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Bill Laurance: British Fusion Jazz & Drawing the Line in Fusion

by admin on May 2, 2017

Bill Laurance, an English keyboardist and founding member of Snarky Puppy, has his hands in multiple musical worlds at once. Having begun classical training at the age of seven,[1] Laurance, later in life, incorporates it into his sound–alongside jazz and electronic music. By experimenting and genre-crossing in his composition, he aims to create a distinctive voice. This desire to diversify his sound echoes through his work with various artists: musicians ranging from David Crosby to Susana Baca, Lalah Hathaway, Laura Mvula, and even The Metropole Orchestra. Collaborating with a broad range of artistic approaches allows Laurance to play funk, rock, trip hop, afro-pop, smooth jazz, afro-Peruvian, and so on. [2] This paves the way for his unique take on music, providing a stylistically loose framework for his arrangements.

One notable instance of this fusion transpired in 2015, when he released his second album, Swift, including the track “U-Bahn”. The song is comprised of a string ensemble, typically seen in classical music (4 violins, 2 violas, and 2 cellos); a french horn, rarely used in jazz (with a few exceptions in Cool jazz); electronic instruments, which come into play as they use a vocoder and moog bass; and finally, instruments familiar to jazz: a drum set, piano, keyboards, bass guitar, and trombone. Laurance not only fuses traditional classical and jazz instrumentation, but also does so within the form. The beginning of his solo starts slowly with one repeated note, eventually growing as he adds. As the melody develops, a new, seemingly through-composed composition is ushered into existence. He takes polyrhythms, jazz and neo-soul chords, and accomplishes something coherent, immersive, and absurdly beautiful.

In 2016, Bill Laurance was nominated for UK’s MOBO (Music Of Black Origin) Awards for Best Jazz Act. Mainstream media spewed articles on the lack of complete representation of British artists, as Americans were being nominated as well. When a reporter brought this up to Laurance in an interview, he didn’t see an issue, believing they were “entitled to nominate in the way they did. [however the] British jazz scene is thriving at the moment and perhaps the MOBOs could recognise that in the future, it would benefit both the musicians and the MOBOs.”[3] Laurance essentially takes an indifferent and neutral stance, which I believe is potentially harmful. While some consider the MOBOs as uplifting to British musicians, the implicit anti-Americanism that goes hand in hand with that belief belies more complex issues. Simply put, the MOBOs must contend with their complicity in erasing the cultural and historical context for jazz, as it originated by African Americans and black people in America. As George McKay writes, “For some, jazz has been defined by the political struggle of culture to express against the historic dominant (white) center of Europe. For Amiri Baraka, to emphasize the white contribution to jazz is to participate in the ‘Great Music Robbery.’” Many feel strongly about the very participation of white Europeans in jazz; the African American novelist James Baldwin, for example, saw jazz as inextricably bound to the legacy of slavery: ‘the music began in captivity… on the auction-block… that auction-block is the demolition, by Europe, of all human standards. […] There is a very great deal in the world which Europe does not, or cannot, see: in the very same way that the European musical scale cannot transcribe—cannot write down, does not understand—the notes, or the price, of this music’” [4]. Regardless of how one feels, it is undeniable that excluding the very people who brought jazz into existence is problematic.

Although Bill Laurance was humbled to be nominated, he failed to mention his position of whiteness in the matter. As one of three white musicians nominated in a major category, alongside two musicians of color, he was unsuccessful in using the platform he had to address his position of privilege. George McKay notes that “By and large British jazzmen (it usually is men) do not articulate their whiteness. This may not be surprising, since whiteness in a majority white society with a long history and cultural tradition dominated by white work has become invisible and immutable across society in general.’” On the other hand, according to Ingrid Monson, “since whiteness tends to be a sign of inauthenticity within the world of jazz, the appeals of white musicians to universalistic rhetoric can be perceived as a power play rather than genuine expressions of universal brotherhood. [However, having a colorblind framework] might cloak a move to minimize the black cultural advantage by ‘lowering’ an assertive African American musician from his or her pedestal to a more ‘equal’ playing field.” [5] While Laurance’s work is exceptional, we might view it as more exceptional if he were to acknowledge his position in this problematically colorblind sociological framework.

by Sid Banks

[1] A Portrait Of Bill Laurance – Chapter 1: The Writing Process. GroundUPmusicNYC. YouTube. YouTube, 09 Sept. 2016. Web. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AdluxZnintc>.

[2] “About.” Bill Laurance: LIVE AT UNION CHAPEL AVAILABLE NOW. Bill Laurance & GroundUP Music, 2016. Web. <http://www.billlaurance.com/#/about>

[3] Fine, Nina. “Interview: Seven Minutes with Bill Laurance.” Jazz Standard, 5 Dec. 2016. Web. <http://thisisjazzstandard.com/seven-minutes-bill-laurance/>.

[4] McKay, 2005, p. 7 “Introduction: Jazz, Europe, Americanization”

[5] McKay, 2005, “Whiteness and British Jazz”

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