Album Review: Bill Laurance/The Untold Orchestra-‘Bloom’: Gently moving, deceptively powerful orchestral jazz from the Snarky Puppy mainstay.

The Breakdown

Throughout ‘Bloom’ Laurence plays with inspirational sensitivity and awareness, never dominating despite his obvious virtuosity.
ACT Recordings 8.9

It’s tricky to summarise the range and significance of pianist and composer Bill Laurance’s musical CV to date. The chance hook-up as a student in Leeds, backing a young Michael League during his sojourn from the States; the subsequent return invitation to travel to the US to play in League’s new band the then unknown Snarky Puppy in 2006; the world-wide success of that ground-breaking ensemble; his sessions and performances with the likes of Salif Keita, Laura Mvula and Jacob Collier; and recording with the late David Crosby in the rock legend’s closing era. It’s no wonder that Laurance had little time for his own recordings until 2014’s ‘Flint’ but since then has come a steady flow of personal projects, always inventive, never predictable and reliably impressive. The deep rhythmic grooves of ‘Aftersun’ (2016), the crafted electronica of ‘Cables’ (2019) and the stunning piano explorations of 2022’s ‘Affinity’ leap out immediately from the long list.

Consequently, the release of his latest album ‘Bloom’ out now via ACT is an event in itself. It’s his second full release on the German label since that exquisite acoustic reunion with Michael League last year on ‘Where You Wish You Were’. ‘Bloom’ also sees Laurance again collaborating with The Untold Orchestra from Manchester following their combined work on his ‘Cables Re-Wired’ and ‘Zeal’ EPs and subsequent live performance together at Islington’s Union Chapel as part of the 2021 London Jazz Festival. This time around though ‘Bloom’ marks a significant shift away from interpretation of established material and into the vibrant territory of shared development of new Laurance compositions.

The album’s title track is the opener, transforming the composer’s agenda for the album into a thrilling sonic reality. Bloom unfolds with and elegant arc of sombre strings which gather momentum to reach a pulsing crescendo. From here the tune’s melody is given air, launched by Laurance’s focused piano with his improvised flourishes feeding the overall lushness. The intuitive balance between the strings and leading piano stands out here, not stilted or wary of each other, feeling when to support and when to push forward, all with regard to the building drama of the piece.

Such connectivity comes naturally to The Untold Orchestra whose approach since they were founded in 2019 has been on cross genre collaborations. Equally at home re-imagining the works of Radiohead and Nina Simone they seem to thrive on the eclectic and the dynamic. With Bill Laurance’s aim from the outset to make the orchestral ‘Bloom’ rhythmically powerful, the ensemble make the ideal partners. The frenetic All at Once captures the energy within the relationship as the Orchestra’s staccato and Laurance’s minimal patterns keep up the pace, while a swooning counter melody curls around the tune’s locomotive core. Shots is another track built impressively around similar syncopated, string-driven velocity. Meshed by a network of cross rhythms you can feel the tension careering through the piece as the lone piano’s nimble runs weave free.

Inspired by his own child’s boundless imagination, Laurence’s music on ‘Bloom’ is necessarily active and exuberant but it also enters calmer, more reflective spaces. The melancholy ballad Strange Love sweeps between deep thoughts and an emotional call out. The impact comes from the resonance of the melody and the pop sensibility that Laurence brings to a tune which never shirks replaying a winning hook. Above All has a similar frictionless glide, hinting at a subtle latin swing in the bass line and buoyed by those rolling chords. Laurence’s closing solo, relaxed but so vocal, coaxing crisp bird song from the final top end runs, almost reluctantly fades.

Throughout ‘Bloom’ Laurence plays with inspirational sensitivity and awareness, never dominating despite his obvious virtuosity. At times in his clarity and precision you can catch hints of Gwilym Simcock and at others Mehldau’s full blown classicism. On the tight almost post rock dynamism of Right Where We Are, the concerto conventions suddenly and brilliantly bend with Peterson like blue-notes. Consistently though it’s the story that each piece on ‘Bloom’ has to tell which takes the lead, articulated by the ensemble as a whole and framed with exceptional insight by the Laurance and Joshua Poole’s empathic arrangements.

Perhaps the filmic sweep of Lyra best summarises the many strengths of this fine album. Uncluttered but still effortlessly dramatic, a whole tune launched from the surging strings and pounding progression with a final heart wrenching violin solo that reaches skywards, it encapsulates the collective belief that elevates ‘Bloom’ beyond the ordinary. Symphonic or orchestral jazz is a genre that covers a lot of ground. In recent years Marcus Neset’s vibrant ‘Snowmelt’, the wild and extraordinary ‘White Juju’ by Soweto Kinch and Cassie Kinoshi’s soulful philharmonic ‘gratitude’ have all been bundled into this bag despite their individuality. Well in ‘Bloom’ Bill Laurance and The Untold Orchestra can readily nestle alongside these albums with a piece of intricate work that adds its own colour-rich dimension to the form.

Get your copy of ‘Bloom’ by Bill Laurance and The Untold Orchestra from your local record store or direct from Flint Music and ACT Music

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