Paul Motian and Charlie Haden) is not too dissimilar of a dark drum ‘n’ bass track. Jarrett himself played soprano. But it’s Haden’s heavy wah-wah bass that really stayed with me – if you listen close enough, you can hear two basses – one fairly clean but with a fat tone, the other drenched in wah-wah. Until recently I figured it was Jarrett on a distorted electric piano, but there’s not even a piano in this song.

Snarky Puppy – Lingus

At 04:16, the liquid fusion of Lingus breaks down.  The signal for Cory Henry to start building a new groove. He does so swiftly, with full mastery of technology, immense technique and  shiploads of imagination. Shaun Martin, Henry’s keyboard compadre, just can’t believe what he’s hearing. And right when Henry reaches the peak of Mount Syntherest, the horns return. With a vengeance.

Ava Luna – Steve Polyester

This is the song that pulled me into the weird and wonderful world of Ava Luna’s ‘Infinite Houses’. With its dead-pan spoken vocals, it feels like a distant cousin to Laurie Anderson’s Sharkey’s Day (‘Mister Heartbreak”, 1984). Steve Polyester lives and breathes New York, just like Laurie and her late husband Lou Reed do.

Sébastien Tellier – Wonderafrica

French eccentric and onetime Eurovision Song Contest contender Sébastien Tellier, sings the praises of African wildlife in this gently rocking Italo synthpop safari.

Donny McCaslin – Praia Grande

Much to Donny McCaslin’s amazement, David Bowie turned up at one of his Greenwich Village gigs in 2014. The album ‘Casting For Gravity’ had left a deep impression on Bowie, who gloriously resurfaced after a long hiatus in 2013 and was plotting his next move, which turned out to be his final. The bond that Bowie and McCaslin forged was immortalized on ‘Blackstar’, Bowie’s swansong. Among the songs that got Bowie excited, was the extatic, vibrant Praia Grande, with a main theme that squirms like a python and a sax solo that roars like a lion.

Knower – Overtime

“I’m the frosted side of a Mini Wheat // You, you know that I’m so sweet.” Knower – Louis Cole and Geneviève Artadi – know how to inject their infectious brand of electrofunk with humour. While not nearly as wacky as The Government Knows or Die Right Now, love song Overtime features fabulous songwriting, a spacy timeless mood, great musicianship and seductive vocals.

Tatran – Strawberry Fields Forever

Hey hey, why does it say Tatran instead of the Beatles!? Well, dear reader, I’m the first person to admit that some classics are better left untouched. But this version by Israeli intrumentalists Tatran is achingly beautiful, adding something new to a much-loved melody. No mean feat.

The Troggs – Strange Movies

In 1966, The Troggs stormed the charts with ‘Wild Thing’. And mothers and fathers locked up their daughters. Things didn’t improve by 1973, when The Troggs and Reg Presley sang about their first encounter with an up-and-coming new film genre: “Sid and Mandy they were, uh, getting randy, uh uh // When Sue and Bill joined in // Jake was waiting and uh anticipating uh, uh // Started smoothing their skin // Then just to ease the strain // They all formed a daisy chain // They went uh uh uh uh uh uh uh, well!”

Lex Sadler feat. Ari Hoenig – Shibuya Crossing

Tokyo’s Shibuya Crossing is one of the busiest intersections of the world. If you haven’t visited it in person, you might know it from Sofia Coppola’s ‘Lost In Translation’ (2003).  New York-based producer and musician Lex Sadler used the crossing as a source of inspiration to make the musical equivalent of a timelapse video. An ever-shifting trip that starts in the early morning and moves from rush hour chaos to neon-lit nightlife.

Max Tundra – Number Your Days

Just like Knower’s Die Right Now (‘Life’, 2016) and Motorpsycho’s When You’re Dead (‘Phanerothyme’, 2001) Max Tundra’s Number Your Days ponders death in a light and funny way: “Nothing happens when you die // You don’t leave your body or fly off into the sky.” Coupled with Tundra’s outlandish, melodic and all-embracing interaction with a multitude of influences (from crystalline pop to chiptune aesthetics), it makes for a gripping song that sticks out on an already excellent album (‘Parallax Error Beheads You’, 2008).

