This blog normally does previews rather than after-the-fact reviews but last Friday’s appearance by the Bill Laurance Project was so amazing, and so wildly successful – one of those a-show-you’ll-remember-forever-type events – that it demands at least a few words of gobsmacked praise. It was also, gulp, genuinely inspiring.

For those not in the know – and it seemed that almost every one of the 315 people in the hall was – Laurance is the pianist with Snarky Puppy, a variably sized collective of musicians that first formed on the jazz course at the University of North Texas and whose current members are now mostly resident in Brooklyn when they’re not out on tour, which they almost always are. Bill, an Englishman who studied music at Leeds University – whose BMus degree has links with North Texas – met Snarky’s bassist/main-man Michael League when he visited the UK. They played some gigs together, hooked up, and the band are now making waves all over the world, mixing jazz, fusion, funk and various global styles into adventurous instrumental music whose jam-band appeal crosses over to notably younger audiences than jazz is usually privy to. They’ve played Bristol twice, first at the Thekla, then at Colston Hall’s Lantern, and on Friday the word was definitely out, with the three band-members greeted like conquering heroes.

For this opening date supporting the release of Bill’s debut album, ‘Flint’, the Snarky trio of Bill (piano plus prog-style keyboard-console, including Fender Rhodes), Michael League (double bass, bass guitar, guitar), and the stupendous drummer, Robert ‘Sput’ Searight, were joined by the superb Katie Pryce (no, not her, check the “y”) on french horn and a very young string quartet – Kit Massey and Jenny May Logan on violins, Amy May on viola and Ben Trigg on cello – to play most of the album. With very limited rehearsal time, the two sets contained basically everything they knew, with little room for extended improvisation, but it was more than enough, especially for a tough first gig in an often unforgiving hall. But the sound-balance worked, Laurance’s introductions charmed, and each instrument gradually meshed together until the music really soared. In the second set, there was a kind of miraculous progression whereby each successive number seemed to improve on the one before until, by the end, both band and audience were flying. There was a 100% standing ovation, and then another after the encore, which was probably the last tune they knew.

Laurance’s music is very accomplished, matching a groove-based address to the body with a more cerebral and cinematic approach that reflects his interests in composing for film and dance. It’s an aesthetic that’s shared with a number of contemporary ‘projects’, many of whose creators fight shy of a ‘jazz’ tag because they see it as limiting. But what I found inspiring about this performance was its freshness and vitality, its “can-do” delight in taking on a serious challenge and winning, and the evident regard the musicians held for the experience of the audience. There was real sharing going on, and you could see it in the faces of both players and listeners as the music seemed to float on a cloud of mutual appreciation and goodwill. In a word, it was great.

Phil Johnson – Senior Programme Producer