Bill Laurance & WDR Big Band ‘Live at the Philharmonie Cologne’ 2LP/CD (Jazzline) 5/5

The Snarky Puppy dynasty has been a thrilling project in of itself to see flourish over the years. Their numerous projects over the course of nearly 15 years since their debut have not only introduced fans to a beloved and dynamic musical collective who found their home within jazz and fusion styles, but also introduced the world to a range of over 40 musicians, who have waved the flag for the band at one time or another, many of which went on to achieve incredible solo successes in their own right. Snarky Puppy founder, Michael League started the GroundUP Music label and produced for a range of artists; Robert “Sput” Searight went on to work for heavy-hitters including Kendrick Lamar and Terrace Martin; Bobby Sparks is currently riding high following the release of his new album ‘Schizophrenia’… which brings us to the new release from pianist, and one of the staple members of Snarky Puppy, London-born Bill Laurance.

‘Live at the Philharmonie, Cologne’ pairs Laurance with Cologne’s WDR Big Band, conducted by Bob Mintzer, placing Laurance within the live setting that he seems to find ultimate comfort in: there are obvious comparisons to be drawn between this project and Snarky Puppy’s revered collaboration with The Netherlands Metropole Orkest for the album ‘Sylva’ (2015), but also their series of ‘Family Dinner’ projects which are famously recorded live with guests, and Laurance’s own album, ‘Live At Union Chapel’ (2016). There’s clearly something about a live setting where Laurance’s talent absolutely thrives and for ‘Live at the Philharmonie, Cologne’, backed by an 18-piece big band, this could very well be the happiest he’s ever been.

With a nine-track selection of songs plucked from Laurance’s own discography including ‘Money In The Desert’ and ‘Swag Times’ from his debut album ‘Flint’ (2014), ‘The Rush’ and ‘Red Sand’ from ‘Swift’ (2015) and ‘Golden Hour’ from ‘Aftersun’ (2016), these were songs perhaps always envisioned within this orchestral and big band context, and under the guidance of saxophonist, composer and big band leader, Bob Mintzer, these songs have been reimagined in exquisite fashion.

Incredibly, all of the eclecticism and unpredictability of Laurance’s studio compositions are all present here. Famed for being a contemporary jazz artist with a unique ability to introduce varying elements and influences into his music ranging from electronica to classical, the WDR Big Band find a way to fully accommodate those trends still making each song a journey unto itself. At times, a piece can seem like a solo piano recital at a concert hall but within moments the music transforms you to one of Snarky Puppy’s fervent Family Dinners. The version here of ‘Red Sand’ – an absolute delight – is a perfect example where after a few seconds shy of the 10-minute mark, you’ve been taken to so many different places and experienced everything along the way.

Imran Mirza