John Zorn – Erotico (The Burglars)

John Zorn lifted the enigmatic Erotico from Ennio Morricone’s score for ‘The Burglars’ (‘Le Casse’, Henri Verneuil, 1971) and turned it into a more organic (no pun intended) and frankly superior song, thanks in no small part to Big John Patton’s roaring Hammond. The same BJP recorded the iconic album ‘Let ‘Em Roll’ for Blue Note Records in 1965. Other Zorn acolytes like Bill Frisell (guitar) and Bobby Previte (drums) fill out the sonic mosaique, while Shelley Hirsch and Laura Biscotto provide appropriately erotic voices.

Maudlin of the Well – Gleam In Ranks

Before Toby Driver secured himself and his band Kayo Dot a deal with John Zorn’s Tzadik label, he made these peculiar dark metal rollercoasters with Maudlin of the Well (as well as gorgeous ballads, like Sleep Is A Curse). Gleam In Ranks travels from the quietly ominous to the downright evil, driven forward by a frivolous piano motif, guitars like chainsaws, twin kick drums and Driver’s voice, which goes from a whisper to a scream in the blink of an eye.

Cardiacs – Is This The Life?

Cardiacs are criminally good, but also criminally underrated and overlooked. That’s why you can’t just be a casual fan, you become a zealot. On Is This The Life?, Cardiacs approach things a bit more straightforward than they normally would. The feel of the song is not unlike that of Killing Joke’s Love Like Blood. You won’t find any weird twists and turns nor batshit crazy time signatures (compare Fiery Gun Hand) here, but you do get Tim Smith’s acerbic vocals, an epic guitar assault and a fierce band performance.

Massacre – Legs

New York again. Massacre was formed by experimental musician Fred Frith after the demise of avant-prog outfit Henry Cow in 1979. Frith moved to New York and, judging from the quirky, abrasive sound and conciseness of Legs, seemed to draw inspiration from the local No Wave-movement. Legs is wild, rhythmically complex (listen for Bill Laswells wobbly counterpoint) and as a whole irresistible. It’s a short distance from Massacre to math rock.

Cluster – Hollywood

An early electronic song that still plays tricks on me, after discovering it throug Hans-Joachim Roedelius’ ‘Works’ (1968-2005). In ‘Rock. The Rough Guide’, the author wrote: “What is so exciting, if you discover or rediscover these albums [‘Cluster’, ‘Cluster II’ and ‘Zuckerzeit’] now, is just how contemporary they sound at a time when the power of the drone is being re-invoked by a the new ambient-electro bands.” And if it’s true that’ Zuckerzeit’ sparked Eno’s interest in Cluster, then this mind-boggling track was probably his first taste of Roedelius and Moebius.

 

Bokanté and Metropole Orkest – ‘What Heat’ // A beautiful, important record

What does it take to make of good cocktail? The trick is to use the right measuring cups and shakers, a balanced mix of juices, liquor and spices and a splash of creativity. ‘What Heat’ by the multinational Bokanté is such a cocktail. A wonderous fusion of cultures and musical idioms. A blend that reveals new aromas with every sip. A keeper on the menu. Indeed, an important album.

The man behind the bar? Tireless Michael League. As if conquering the world with Snarky Puppy isn’t a fulltime job already, League is head of the GroundUP label, a champion for musician’s rights and a distinctive producer, notably responsible for the sound design of David Crosby’s sublime ‘Lighthouse’ (2016) and more recently, ‘Here If You Listen’. He really must need very little sleep as he also immerses himself in other passions, like mastering Turkish percussion and the art of the oud, a (North) African and Middle Eastern lute-like string instrument.

