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March 15, 2013 11:12 pm
Snarky Puppy are a sprawling jazz and beats instrumental collective whose core band started plugging away on the American dive-bar circuit in 2004. They were formed by bassist/composer Michael League in Denton, Texas, but are now based in Brooklyn and have just finished recording their fifth album, on which vocalist Lalah Hathaway is among the guests. They are “ones to watch” on the international circuit.
This gig, featuring three horns and a six-piece rhythm section, showed them to be a step away from the average funky-fusion band without scaling the heights of, say, a Marcus Miller. The band’s all-original repertoire is a cut-and-paste romp through fusion jazz history, with contemporary beats thrown in. The opener twinned sashaying funk with snappy upbeat house (a crisp drum roll was the cue), scrubbed guitar came next and hints of Afro-beat and disco soon followed.
Snarky Puppy project a strong group ethos with a garage band image – League’s announcements are basic and he leads from within. And though solos are generally more strong than inspired, the well-worked rhythms and flash interludes compensate.
Retro-references are legion – snakey soul-jazz brass and dry offbeat stabs; modal panoramas and full-voiced disco-chords straight from Earth Wind and Fire (and that’s just the horns) – but the band splice them together in unusual ways or conjoin them with showcase breaks, sudden stops and changes of key. The basics are clearly stated – snarling P-Funk, head-nodding hip-hop, sunshine disco – but are tweaked with slithering keyboards or a scarcely noticeable dropped beat. And keyboardist Cory Henry and drummer Robert “Sput” Searight would stand out in any company. Henry’s grasp of sound and texture was a constant delight, while Searight’s craftily orchestrated duet with percussionist Louis Cato was a late set rouser.
Towards the end, League took time out to explain the band’s history. Last year’s successful tour of Europe was immediately followed by bathos in the US – “a birthday gig in LA had four people, all bartenders,” he said. This 1,100-strong house whooped, sang and bawled out requests – the long, high point encore, “Slowdemon”, was an audience demand. “It makes every floor we’ve slept on, and every bread-on-bread sandwich we’ve eaten, worth it,” he said.
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