When I say that Snarky Puppy’s sound is “unique,” that’s probably an understatement. A band that I’ve just started getting into, Snarky Puppy mixes funk and jazz and dance music in a way that works well. Sometimes they sound like The Bad Plus; sometimes they sound like Skrillex. Sounds crazy, right?
On Thursday night, I had the pleasure of seeing them at the Brooklyn Bowl (they were only in NY for a matter of hours, but they are touring a LOT this year). Headed by bassist Michael League, the ensemble that night consisted of 9 instrumentalists – 3 percussionists, 1 keyboardist/synth man, 1 guitarist, 3 horn players (sax and trumpet), and of course, Michael himself. As taken aback as I was at how full their sound was, I was shocked to discover that they record with an even bigger group of musicians (including string players!). They also record in front of a live audience on headphones, which is really cool (clip here). Snarky Puppy seems to acknowledge that its music – like all jazz, really – is performance music. While I imagine that they plan their solos in advance for the recording sessions, there’s still more unpredictability when you have an audience right there (that is, you can’t stop and do something again, because you wouldn’t do that at an actual concert). The music comes out more raw and real that way.
Snarky Puppy’s melodies are actually quite simple – not in a bad way, just in a way that is accessible and danceable. Where they really show their complexity is in their improvisation. All the musicians demonstrated astounding virtuosity on their instruments, but I was an especially big fan of the keyboardist, the guitarist and the drummers. At one point, the 3 drummers soloed together (somehow not a contradiction in terms) for what seemed like a full 5 minutes! This was a lot of fun, because the beats kept changing, and it was great to see how the drummers managed to keep up with each other. This part of the show really reminded me of hip hop – all the music needed was someone spitting rhymes over it. I think I was smiling the entire time that this improv was going on, which would have been rare for me at any other jazz show. Most other jazz just seems to take itself so seriously, but Snarky Puppy’s music seemed to have been meant to make you dance.
And people did dance. The crowd was much younger and more diverse than the crowd usually spotted at jazz shows (most jazz nowadays is watched live by young white males), and some people were jumping and hand-waving as if they were at a rave. Not only were the beats awesome, but Snarky Puppy also has a way of moving from the solos back to the main melody so that the return of the head feels like a climax, or a “drop” in dubstep terms. There’s no subtlety here, and since the melody is usually played by all musicians at once, it always sounds loud and merry and triumphant.
Overall, the Snarky Puppy show was one of the most fun shows that I’ve been to in a long time, and quite possibly the most fun “jazz” show that I’ve ever been to. I will definitely be on the lookout for more of their records and for more of their performances.