In Bokanté, League surrounds himself with true masters of their domain. Musicians out of five countries and nearly as many continents. On percussion: Jamey Haddad, André Ferrari, Keith Ogawa and djembe supremo Weedie Braimah (who also played on Bill Laurance‘s ‘Aftersun’). On guitar, there’s Chris McQueen and Bob Lanzetti, two of Snarky Puppy’s usual suspects. And Roosevelt Collier plays pedal steel (prominently on closing track La Maison En Feu).

And then there’s this fenomenal, multifaceted voice, which belongs to Guadeloupean singer Malika Tirolien. Together these nine unique identities make all boundaries evaporate. Just like that.

Seamless fusion

On its second album ‘What Heat’, Bokanté time travels back to the roots of the blues in Africa and the Arabic world, bringing back its finest elements and merging them with delta blues, Caribean music and a range of other influences, until someting new and exciting appears. The acoustic guitar arpeggio’s of McQueen and Lanzetti add western, almost singer-songwriter-like flair. And importantly, the Dutch Metropole Orkest gives wings to Bokanté’s sound.

Michael League and conductor Jules Buckley masterly avoid the pitfalls of the orchestra treatment – as they previously managed to do on ‘Sylva’ (2015), which landed Snarky Puppy a Grammy Award. ‘What Heat’ is all about unpredictable and exploring writing and arranging. Groove and melody come first.

The orchestral backdrop is always stylish, never ever blatant, always right on point. You can sense that these arrangements were intensely polished. But you can’t discern their screws and the seams. The orchestra rocks, soothes and rages in the background. And then sometimes it bursts out with an instrumental flash, to baffling effect.

World on fire

The song closest to my heart? Definitely Famn, which translates as The Woman. It touches a nerve unlike anything I discovered in the past few months. Its off-centre rhythm, deep bass, hissing and ominous strings, the tapestry of voices, the ‘speed bump’ at 02:32, the oud coda, … Chillingly beautiful.

Tirolien’s lyrics (often in Guadeloupean Creole) seem to focus on the state our world is in. Take Bod Lanme Pa Lwen, which means The Beach Is Not Far. The viewpoint of a sunbather or the yearning cry of a refugee on a rickety boat? The final words of the album leave no doubt about Bokanté’s social engagement: “Il est temps d’utiliser notre pouvoir / Maintenant” [“It’s time to use our power. Right now.”]

I’m far from done with ‘What Heat’, that’s for sure. It’s a deep, fun, layered and, dare I say, important album. Because it reflects on the world on fire. Because it’s a mirror of our complex society. Because it shows how boundaries and genres are merely artifects, which we can transcended. Again, ‘What Heat’ is a beautiful, important record.

Field Music - Find A Way To Keep Me

Field Music – Find A Way To Keep Me // Song Review

Find A Way To Keep Me − not to be confused with 2005’s Tell Me Keep Me − is the final bow of Field Music’s excellent album ‘Open Here’, released earlier this month.

It’s the kind of song that deserves to be kept in a velvet box, because you don’t want to ruin its spell by overexposure. Only to take it out on special occasions and feel its magical glow on your face. In the end, I know, I’ll probably have to give in.

Watch Field Music perform Find A Way To Keep Me live at Northern Stage, 3 February 2018 – from 01:56:00 onwards:

Bittersweey sense of joy

I experienced the same protective feeling when I was introduced to the layered symphonic coda of Caravan’s L’Auberge Du Sanglier (1973), which took inspiration from the final minutes of fellow Cantuarians Soft Machine’s Slightly All The Time (1970).  And again when I became enchanted by Snarky Puppy‘s The Clearingrecorded live with the Metropole Orchestra and released in 2015. I’m referring specifically to the ‘camel cadence’ bit that starts around 04:00. Like the sound of a mellotron or a Fender Rhodes, there’s something about those sweeping proggy orchestral arrangements that fills my head with a bittersweet sense of joy.

At the outset, Find A Way To Keep Me could be an Peter Hammill song, dark, restrained, making great use of silence. But then it evolves into a meticulously arranged perpetual motion. An ever-changing cycle of tension and release. All flutes and woodwinds, strings and voices.

Right! Stop that!

