Whooping it Up with Snarky Puppy

A funk-rock party had the crowds dancing and screaming for more at Nathan Philips Square on Friday night, day nine of the TD Toronto Jazz Festival. Fusion jazz outfit Snarky Puppy stirred up what Miles Davis might have called a real “Bitches Brew” under the Toronto Star tent with their unique mix of synth-centric riffs, atmospheric reverb and punching horn lines. The Brooklyn-based band had the standing-room only crowd moving with the groove during their whole hour and a half long set, and even those in the plastic chairs on the side of the stage couldn’t resist the temptation to get up and boogie. Though their immaculate display of instrumental prowess was captivating, the band did not allow anyone to stand still and wonder at it. Before the nine-piece ensemble walked on stage, the open floor was already packed with fans anticipating a good time. Despite their limited airplay on genre-specific radio stations such as Toronto’s Jazz.FM91 and their lengthy song structures preventing them from breaking into the pop charts, the band still boasts a strong following in the GTA, and for good reason.

As bandleader and bassist Michael League told the audience from behind his microphone, one of Snarky Puppy’s first concerts outside of the US took place at Toronto’s acclaimed jazz and blues bar The Rex back in 2008. This is where they first encountered local drummer Larnell Lewis, whose metronomic syncopation and fluid beats have put his hometown of Brampton, Ontario, about a 30 minute drive west of the city, on the international jazz map.

Given these connections, the Toronto faithful was eager to give Snarky Puppy an enthusiastic welcome back and did so by singing along with the hooks, despite the fact that their music is without lyrics. The impromptu sing-alongs were the most exhilarating aspects of the show, an impressive feat that speaks to how dedicated their fan base is. But after listening to a few songs, it becomes obvious why they’ve garnered so much attention: Snarky Puppy is the quintessential fusion band of our time.

A truly mixed bag of genre and sound colours, Snarky Puppy has the ability to switch instantly from a swirling stew of Rhodes keys and echoing guitar to a smack-in-the-face trumpet and sax line. They can bring it down with moody harmonic minor scales taking on a Middle Eastern influence, then rock it out with a fuzzy, synchronized hook that gets everyone head banging. It’s their spastic, unpredictable hits, cross-rhythms and sporadic shifts in time signature that somehow bring the sound together. Overall, they are masters of timing. If it weren’t for the constant buzz of the crowd, it would be difficult to believe that the music wasn’t coming from a recording.

As a whole, the band was a tight and cohesive unit that could make the simplest riffs pop, but they made sure to leave room for each individual musician to shine as a soloist. It was almost mystical when Mike “Maz” Maher took his first trumpet solo—using “solo” in the truest sense of the word. The whole band faded to let Maher have the stage, the crowd doe-eyed as the horn swirled through notes and octaves unimaginable to the ear. His solos later in the performance also included the use of a wah-wah pedal to bend the brassy tones in all sonic directions.

The rhythm section was also on it’s A game. Lewis, along with Nate Werth on percussion, never missed a beat as their speedy yet steady hands complimented each other throughout the concert. Werth’s cowbell and woodblock work near the end of the show was particularly stunning, and Lewis’ ear for dynamics and intricate hits showcased his ability to shift between styles flawlessly.

However, Cory Henry’s solo on the keys during their encore performance of the fan favourite “Lingus” was what took the show away. The bass and kick drum dropped low as Henry prepared the scene. He began with a beautiful stumble of fanned out chords with a warm sound, gently pressing the keys to his own rhythm. As the energy built up he trickled down the synth, which provided a crunchy textural contrast. His fingers were flying over the keys, leaping and scattering to notes that are at one second bluesy and the next full of a gritty funkiness. An ear-piercing warble from the synth brought the solo to a close. It was a moment of peak ecstasy for both the band and audience.

Even with Snarky Puppy’s outstanding musicianship, it’s the energy they give off and the enthusiastic reaction from the crowd that has the biggest impact on their sound, the two feeding off of each other to draw out the best performance possible. As the band finished their set, the audience was still in raptures over the concert, bobbing their heads as if the music was still going and dancing off into the streets of Toronto.

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