How Snarky Puppy made jazz-fusion exciting againby James Belfield
Snarky Puppy are taking their danceable mix of jazz, funk and rock into the mainstream – and to New Zealand.
Because the Texas-born, New York-based Grammy-winning jazz band have a cosmopolitan membership, you may think their name is some kind of commentary on Trumpian border tweets or Brexit-based upheaval.
But you just have to lean back and listen to the stomping funk groove and glorious extended guitar solo on opener Chonks or the smirking, skittering beats of Bad Kids to the Back to realise that although the musicianship is the equal of, say, a Stevie Wonder, a Herbie Hancock or a Weather Report album, there’s also an underlying get-up-and-dance quality that makes the whole package sing.
Keyboardist and trumpeter Justin Stanton actually giggles down the line from a coffee shop in Lower Manhattan at the thought his track Bad Kids to the Back might come with any form of political message.
“We do a lot of travelling and get to meet people from all over the world and it’s just that there’s a lot of commonality between those we meet,” he says. “Whether they’re Russian, American or African, it’s just that it’s the music that brings them together. So it’s not political; it’s rather a statement about acceptance.”
Even though that theme runs through the album’s eight instrumental tracks, it wasn’t even as if composer and bandleader Michael League had to sit down the 18 other musicians who took part in the writing and recording process to explain where he wanted the album to go.
“We know each other so well – I do believe that it’s just an important theme for all of us,” Stanton says. “For example, I wrote Bad Kids to the Back as a fun thing that harks back to our early days as a focus on the different dynamics in the band itself – you know, those who like to have fun and those who are a little more serious and how we can all come together and coexist in Snarky Puppy.
“And yes, the bad kids at the back of the bus may be more of a joke these days, but certainly when we were younger and touring, all the roughhousing and shenanigans happened at the back.”
Since League, Stanton and co started the band at the University of North Texas in the early 2000s, Snarky Puppy have taken their danceable mix of jazz, funk and rock out of its traditionally jazz club settings and into the mainstream.
And it’s worked. Three Grammy awards: a Best R&B Performance in 2014 and Best Contemporary Instrumental Album in 2016 and 2017. They’re an in-demand live act returning to New Zealand this month for a third time on a world tour that sees them playing theatres, rock clubs, jazz festivals and concert halls until November.
The group may get the po-faced description “jazz-fusion”, which, in the genre’s original 70s heyday, smoothed itself into bland easy listening. But Stanton says there’s little danger of Snarky Puppy losing their bite.
“A lot of us might have gone to jazz school, but we also grew up listening to our parents’ music and so have a deep love for music from the 60s and 70s – especially rock ’n’ roll.
“We all try to approach the music in that way rather than from a jazz context, and so we try to bring that energy into the music and into the shows rather than anything like the more refined jazz club settings.”
Snarky Puppy, Powerstation, Auckland, April 15; Opera House, Wellington, April 16.
This article was first published in the April 20, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.
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