Compared to those rich textures, the ending of the song – a deadpan flute flourish and drum thud – radically breaks with what went before. Like an alarm clock that ends an impossible dream. Or Graham Chapman’s colonel, who abruptly terminated Monty Python’s absurdity by declaring: “Right! Stop that! This is getting far too silly.”

Or is the Brewis way of saying: “Now don’t expect our next album to be a triple gatefold symphonic affair, because it won’t.” Anyway, as ever, Field Music chooses to explore epic ideas rather than epic length. It’s that pairing of brevity, audacity and invention that will always leave you wanting for more.

Bill Laurance interview

Bill Laurance: “Snarky Puppy is a band of brothers” // Interview

“I want to break down as many barriers as possible.” An in-depth chat with Snarky Puppy co-founder and Grammy-winner Bill Laurance about struggling for succes with the Snarky family, carving out his own solo path, the state of jazz today and working with the legendary C of CSNY.

“That’s crazy,” emits Bill Laurance as he leans over the mindmap I made in preparation of our conversation. It’s a surprisingly supportive and amiable remark from someone whose sacrificing his precious pre-gig pastime to talk to a complete stranger. Less than two and a half hours later Bill would hit the stage with Snarky Puppy in Brussels, promoting Grammy-winning album ‘Culcha Vulcha’. And still, he seemed thrilled to sit and talk.

Over the sixty or so minutes that followed, Bill greeted every question with enthusiasm, thoughtfulness and genuine kindness, showing that behind the amazing musician of albums like Snarky’s ‘We Like It Here’ [released 2014] and his own ‘Aftersun’ [2016] is an equally wonderful person. Even in the midst of months of worldwide touring.

“Night after night
people in the band take
turns in having the heat”

Bill: “Whenever we play live, we try to be as much in the moment as we can. And to find something new to say every night. Night after night people in the band take turns in having the heat, you know. We’re learning all the time, we keep pushing other.”

A Snarky gig typically features tight interplay and blistering solo’s. How do you achieve that intensity every single night?

“Well, Michael is our musical director really. He’s giving the cues. But we’ve also got a great deal of freedom. Solo spots tend to change night after night. There are certain solo’s that are fixed, and then there are others that aren’t. The lengths are depending on the song. But if they’re really feeling great, they can keep going for quite a long time. As a musician in Snarky, you’re always open to that possibility.”

And yet, Snarky Puppy doesn’t have a fixed line-up.

“It’s quite a cool thing that. The rotating of musicians was born out of necessity. Members of the band would be booked for other shows early on. So Michael would have to find other people. That in itself has ended up in evolving the band to a cooperative. Right now there’s about 20 guys in regular rotation and an extra 10 who know the material and come in and out. Where now effectively on tour for about 2.5 months but our line-up changes 3 times. Generally there’s a core group that always remains the same. After Seattle, me and Marcello [Wolaski, percussion], Chris [McQueen, guitar] and Bob [Reynolds, saxophone] are leaving, being replaced by other people.”

[note: Bill was replaced by Bobby Sparks (Moog and Hammond) and Bob Lanzetti took on guitar duties. The horns department didn’t get a replacement for Reynolds. Instead, electric violinist Zack Brock was added to the line-up. I had the chance to attend two shows with different band, and wrote an account on how the sound changed.]

Family

For an outsider, Snarky Puppy and its related record label GroundUP seem like a tight community. Is that correct?

“Definitely. I think it’s one of the things that sets us apart. We’re like a band of brothers. We’ve been in this together for about 14 years now. During that time we’ve toured the world several times and we all had to sleep on floors and share beds at some points. Snarky’s like a family. And that sense of community is always there. It even extends to our audience. After a show we always try to come out to do signings and have a chat. That’s not a very common thing among artists.”

You’re suggesting the early years in the band were no bed of roses.

“It’s been a real struggle. We toured the States tirelessly before we got our break, often playing in front of tiny audiences and hardly making any money. But I think one of the most important things is that somehow we always managed to turn any difficulty into an advantage. We never got too pulled down by troubles, even tough we had plenty. We were driven by this unwritten rule. We would always find a way to keep coming back.”

