Published Jul 02, 2015What is the jazz equivalent to "poptimism"? Jazz festivals have answered this question poorly: it's pretty easy to spot who the designated crowd pleasers are supposed to be in a festival lineup because they're usually not jazz artists — someone like Willie Nelson or the Steve Miller Band is supposed to draw crowds that jazz itself cannot. But like any other form of music, there are artists who live the American dream of working hard to build something from nothing, gradually winning over audiences one city at a time through sheer talent and work ethic. That's Snarky Puppy — they incite crowd surfing, and I'm late to this party. A full house at Metropolis was not.
The band has played Montreal several times in increasingly larger rooms, but this venue in this jazz festival was clearly a moment to savour for band and fans alike. As soon as I formed a description about what opening tune "Flood" was about — Level 42-ish funk vs. Steely Dan-ish horn charts — it quickly mutated into a 15-minute beast building from climax to climax, charged by dense polyrhythms. These were no "shake your funky tambourine" jams, they were tightly scripted percussion arrangements displaying serious musical education pushed upward by inspired ideas.
The same could be said for the horn arrangements, which got a lot of personality out of just one sax and one trumpet (occasionally two trumpets when one of the keyboardists picked up a horn). The sonic relationship between the guitarist and two keyboardists was dense and powerful — somewhere between synthetic and organic, because of the way the parts were layered. If there was one key instrumentalist it was keyboardist Cory Henry, whose organ skills (complete with proper Leslie speakers) ranged from funky to spooky, strongly recalling Parliament-Funkadelic's Bernie Worrell. This connection was made clear when, mid-song the band decisively quoted Parliament's "Do That Stuff" and "Give Up The Funk."
If there was any question in my mind that Snarky Puppy's groove was strictly new school, this put any doubts to rest. As soon as a potentially cheesy moment reared its head, like the tropical queso of "Tio Macaco," the songwriting and soloing would pivot away into something with greater locomotion. Malika Tirolien of Montreal's Kalmunity collective came out to reprise her guest role on the band's Family Dinner record to deliver "I'm Not The One," which was the least transcendent moment of the night but still gratifying to her many fans in the audience.
The show was capped by "Lingus" from their most recent album We Like It Here. It was only during the encore that bassist/main man Michael League spoke of the day's news: the sudden death of the band's longtime sound engineer, which hushed the crowd. League then brought out the rest of the backstage crew in a lovely, public acknowledgement of their hard work behind the scenes. It was a beautiful moment that encapsulated all the vindication, celebration and sense of extended family this show and this band had to offer. Snarky Puppy are a godsend to jazz festivals; they make challenging music fun for everyone.