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Snarky Puppy at the Ogden Theater

Snarky Puppy at the Ogden Theater

Courtesy Geoff Anderson

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Snarky Puppy
Ogden Theater
Denver, Colorado
September 30, 2023

Originality seems to be a guiding force for Snarky Puppy. That applies not just to the type of music they play in general, but it goes all the way down to preparation of set lists. Saturday night at the Ogden Theater, band leader, bassist and spokesman for the group, Michael League went out of his way to review with the audience past gigs in Denver and how that night's song selections were designed to avoid repeating songs the band played in Denver a year or two or three ago.

He also explained that the primary source of tunes Saturday night was the band's most recent album Empire Central (GroundUP Music, 2022) which was released exactly one year before the date of this concert. The album won a 2023 Grammy for Best Contemporary Instrumental Album. Nevertheless, League felt compelled to semi- apologize for playing so much new and not-very-familiar music. He thanked the audience for our "big ears." And, as far as I could tell, no one asked for their money back.

The beginning of Snarky Puppy goes back nearly 20 years now when League got together with several buddies at the University of North Texas. However, it's only been in recent years that the band has started to command widespread attention. The sold-out show at the Ogden reinforced that status. The band has been a collective with as many as 25 musicians acknowledged as Puppies, but the touring version has been slimmed down. Saturday's iteration of the band featured 11 members, still a formidable size for a touring band.

With 11 band members, the group displayed a big, multi-textured sound that changed faster than a Kardashian can change clothes. The band served up a constantly varying soundscape from the power of the entire, large ensemble to any type of smaller combo including, for example, a duet between League on bass and Nikki Glaspie on drums. Trios, quartets and quintets formed, dissolved and reformed in different configurations. With its heavy jazz influence, the band placed a great emphasis on soloing and, indeed, each of the 11 members had a turn or two in the spotlight. The effect was to hear multiple points of view. Solos ranged from long, fluid, melodic lines to short, staccato, Maceo Parker-type bursts. Sometimes the horn section would jump in with unison fills in back of a raging solo. A few other times the soloist would be joined by another band member, for instance League on his bass, who suddenly and seamlessly started playing in unison with the soloist. Clever.

Labeling Snarky Puppy's music has always been difficult and maybe even a little controversial. For instance, the band's website disavows the "fusion" label, but that's really the best one-word description. Since the 1970s, that label has typically been applied to music with both jazz and rock influences that is usually instrumental. Snarky Puppy checks all three of those boxes. Another aspect of fusion music from the '70s was that every one of the players was a virtuoso on his or her instrument. Snarky Puppy doesn't just check that box, it scribbles all over it, highlights it then tears right through the paper. Yes, 11 virtuosos on one stage. What fun. The other primary influence in Snarky Puppy's music is funk. The band wasn't concerned about injured necks in the audience from shucking to too much deep funk, they served it up consistently with every member of the band digging a deep groove.

The projected stage background mimicked the cover of their latest album, Empire Central, a collection of skyscrapers (with a couple musical instruments masquerading as buildings). It emulated the Manhattan skyline, the most famous town in the Empire State. Originally hailing from Texas, the Puppies seem to have embraced their new base in New York.

Besides his monolog about past Denver appearances and the evening's set list, League's other extended discussion of the evening addressed his friend and mentor Bernard Wright. Wright was a jazz and funk keyboardist who released four albums under his own name in the 1980s. He also worked with musicians such as Miles Davis and Marcus Miller. He was an inspiration to League and Snarky Puppy in their early days and beyond, sitting in on the track "Take It!" which is on Empire Central. Wright died at age 58 not long after that session after being struck by a car as a pedestrian. The band played "Take It!" in his honor.

Apparently, the newest Puppy is drummer Nikki Glaspie. She's so new, she's not even listed on the Snarky Puppy webpage. But she made her presence felt throughout the set. She's a past member of Beyonce's touring band and she's had her own project called the Nth Power. But possibly her most relevant experience for Puppy purposes was her time with Dumpstaphunk. As she did in that band, she pushed the Puppies throughout, laying down a solid rhythm with perpetual fills, syncopated shots and ceaseless polyrhythms. Her contributions did not go unnoticed by the crowd which whooped upon her introduction toward the end of the show.

The Band

Michael League, bass, emcee, leader; Bill Laurence, keyboards; Bobby Sparks II, keyboards; Justin Stanton, keyboards, trumpet; Mark Lettieri, guitar; Mike "Maz" Maher, trumpet, flugelhorn; Jay Jennings, trumpet; Chris Bullock, tenor sax, flute, piccolo; Bob Reynolds, tenor sax; Keita Ogawa, percussion; Nikki Glaspie, drums.

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