Snarky Puppy Bill Laurance interview

Democracy

In the meantime, you’ve won three Grammy Awards with Snarky Puppy, arguably the biggest music prize in the world. What’s the impact of that? Did those Grammy’s open new doors for you?

“There’s no question about the difference that it has made. When we received that first Grammy for the song Something [with soul singer Layla Hathaway, 2013], everything happened. It still can be tricky. But we’re lucky now to be able to develop our own solo projects and play in front of sold-out rooms. Those Grammy’s definitely make people raise their heads. We just sold out Brixton Academy in London, a 5000-capacity. Ticket-wise it was the biggest show we ever played. This tour really marks the point were we really are becoming well-known beyond our circles. People who aren’t jazz musicians themselves are finally noticing us.”

“We all try to serve
the greater good
of the song”

You’re all very advanced musicians. How do you avoid clashing ego’s?

“We are all very aware of the others musicians around us and are sensitive to what’s required within the context of a composition or arrangement. You have to. Especially since there’s so many people on stage. More often than not, for example, I’m playing melodies with one hand, because the bass part is covered by somebody else. We’re happy to show some restraint if it serves the greater good of the song. That’s what drives Snarky Puppy as a collective.”

Sound like real democracy.

“It is. 70% of the material is written by Michael. But as far as the more detailed arrangements go, they kind of evolve through playing them live with the band. It’s reflective of the way the band has grown. For years, we all invested our time in the band, and weren’t making any money. So now that it’s finally a sustainable undertaking, there’s this very strong sense of looking after the band.”

Right time, right place

Ever since you serendipitously met Michael League at a gig in Leeds, you’ve been the only British guy in the band. What did it take for Michael to convince you to come to the States and join Snarky on its first recording session?

“Me and Mike, you know, we hit it off and I loved his playing. And I think he liked mine. So he invited me out. And it was very much a right time, right place thing. It was looking to spread my wings. And he was looking for a keys player to record ‘The Only Constant’ [released 2006]. The rest is history, I guess.”

[About Michael League]:
“It was an opportunity to
travel with someone who
had a very creative vision”

What were your plans at the time of your first meeting?

“To be honest, it was exactly what I was looking for. It was an opportunity to play with better musicians than me and to travel with someone who had a very creative vision of what he wanted to do. I had just left university and was trying to develop a career in music and to immerse myself in as many opportunities as possible.

A record like ‘We Like It Here’ almost reached mythical status among fans. I suppose a lot of people wish they were actually there in Utrecht (Netherlands) to witness to recording, which was done in front of a small studio audience. Was that a one-off?

“From ‘Tell Your Friends’ [released 2010] onwards, it’s always been in the studio with an audience. ‘Culcha Vulcha’ was a different case, we did that one in the studio with overdubs, it wasn’t actually live. We recorded the backing tracks, came back and overdubbed. So we could really go to town on effecting the sounds and everything.”

“For ‘We Like It Here’ we performed the songs to three different audiences on three different nights. We might have played two sets a night. We had a lot of takes to choose from. So we picked the best. We didn’t piece bits of different performances together into a final song. I think we only used full takes.”

One song I find particularly interesting is Jambone, largely because of Mark Lettieri’s majestic guitar solo. Did he invent that one on the spot?

“I think he definitely thought about how he was going to pitch it. And we played it a few times already so you got a sense of were the peaks and troughs are. But if I remember correctly, the ideas he’s playing on the record are of the moment.”

Crazy, allow me to raise the level of nerdiness: did you use a mellotron on Semente (from ‘Culcha Vulcha’)? There’s a lot of real flute, but in the background there seems to be some flute toned mellotron as well.

“I don’t think we had a mellotron in the studio. And I’m not playing that part, that would be a question for Justin [Stanton]. I suppose he played it on a Prophet, but it does sound like a mellotron, you’re right. That said, I did use mellotron on my records ‘Swift’ [released 2015] and ‘Aftersun’.”

on page 2 of this article, Bill talks about his solo work. On page 3, you’ll finds his thoughts on jazz today and working with David Crosby.

