Snarky Puppy’s Bill Laurance on his new album and how he is ushering in a new jazz movement

After a decade as a core member of genre-blurring, Grammy-winning, YouTube sensations Snarky Puppy, pianist/composer Bill Laurance has suddenly struck out with four solo albums in less than three years.

British pianist and composer Bill Laurance. Photo by Jazz Services / Heritage Images / Getty Images
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Bill Laurance is waiting for no one. After a decade touring the world as a core member of genre-blurring, Grammy-winning, YouTube sensation Snarky Puppy, the prodigious pianist/composer has struck out – releasing four solo albums in less than three years.

The first, Flint, topped the iTunes jazz chart in the summer of 2014. The latest, Live at Union Chapel, collects the best of its three predecessors, bravely recreating Laurance's intricate, cinematic fusion of jazz, funk, electro and classical flavours in an impressive live CD/DVD set.

Is it a coincidence you recorded the album at a venue near where you grew up, in North London? Tell us about it.

There was lot of history with this building. The last time I was there I was 9 years old and I played the Beverly Hills Cop theme tune on the organ – and that seemed to go down quite well, so I've always been waiting for opportunity to go back.

After 10 years in Snarky Puppy, you released four solo albums in three years. Why wait so long and then work so fast?

The first album, Flint, was the coming together of 10 years of work. It was research and development: recording EPs and albums and not officially being prepared to release anything. Previously, I'd been trying to categorise myself as either a jazz thing, a pop thing, an electronic thing. With Flint, I decided to just put it all in the same pot, and suddenly it felt like I'd found part of what I was looking for. And once I found a rhythm and a sound that interested me, it all happened quickly.

Would you consider breaking away from Snarky for good?

No, I think as long as they’ll have me, I’ll always be honoured and proud to be part of the Snarky family. The core members will always be the core members – there’s a very strong bond between all of us and we’ll always be there for one another, and if time allows we’ll carry on playing together.

How did a London lad end up in a big American jazz/pop ensemble?

Me and [founder] Michael League met on a gig in Leeds [in the United Kingdom] before Snarky Puppy existed. I was looking to spread my wings and he was looking for a piano player. He flew me out to Dallas to record the very first Snarky Puppy album, The Only Constant [in 2006]. Then I was going back and forth, and have been ever since. For years we played house parties and slept on sofas, made no money, toured all of America and had a whale of a time. Then we did a live DVD of that studio record, [2010's] Tell Your Friends and, thanks to Facebook and YouTube, it really became a wave.

Why did that outfit, that performance and that record, touch so many people?

I think the jazz scene had become a bit disillusioned, a little bit too cerebral. We were trying to put the joy back into improvising. You can get really caught up in scales, modes and techniques – everyone trying to play faster than everyone else – and actually it’s just about the celebration.

It was also a new idea to put a band in a studio with an audience – so you had a studio-quality album, but also the interaction of band with audience. And also the way people share music today – lot of musicians say it’s very difficult to survive because you can’t sell records anymore. Though that may be true, without Facebook and YouTube, I don’t think Snarky would be anywhere near as big as they are right now. It works both ways. It’s about using the technology to your advantage.

We are often told we are enjoying a new golden age of jazz, thanks to crossover stars such as Robert Glasper and Kamasi Washington. Do you feel part of a movement?

I really do. At my own gigs, a younger generation of musicians will come up to me and be completely elated and very thankful. They’re so grateful that they’ve found something to get excited about again. It really does feel like it’s a movement – a resurgence of interest in instrumental, improvised music. I feel like, pretty much since Miles [Davis], it’s lost its way a bit. Now it feels like more and more people want to be engaged in this art form, and that’s a really exciting thing to be a part of.

You’ve worked with musicians from all musical fields – David Crosby, Morcheeba, Salif Keita, Miss Dynamite – who made the greatest impression?

I was fortunate enough to meet Stevie Wonder last year – bizarrely, on a boat in the South China Sea. A very strange moment. I said to him: ‘Do you have a pearl of wisdom for a young, aspiring musician?’ He said: ‘We are the glue of society and it’s our job to keep love and unity on this planet.’ It really struck a chord with me and, ever since, I feel all the more inspired to be on a mission to be just that.

Live at Union Chapel is out now