Since first encountering his keyboard playing with the musical juggernaut that is Snarky Puppy, and then enjoying his output with his own band, I thought I knew what I might find on a Bill Laurance solo album.
But Affinity is a very different kettle of fish. It's excellent, but a true departure that I suspect gave the composer a chance to take a deep breath and explore avenues that he hasn’t yet had the opportunity to go down. It is intensely personal.
Stripped down is an apt description of the musical mood. Sans drums, bass, guitars, a brass section and any pedals or effects, this is just Bill Laurance, the 88 keys in front of him, and years of creative experience and melodic ideas bursting through, unencumbered and pure.
His last album, Cables, had the look and feel of a solo album but was chock full of effects, electronics, percussion and lush sounds. This is more Icelandic tundra to that album’s Brazilian rainforest, but no less haunting and enjoyable for that.
There isn’t any funk (the Snarky Puppy trademark and a feature of many of his solo album tracks). And while there’s jazz - two of the tracks are tributes to the great Bill Evans - many feel what you might call more jazz-adjacent.
With a solo piano, there are always going to be classical overtones, and some tracks reflect a spontaneity associated with free improvisation. Trained at Leeds University (my alumnus) in classical music and composition, the album showcases Laurance’s ability to meld and form beautiful melodic sonic soundscapes that fill the room, even though it’s just the sound of the piano alone.
Pillars - the opening track - has a slightly muffled sound, a result, according to the accompanying press release, of Laurance lining the strings on some of the tracks with felt to change the dynamic range. It makes the main melody feel like a game of Chinese whispers rather than a full on conversation, and the real pleasure is as much about the gaps in between as the notes chosen themselves - where the sustain can just expand - which marks out this cut as a worthy opener.
Storm too has a peculiar - but appealing - tone to it; it’s slow paced at first, with a rolling left-hand melody. The pure sonic joy on some of the harder struck notes shines through. The track, like many on the album, is more of a flow of creativity rather than a tune with a formal structure; like a fractal shape, as he plays the musical picture evolves and shifts.
When it’s just you, and there’s no band around to take up the slack across a whole album, there’s a lot of pressure on a musician to deliver.
On tracks like Everything Exists and In Good Faith, Laurance has to search deep into his compositional bag of tricks to keep the album from descending into sameness. Fortunately, there’s enough variety - of mood, tempo, and dynamism - to keep the listener’s attention until the end of the tenth track.
Title tracks are always a good indicator of what an album’s all about, and the opening, falling harmony of Affinity has perhaps the most Bill Laurance-ish feel to it, in that one detects a melodic antecedence to some of his earlier, band compositions. The combination of busy left-hand and slightly more restrained right-hand playing is pleasing and while short, at the end you feel you’ve come a long way.
Watch the official video for Affinity here:
The longest track, Peace Piece, is one of the two Bill Evans tributes, and you can sense in Laurance’s approach an affinity with, and love for, the music of his namesake. So slow that at times it almost staggers to a stop, the sweetness of his arrangement represents a way for Laurance to express admiration for what has gone before, while looking forward.
The only track I didn’t engage with entirely was the cover of The Animals’ House of the Rising Sun, perhaps because I don’t like the original. But the other nine tracks on the album I got along with very well.
The album feels like one that one should listen to all in one go, to appreciate quite how much colour and beauty one musician can squeeze out of one instrument.
While I think I still prefer Bill Laurance in a band setting - and I suspect many fans who buy this album may share this view too - with Affinity he shows that he is a master of his chosen instrument and has learned enough so far in his career to make his mark on an instrument that is the cornerstone sound of jazz, classical and many other parts of modern music.
Laurance writes that with Affinity, he wanted to let the piano speak for itself “in all its glory”.
The result, I can attest, are indeed ... glorious.