Snarky Puppy - Powerstation - Auckland REVIEW
GARY STEEL went to see extraordinary jazz-fusion concoction Snarky Puppy at Auckland’s The Powerstation. Here’s his brief assessment.
In 1973 Frank Zappa proclaimed: “Jazz is not dead, it just smells funny.” After all these years of pondering this pungent line I’m still not sure if he thought jazz was practically moribund (hence the smell of rotting flesh) or simply a rainbow of odours representing the diversity the music form (otherwise known as America’s classical music) had evolved into by the ‘70s. In any case, in thinking about Snarky Puppy, I should think Frank would have approved the slight variation of: “Jazz is not dead, it just smells funky.”
Tonight’s gig marked the beginning of a months-long world tour for the nine-piece agglomeration and, as bassist and bandleader Michael League noted, “…and we still smell pleasant.”
The group played to a remarkably well-attended and enthusiastic Monday night crowd that appeared to span the generations, many of which knew the more popular tunes and would wordlessly sing along to the buoyant melodies. That’s something I hadn’t expected: that a 21st century iteration of jazz-fusion steeped in flights of dazzling virtuosity would at its core have popular appeal. Right from the start, there appeared to be a tight bond between audience and band and there was never any chance of this event devolving into a series of grandstanding ego-tripping solos.
Performing a selection of pieces from their prolific 13 album history but naturally focusing on the slightly stripped-back, more atmospheric latest, Immigranze, it wasn’t surprising that they left their YouTube hit, “Lingus”, until the end of the set. League has clearly chosen the right guys this time round for this ever-morphing line-up and they come out swinging, and sustain momentum and balance of light and shade and dazzle and funk and fun and seriousness of intent throughout the hour-and-three-quarter set.
I’m not familiar enough with their discography to know any but the latest pieces and I’m not even sure of the who’s who of personnel (perhaps some kind person can let me know the 2019 touring line-up?) but it never, ever gets boring because the material varies substantially from song to song and the firepower of the rhythm section – especially the drums and percussion – ensures an explosive dynamic.
One problem with this type of long-form jazz-fusion exposition is that – especially on recordings – they can sound a bit like one of those horn-based MOR theme tunes to an old TV show. But any hint that Snarky Puppy is likely to turn into Tom Scott and the LA Express are quickly refuted by the almost boom-bap type low-bass action.
My favourite number lumbers along on a deliciously monstrous one-chord riff, which gives all the members a chance to shine, but unlike the duelling matches this kind of music inspired back at its genesis, the members of Snarky Puppy actually seem to listen to each other and pick up cues and have a musical conversation, and it’s liberating to hear a band on the same page, and happy to put many of the most dazzling moments into what sound like written passages.
At one point, League makes a halting, nervous speech about how much he respects New Zealand’s response to the Christchurch shooting and that he wishes America would get its act together in regards to its gun laws, and for a moment, it almost falls flat, but the crowd eventually responds to what sounds a bit pat but was probably 100 per cent sincere.
League is a skinny white guy and if the whole band had been made up of look-a-likes then the overriding impression may have been of a band of jazz school graduates with a preppy vibe. Thank goodness, then, for the two African-American keyboardists to the right of the stage who oozed charisma and wowed with their wiggly synth and clavinet sounds. One of them even did a vocal turn through what appeared to be a kind of vocoder, but technologically pimped for the present era.
The line-up consisted of sax, trumpet, keyboardist, bassist, guitarist, percussionist, drummer and the two keyboardists mentioned above, so if anything it was keyboards dominated and if I had a criticism it’s that too often, all the instruments were blatting away at the same time competing on the same frequencies. This proved a little taxing on the eardrums given that the PA system (or sound person, or both) was substandard. It’s a real pity when so much effort has gone into a performance for it to be beamed into an audience with so little care. Yes, I am a hi-fi nerd but I’m sure the sound crew could have achieved less toppy highs and some genuine mids, but the sound kind of fell away between the two divides.
This old grump hates standing-only gigs and by the end of it I felt like my feet had gone numb and I suspected rigor mortis, so I was heartened to find that after the rousing last notes and 10 minutes of self-massage and contortions I was able to move out of the venue without a wheelchair. Personally, I think this gig should have been at the ASB Theatre or a seated auditorium but I guess the young folk like to move around and fraternise.
Notwithstanding my bipedal agony, Snarky Puppy at the Powerstation was a stonking great gig and I feel that regardless of how it currently smells, jazz (-fusion) is in good hands while they’re around to keep the flame burning.
- The Snarky Puppy gig took place at The Powerstation in Auckland on Monday April 15, 2019.