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Published: 2012/10/20
by Jim Murray

Snarky Puppy, Red Room at Cafe 939, Boston, MA- 10/3

Talk about taking it to the smaaaht kids.

Wunderkind jazz fusion ensemble Snarky Puppy stopped in at Berklee during the tail end of a fifty-date U.S. tour to showcase a new selection of tunes and celebrate all that is right with improvisational music. The collective, hailing from Texas, currently based out of New York City and comprised by almost thirty members from all corners of the country, displayed no fatigue in settling in for their second of two nights at the sleek Cafe 939.

To try and pigeonhole Snarky Puppy, in both personnel and sound, is an effort in futility. What is essential to understand is that players drift on and offstage depending on schedules, cities, venues, and songs, the last of which usually feature around a dozen contributors at any one time. The sound can be described as rooted in classical jazz, but pushes the envelope with a progressive, fusion-based sound that often dips its toes into worldbeat riffs and rhythms. It is founded upon about as tight a pocket as can be imagined, and is built upon clever, assertive melodies on the part of its guitars and keys, and most triumphantly, its impressive brass section. The rest you’ll have to figure out yourself, and I promise a lot of fun getting there.

The set opened with “Binky,” an offering off of the band’s latest album, GroundUP. It quickly demonstrated an ethos of democracy: that even though most of the tunes would offer up segments for members to show off their impressive solo chops, the band is at its best with everyone playing off each other in the creation of a bigger, more impressive whole. “Binky,” for example, offered saxophonist Chris Bullock room to wander, but it was the entire brass contributing to a more robust melody; the entire band grooving on an amazing synth-based jam that sounded like something birthed from a Dr. Dre/Trent Reznor collaboration.

“Flood” was on deck, which built off of a meditative intro by guitarists Mark Lettieri and Bob Lanzetti into a playful melody steadied by razor sharp input from Cory Henry on keyboards. It then found space, softly accented by the trumpets until it built into take- no- prisoners, absolutely massive attack by the brass and drums, and a call-and-response between Lettieri and Lanzetti and the horns that pounded to its finish.

Incredibly, the ensuing “Strawman” actually accelerated the pace, offering a chance for Robert “Sput” Searight to tee off on his drumkit and giving the ridiculously deft Henry another spot on his keys, while Lanzetti stepped forth with a ferocious, Scofield-esque solo. When the horns punched back into the fray, the collective jaw of the audience had been haymakered.

Other highlights of the set included ‘Bent Nails,” a fiery, slinky Sex-Machine meets acid jazz mindmelt, and a sensitive, patient ‘Young Stuff’ that featured sensational synthesizer work and some bluesy guitar crunch on the back of a beautifully crisp tone.

The unquestionable spot of the night, however, fell on the shoulders of a nearly twenty-minute “Quarter Master,” which included sit-ins by Jen Hartswick on trumpet and jazz genius Robert Glasper on piano. The tune climbed quickly into a sound not so far removed from a New Orleans second line, championed by the typical Puppy brass badness, and interspersed by a dynamic solo by Hartswick before Glasper led the group into a devastatingly haunting, type II jam. After a spirited drum solo by Searight, things came around once more on a wild anthemic parade vaguely reminiscent of the traditional “When the Saints Come Marching In.” The sound reached almost reckless abandon as everyone let loose, but just when it appeared to be running off the tracks, they pulled it right back into its finish in company fashion.

The industrial pornfunk of “Slow Demon” closed the set with its sinister, onward stomp, and gave the band’s founder, brilliant bassist Michael League, a chance to introduce the team. The audience roared with appreciation, and beckoned the guys back to punctuate the set with a brilliant encore of “Whitecap.”

Snarky Puppy may never be a household name, but fans of improvisational music take note: if you haven’t yet discovered this stuff, run and find it. After a month-long tour in Europe they will be back in the States, more than likely to fill bigger rooms. And although there is some major geek factor going on with the level of their skill, make no mistake—the chops are undeniably boss, but it’s the whole that makes it a movement. Get your dancing shoes on.

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