Snarky Puppy Album Review & Ticket Giveaway
Snarky Puppy is a conglomeration of Grammy-winning musicians that brings vigour, life and dynamism to jazz-fusion, writes GARY STEEL
* Win tickets to either the Auckland or Wellington show! Instructions at the bottom of this review!
It’s taken jazz-fusion a long, long time to recover from the indulgences of the 1970s. The genre was really America’s answer to progressive rock. While that quintessentially British phenomenon came about through a very Eurocentric evolution of psychedelic rock to incorporate elements of classical music, jazz, blues and what would later be called world music, jazz-fusion combined American jazz musicians reacted to the popularity of rock by going electric, and getting much louder and faster.
Like progressive rock, jazz-fusion was rather over-the-top and played at lightning fast speed. At its best, jazz-fusion exploited the virtuosity of its players with great compositions and it was an exciting thing to behold, especially in concert. At its worst – and one of the main reasons it burned out – the genre was full of empty flash, and at odds with one of the core ideas behind jazz as an improvisational art form: they forgot to listen to each other.
“It’s important to point out that they’re not just reiterating and regurgitating old ideas.”
Jazz-fusion has surreptitiously crept back into the lingua franca of our times and Snarky Puppy is one of the key exponents of the new old thing, but it’s important to point out that that they’re not just reiterating and regurgitating old ideas, and while some of those ‘70s jazz-fusion bands fed off rock bombast, Snarky Puppy and its contemporaries are much more inspired by funk and even hip-hop.
This is a Grammy-winning collective that’s always fluctuating in membership, which is understandable given that at times there seem to be at least 20 players involved. Led by bassist Michael League, Snarky Puppy is an ensemble that works with accepted jazz tropes but isn’t afraid to add individual quirk.
When you first encounter them you might – as I did – wonder if their jazz school training might make them a little too squeaky clean and lacking the grit and danger that seems to have been integral to jazz (as it has been to rock) since the dawn of time. I would urge you to keep listening, because any such thoughts are quickly banished by the sheer charm of Snarky Puppy’s collective approach.
“Snarky Puppy’s songs tell a story even though they’re all instrumentals.”
Snarky Puppy isn’t called a collective for nothing, and you can hear that in the music. Unlike a lot of jazz with maybe a short melodic statement leading to endless soloing, Snarky Puppy’s songs tell a story, even though they’re all instrumentals. That is, they keep on developing compositionally and twisting and turning and surprising with their continual invention.
On Immigrance – clearly a title this multi-racial group felt important in these “build the wall, keep out the aliens” times – Snarky Puppy takes a step back from the fancy soloing and long-form expositions into a more condensed framework, but don’t expect any 3-minute pop songs. There are still 10-minute epics here, but they seem like intricately constructed compositions, and while they’re full of opportunities for the instrumentalists to strut their stuff, they do so with a considerable degree of economy.
There are times where I found this approach a little frustrating, because I’d just be starting to get into a guitar solo when it would fizz out. And at times, I wanted those solos to be a little more irruptive, or corrosive, or just upset the applecart a little. But in the overall scheme of things, these are small quibbles.
The more you listen to Immigrance the more you get just how intricate the various parts of these pieces is, and how you can’t take a particular song for granted by its lead-in. For better or worse, in 2019 we’ve been versed to quickly identify a song and assume that it will roll on for the rest of its duration with pretty much the same groove and time signature and melodic contour. Well, Snarky Puppy ain’t one of those bands.
Take the first piece, ‘Chonks, for example. In many ways this is proto jazz-funk fusion and its horn-led melody has the feeling of an early ‘70s television theme, but with a Herbie Hancock-like groove. But then there’s a modified guitar solo which blossoms into what could be called a different movement that to the unschooled listener could be a different composition but meshes perfectly with the first part and keeps you hooked for its duration.
“There’s booty-shaking of one shape and size or another to be had at all times”
It’s only on the final piece, ‘Even Us’, that the beat and groove completely gives way to something spare and utterly gorgeous as what sounds like a santoor (or at least exotically Indian-like) chimes away while a piano solos lyrically and a cello does its evocative thing. Otherwise, there’s booty-shaking of one shape and size or another to be had at all times, even on a ballad of sorts like ‘Coven’, with its spatial approach, aqueous tones, and Miles Davis-like trumpet. You could call it a ballad, but there’s still a low-key rhythm that makes you want to jiggle a little and a wiggly synth part.
That wiggly synth, together with the various effects used in real-time that add to the flavour of compositions that seem to cock a hat the technological development of their respective instruments. Those synth solos could almost have occurred in the ‘70s but then on the eight-minute ‘Bigly Strictness’ the keyboards have a watery 1980s sound reminiscent of the sonic palette Ryuichi Sakamoto was working with on his solo releases of the era.
But perhaps most emblematic of the way this album works compositionally is ‘Bling Bling’, which starts out sounding like a mediocre mid-tempo thing but quickly grows some horn-derived wings along with some nice dynamic evolutions, but somehow manages to keep its narrative flow going throughout.
Immigrance is a terrific album of contemporary jazz with a difference that deserves attentive ears, and wets the proverbial whistle for their two live dates in New Zealand.
* WIN a double pass to either Snarky Puppy’s Auckland or Wellington show next week! Tell us your name, whether you’re able to attend the Auckland or Wellington show, and make sure you include your phone number just in case there are last-minute complications. Email to email@example.com by midday Saturday April 13 to go in the draw. Good luck!
Update: Congrats to the winner, James McDonald, who attended the Auckland Snarky Puppy performance.
* Snarky Puppy perform this coming Monday, April 15, at Auckland’s The Powerstation and Tuesday, April 16, at Wellington’s The Opera House. Book through Ticketmaster.