Snarky_Puppy_Eindhoven_1

Snarky Puppy in Eindhoven: Grown Folks

Yesterday Snarky Puppy ended their ten-week tour of the world, showcasing Grammy-winning album ‘Culcha Vulcha’ and playing in three different line-ups along the way. I had the chance to watch two of them in action. And while the setlist and group partly remained the same, I left the Muziekgebouw in Eindhoven with a entirely different feeling.

The circumstances of both shows could’nt have been further apart. The AB in Brussels is a revered rock hall in the center of Europe’s capital. A plain rectangular room, mostly for a standing crowd, painted bright red – the room, not the audience. There’s very little space outside of the actual concert hall, which gives way to a busy, electrifying atmosphere that reflects the vibrant metropole around the venue.

The energy that floats through the Muziekgebouw in Eindhoven is more easy-going, more relaxed. The audience is waiting in line to get their tickets scanned – imagine that!

Situated in the middle of the Netherlands fifth-largest city, the Muziekgebouw is a rather luxurious venue, comprising a grand audiophile auditorium (mainly for jazz and classical) and a wealth of plush surroundings. While the audience in Brussels (9 May 2017) sang along to tunes and ooh’d and aah’d their way through every solo, the Eindhoven crowd (7 June 2017) seemed to be more focused on hearing every detail.

The difference is exemplary of the two hemispheres of Snarky’s universe: classy jazz and world music themes coupled with rock, funk and dance vibes. Melodic, harmonic and improvisational subtleties played in ecstacy-inducing manner.

Sonic hurricanes, then and now

With keys player Bill Laurance replaced by Bobby Sparks, guitarist Chris McQueen replaced by Bob Lanzetti, percussionist Marcelo Woloski (a lot of feeling) replaced by Nate Werth (a lot of power), a reduced horns section (sax player Bob Reynolds left) and Zack Brock on violin, we got introduced to a ‘new breed’.

I didn’t really have to analyze both shows – one month and two days apart from each other – in order to notice what’s changed. I listened a lot to the FLAC recording of the Brussels concert, so variations, both subtle and radical, revealed themselves right away. Let’s mention the big ones:

  • Chris McQueen played a wonderful rootsy guitar solo on Grown Folks in the AB. While in Eindhoven, Bob Lanzetti spiced things up with a big fat phaser effect. He also took the first solo of the night: a spiky, heavily harmonized improv on .
  • Solo interplay between keyboardists Justin Stanton and Bobby Sparks was limited in Eindhoven, unlike the chemistry between Stanton and Bill Laurance in Brussels. That’s just an observation. Both musicians played blistering solo’s, with Stanton ripping What About Me? to pieces and Bobby Sparks delivering the highlight of the evening with his volcanic Hammond-cum-Moog exploration on Gemini. Sparks later Mooged his way through fan favourite Thing of Gold, the oldest song on the setlist.

Snarky Puppy Bobby Sparks

  • Percussion had a predominantly supporting role in the AB, while Nate Werth and Larnell Lewis brought things to boiling point during Tio Macaco in Eindhoven. Great to hear that song, along with other songs that didn’t make the stage in Brussels: Semente, Thing of Gold and Shofukan.
  • Apparantly, the Brazilian-inspired Semente (which I mispronounced until Michael League announced it correctly als ‘Semenchi’) got a bass solo by Michael League for the first time ever.
  • The atmosphere of GØ changed dramatically when Zack Brock graced it with a near-perfect violin solo.

Who did I forget? Sax player Chris Bullock (see picture) and Mike ‘Maz’ Maher, of course. While they didn’t step into the spotlight like they did in Brussels, they played multiple imaginative solo’s. Maz is a great at playing fluid lines. Bullock specializes in more angular improvisation, taking small motifs and developing them into sonic hurricanes that make your hairline recede.

