May 24, 2016
The Snarky Puppy website describes the group as a "quasi-collective." Indeed, an organization that numbers perhaps as many as three dozen doesn't really fit the traditional definition of a "band." Thirty six members? That almost sounds like an orchestra. Well, they don't all play together at the same time. It's more like a rotating cast of characters (or musicians). Their latest album, Culcha Vulcha
(Ground Up Music, 2016) lists 17 musicians. The specific composition of the band changes over time and seeing Snarky Puppy live can be a bit like buying a box of cereal for the prize inside: you don't know exactly what you might get. The flaw in that analogy, however, is that the Snarky Puppy quality is much, much higher.
For Tuesday night's show in Denver, the Puppies appeared with nine members: bass, drums, percussion, keyboards, violin, guitar, tenor sax/flute, trumpet and trumpet/keyboards. The quasi-collective seems to be held together by bassist/leader Michael League, who also served as emcee for the evening. One thing missing from this iteration that sometimes appears at a Snarky Puppy concert was a heavy Hammond B-3 presence. Another was dueling guitars. But no matter, the Puppies served up a multitude of musical morsels with the cast at hand.
Some Snarky Puppy recordings feature vocals, generally with guest artists, but Tuesday night's performance was strictly instrumental (with the exception of the opening set, but more on that later). Their pieces were highly arranged, which you would expect with that many players. Still, like any good jazz-oriented band, they left plenty of room for solos. Pretty much everybody got a chance to solo, so the ideas, concepts and styles were wide ranging and continually new and ever-changing throughout the evening.
Most of their tunes went through numerous changes (and I don't mean just chord changes) while running their course. They didn't follow a common jazz pattern of stating a head for a minute or so followed by a series of solos built on the initial chord changes. Often a tune would start with a unison horn line (with other instruments joining in like the violin and perhaps one of the keyboards or the guitar). After repeating the initial figure a few times, the song would morph into another riff, then another and another. Sometimes the solos were backed by just the rhythm players. Other times, the horns and other instruments would set up a groove for the soloist to dance around. Much of their sound was reminiscent of Frank Zappa
, although Zappa's quirky little riffs, on average, tended to exceed the typical Snarky Puppy riff in velocity. Not that that's a bad thing at all. Perhaps it makes the Puppies somewhat more accessible and easier to listen to (depending on your perspective, of course).
Electronic effects were integral to the Snarky Puppy sound. It seemed that every band member had an elaborate pedal console at his feet. That included the horn players who sometimes played straight through to the PA but other times added significant fuzz, echo and other effects including at least one trumpet solo augmented by a wah-wah pedal.
Snarky Puppy seems to have hit a cultural sweet spot. Jazz is the single strongest color in their spectrum, but a funky, groovy undercurrent with a considerable jam-band influence follows closely behind. The result Tuesday night was a broad age range in the audience. Many 20 something jam-band fans were in attendance evidenced by plenty of Widespread Panic T-shirts. But there was also so much grey hair in the audience I started thinking that I should have asked for an AARP discount when I bought my ticket.
The opening act was Michelle Willis. Snarky Puppy leader, Michael League started a record label which is a salutary, entrepreneurial thing to do. Willis is one of the artists on the new label and she's been touring with the Puppies lately. Several member of Snarky Puppy joined Willis on stage to accompany her while she sang and played keyboards. Willis falls into the singer-songwriter category and her songs Tuesday night examined interpersonal relationships in minute and intricate detail. The songs were nice enough and executed with a high degree of competence and skill. The problem was the audience was there to get its groove on with the Puppies. The Ogden is a stand-up joint and therefore, the venue programs bands that are best enjoyed while standing or, more accurately, dancing or at least moving to the beat. Looking down on the crowd from the balcony during Willis' set was like looking at a guy on a date waiting for his girlfriend to stop talking so he could get down to business with her.