Review by Nick Garcia
Photos by Lisa Occhino
Anyone who thinks John Mayer’s guitar faces are good has probably never seen Michael League play bass (Exhibit A: photo above). League, the driving force behind the progressive jazz fusion group Snarky Puppy, brought his band of hip, young virtuosos to Café 939’s Red Room on Tuesday, October 2nd for one of two nights of raucous jamming, and his face never ceased to mirror the raw expressiveness of the music. Unfortunately, this reporter (who has seen Snarky Puppy play four times to date) was not able to snag tickets for both concerts. Though the energy they brought in that one night was more than most groups could demonstrate in five.
I have never seen Snarky Puppy play with the same line-up more than once, but it does not seem to matter. The musicianship of both the core members of the band and their auxiliary tour members is simply astounding. Despite the rhythmic and harmonic complexity of the band’s compositions (mostly League’s), they retain relative melodic simplicity that sets SP apart from many groups in the genre, and their tightness is impeccable. One of the first tunes played Tuesday night, “Skate U,” flows effortlessly between major and minor tonal centers while supporting a ferociously catchy horn section arrangement and, in this performance of it, perhaps the most ridiculous synthesizer solo I’ve ever witnessed.
The band continued on with compositions from both their first LP, aptly titled Tell Your Friends, and its follow-up, GroundUP, which is also the name of League’s record label. A real highlight of the night was their performance of “Binky,” a bluesy, percussive tune that had everyone on their toes. Eight minutes in, a deceptive fadeout gave way to the tune’s off-kilter ending, which sounds something like if Flying Lotus and the late Miles Davis had a creative lovechild. Not a single person was standing still during the final minutes of that tune; the Red Room regressed into total party mode.
Snarky Puppy closed the night with a near fifteen-minute finale jam on their tune “Quarter Master,” which pairs a nasty funk groove with a big-band style horn arrangement. This live version was considerably sped up compared to the album version, so to drag it out for as long as they did seemed like an Olympian feat of musicianship. Trumpeter Michael Maher, aka Maz, ripped a burning solo before passing it on to Lil’ John Roberts, sit-in drummer for the night and Berklee alum. Roberts’ résumé precedes him; the man has played with everyone from DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince to Janet Jackson to Herbie Hancock. His solo was nothing short of extraordinary and Roberts demonstrated a keen sense of dynamism, building up tension by modifying and embellishing a single groove over time before exploding into a barrage of tightly syncopated hits, then delving right back into the groove and playfully shouting call-and-response with crowd members.
As exhilarating as always, Snarky Puppy continues to be one of my favorite groups, both live and in the studio. They are known for their relentless touring, and at the end of the show League said something along the lines of, “We’ll be back next spring.” Until then, I’ll have GroundUP on repeat.