You can’t really put a label on what kind of band Snarky Puppy is. Although they’re often billed as a jazz band and play in a variety of jazz idioms, I wouldn’t really call their music jazz. I’m not sure if I’d even call them a fusion or a jam band. The only thing I can definitively say about the band is that it’s a supergroup of some of the best instrumentalists in the world. Founded in 2003, this Texas-born ensemble returned to Hill Auditorium this past Sunday for the opening of the University Musical Society’s 141st Season.

The night kicked off with opening act Alina Engibartan, a vocalist and keyboard player accompanied by three other members of Snarky Puppy. Engibartan’s voice on both originals and jazz standards was a smooth way to ease into the energy of the main event.

Touring off of the release of their most recent album, Immigrance, the band mostly played new music, with a few favorites sprinkled in between. Many of these newer pieces were influenced by different types of music from all over the world. For example, Michael League, bassist and bandleader of the group, mentioned the influence Gnawa music had on the group after their recent trip to Morocco and then taught the audience how to clap an interesting three-over-four polyrhythm to accompany the band on their new track, “Xavi.” These worldly influences aren’t completely new for Snarky, but the way they leaned into them more than their last visit to Hill was captivating.

For the most part, this new recipe tasted pretty good in the listener’s mouth. The addition of violinist Zach Brock added some textures that differed greatly from the traditional funk/fusion the group is famous for, but at times the music did feel like it was only going halfway. Certain songs like “Even Us” ventured deep into unknown territory for the band, while other songs like “Bad Kids to the Back”seemed like they could have come from any period in Snarky’s discography. It felt as if the band was teasing us with a new direction and then immediately returning to where they had come from.

Objectively, the band sounded great. However, as much as I did appreciate the group trying to do something new with their new songs on this tour, I really wish they would have leaned a even further into it. This was my third time seeing Snarky Puppy, and don’t get me wrong, each time I’ve seen them I’ve been blown away. The group was such an innovative, forward-thinking band when they emerged onto the scene in the mid-to-late 2000s. Years later, though, I wish they would fully embrace a new direction. 

For an album, I wasn’t a big fan of the lack of cohesiveness between tracks, but in a live setting, hearing the band play a variety of genres and styles was extremely entertaining and showcased just how talented this group is, even without its full recording roster of around 25 musicians. Each of the nine musicians on stage had a distinct musical voice, even beyond the fact that they were playing different instruments. Solos taken by saxophonist Chris Bullock tended to be more straightforward and melodic, while Shaun Martin often times took solos on his Moog synthesizer that integrated crazy timbral shifts and chaotic flurries of sounds.

As the group returned to the stage of Hill for an encore, the audience erupted into cheers as the opening chords to the band’s ever-popular song “Lingus” played, launching Shaun Martin into an epic five minute keyboard solo to end the evening. There was no better way to kick off the UMS season than with Snarky Puppy’s return to Hill Auditorium.

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