Snarky Puppy Chris Bullock

Close to tears

Being the last show of a ten-week worldwide tour, there was a sense of friendship and nostalgia in the air. Magda Giannikou (see picture), the brilliant Greek singer of GroundUP’s Banda Magda who was joined by the Snarky crew for the opening set of the evening, was both overjoyed and close to tears. During one of the solo’s Chris Bullock and Justin Stanton fist-bumped casually at stage left.

Snarky Puppy Banda Magda

Addressing the audience in between songs, Michael League seemed a bit tired (no wonder after such a mammoth run of show). After the show, he told me he was plagued by a sore throat. But that didn’t prevent him from delivering a passionate speech about the importance of supporting artists (not just streaming their music) – I previously transcribed his similar call to the Brussels crowd.

Danish dog

Over the last month, attending two very different shows and talking extensively to Bill Laurance (interview coming soon!), I enjoyed the opportunity to have an exceptional look into the DNA of this very special band: the inner dynamics, the brotherhood, the adventurous spirit and endless versatility, … What once started as Snarky Puppy is now a full-grown Danish dog. And still our favourite pet.

All of Snarky Puppy’s 2017 live shows are now available for download.
And they sound amazing!

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

 

Snarky Puppy - Streaming isn't paying artists

Snarky Puppy’s Michael League: “Streaming doesn’t pay artists”

As much as I love Spotify for discovering new music, I’m fully aware of the fact that streaming isn’t paying the actual bands and musicians the way it should – luckily I’m also an avid record collector. At last week’s Snarky Puppy show in Brussels, bandleader Michael League had a few interesting to say on the subject. His sincere message left an impression on me. That’s why I’d like to present to you in full.

Right after a blistering version of Lingus and before launching into the encore What About Me, Michael League addressed the sold-out Ancienne Belgique:

“We’re fortunate because we are able to play in a room like this, and sell some tickets and survive playing music. But that’s not the case for many, many, many artists who are more talented than ourselves and I just wanna make you aware, very briefly, that as wonderful of a thing as streaming is – and Spotify and Pandora and YouTube – I wanna let you know that although those companies are doing very well and labels are doing very well, the only people that don’t get paid for streaming are [scream from the audience] … artists. You got it. So while we are fortunate, there are many incredible artists who deserve for their music to be heard and they can’t survive if you don’t support them. So I just wanna put a big shout out. If there any artists, Belgian or American of English or whatever, that you love and you want them to succeed, you want them go on, please buy their records and buy tickets cause streaming is not supporting them. It’s only listening. Ask any musician, they’ll tell you.”

What’s even more laudable is that Michael isn’t just talking about Snarky, or about his own magnificent label GroudUp Music (David Crosby, Becca Stevens, House of Waters, Forq, Bill Laurance, …) – check it out! His message concerns all recording artists and deserves to be shared. Have fun buying cool stuff on vinyl, tape, cd or online!

Snarky Puppy – Jambone // Song review

Song: Jambone
Band:
Snarky Puppy
Album: ‘We Like It Here’ (2014)
Why: Jambone is graced with one the most exciting guitar solos in recent years.

It all begins with an infectious afrobeat rhythm, paired with bright horns. But what’s most amazing, brilliant in fact, is Mark Lettieri’s guitar solo. It starts at 2:22 with quick successions of slightly dampened notes. As the drums gain momentum, so does Lettieri’s Strat. He launches a series of highly melodious, edgy phrases. Every single one a direct hit.

At 3:26, after exploring some rocky territory, comes the real apotheosis: an exciting composition-within-the-composition which you wish would last forever. The band at its tightest transports Lettieri through 4 bar runs filled with jawdropping licks. Look out for that massive whammy bar divebomb!

It’s a magical few minutes, topped off by a seamless salute to Jimi Hendrix, quoting directly from his Third Stone from the Sun*.

Earlier this year, Lettieri released his third solo album ‘Spark and Echo’. Watch his spectacular take on Tears for Fears’ Everybody Wants to Rule the World:

*Thanks Mark, for clarifying that on Twitter!