The ensemble's precise, bombastic grooviness is partially a product of their instrumentation. Snarky Puppy looks like a typical big band flipped upside down (and electrified). Instead of a flock of horns tethered by a modest rhythm section, the ensemble is a rhythmic powerhouse spiced up with a couple of trumpets (Mike Maher
, Jay Jennings
) and a hardworking tenor sax (Chris Bullock
). Two to three percussionists (in this case, Larnell Lewis
on a drum set and Marcelo Woloski
on a variety of objects) seamlessly merge to produce a sharp, rollicking beat over the subtle foundation woven by the guitars and keys. Beneath it all, Michael League conducts the symphonic funk with a variety of dynamic, fluid bass lines.
Snarky Puppy hit a climax on the closing number "What About Me?." The song erupted hot out of the gate with a flurry of drums cued in by a distorted guitar riff. For this performance, the band played the normally hyperactive funk groove in half time, slowing it to a heavy drawl. The intensity started high and only continued to grow, peaking with a staggering drum solo from Lewis over a twisting motive in an arcane time signature. By the end of the show my face muscles ached from two hours of unconscious contortions.
The band even had showmanship! A trivial feature, many would argue, because the music should be gripping in and of itself, and performativity is cheap and distracting, and so on. But when the audience isn't familiar with jazz, let alone how to listen to it for extended periods, stage presence is an important factor. On the aptly named "34 Klezma," League split the audience down the middle and prompted one half to clap a three over the other half's two. He may have underestimated the typical drunkenness of a Saturday night Philadelphia crowd, but the stunt, and others like it, kept audience members hyped and engaged.
Hundreds of young adults have just staggered home with Snarky Puppy ringing in their ears. Many newcomers will doubtless be converted to fans. Some may decide to check out other jazz, and possibly even get hooked on the stuff. That's what happened to me when I first heard the Pup. Snarky Puppy is hardly today's best jazz band, but, with two Grammys and a highly seductive crossover appeal, they may be doing the most to drown out the elevator music and open the ears of the post-millennial generation.