Hill Auditorium is widely renowned for its impeccable acoustics. Each year, many of the world’s best classical musicians and ensembles make the trek to Ann Arbor to play in a concert hall where soft, sensitive music sounds just as crisp from the top of the balcony as it does from the front row. Such a setting might seem like an awkward environment for Snarky Puppy, a jazz-fusion band whose members play with nonstop soloistic energy, but at their Sept. 10 concert, the band electrified Hill Auditorium with a show that was both sonorous and musically tasteful.
Unlike other bands, Snarky Puppy operates as a “collective of sorts” with a staggering 25 members in rotation. The group, formed in 2004 in the University of North Texas Jazz Studies Program by bandleader, bassist and primary composer Michael League, has been touring and recording for more than a decade. Genre-wise, Snarky Puppy is infamously difficult to pin down — League once used the phrase “instrumental pop” to describe his band’s style of music, a generic yet unambiguously true description that incidentally captures the band’s extreme musical diversity. Snarky Puppy makes instrumental music in the truest sense; it’s easy to forget the band doesn’t have a vocalist because each of the instrumentalists are so engaging as soloists and adept as accompanying voices. And while the band frequently uses dense textures and complex meters, their music is still surprisingly accessible thanks to its easy-to-latch-onto rhythmic grooves.
Regardless of how one chooses to label Snarky Puppy, it is a must-see live band, which was evident at their Ann Arbor show. To open the show, the band performed “Portal” from their most recent studio album Empire Central. After a serene opening statement by the winds, the band quickly pivoted to the groovy and energetic jams that would define the rest of the show. They opened a portal from a calm, pastoral landscape to a high-energy jam session. The rest of the song highlighted flugelhorn and saxophone solos above driving piano rhythm, reggae-esque percussion and raunchy electric piano chords that sounded straight out of Bitches Brew.
After the first few songs of the night, League chimed in to explain the concert’s objective: to explore and popularize pieces from their 14th and newest album Empire Central. Following the September 2022 release of Empire Central, the album was met with positive critical reviews and won Best Contemporary Instrumental Album at the 65th Grammy Awards. In his introduction, League explained that the album was an homage to Texas’ diverse music scene. He cited Texan musicians like Erykah Badu and RC Williams, as well as Dallas’ Gospel and R&B scene as inspirations for the piece.
With smooth transitions between songs, seamless communication between members and complete musical synergy, the group was able to generate a powerful undercurrent of musicality that kept the audience animated and on the edge of their seats. This excitement was apparent in band members like violinist Zach Brock, who excitedly filmed some of his bandmates’ solos.
It would be easy to read from Snarky Puppy’s uber-casual attire and propensity for fusing loud noises with catchy beats that the band is content to just be another jam band, an amorphous and eclectic novelty, a lowest common denominator source of entertainment for a Sunday afternoon. Such a reading couldn’t be further from the truth: Snarky Puppy is artistically unified by a sincere reverence for their legion of genre-spanning influences. The band used two of their songs to pay tribute to their mentors: Roy Hargrove, who was beautifully eulogized with a silky flugelhorn solo on “Cliroy,” and Bernard Wright, the wunderkind keyboardist and onetime Snarky Puppy collaborator who the band memorialized with their rendition of “Take It!” In its flute-led ambient jazz introduction, the song felt like the band’s open-invitation meditation on Wright’s life; with its convoluted final progression to a powerful major ninth chord resolution, the song felt like a celebration of his life.
I went into the concert as a fan of Snarky Puppy — an avid listener of the group and megafan of their song “Shofukan.” Like many others, including the stranger who sat next to me at the concert, I was introduced to Snarky Puppy through my high school jazz band teacher. For young musicians, the super-band is often cited as a testament to the power of instrumental music. Their discography is employed to push students to listen to more “jazz.” High schools across the country learn tunes like “Lingus” and others composed by League. For young jazz musicians and seasoned music educators, Snarky Puppy’s commitment to musical innovation is palpable — one that solidifies them as a breath of inspiration in the music scene. Relative to their recorded albums, their live performance was more experimental, with edgier grooves, longer and bolder solos and a more amplified percussion section. During the show, saxophonist and flutist Chris Bullock created high-pitched trills far beyond the scope of traditional instrumentals, while trumpeter and keyboardist Justin Stanton frequently opted for whimsical synth sounds.
Having enjoyed the dynamic, genre-bending show, I was happy to hear my beloved “Shofukan” as the group’s encore. The piece, which I studied and performed in high school, now boasted a new, funkier percussion groove. The tune’s nostalgia in tandem with an infamous Snarky Puppy experimentation was the cherry on top of an explosive concert, a night of great music and a reminder of the importance of ongoing musical creativity and exploration.
Daily Arts Writer Nicole Appiani can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
What makes Snarky Puppy so good — what is their secret? How are the 10 performing musicians able to combine to form something so much greater than the sum of its parts? Every listener will have a different answer to this question (and maybe that fact alone is the answer to the question). But for me, and without minimizing the importance of the band’s other members, keyboardist Justin Stanton is the band’s keystone piece. Sitting behind an imposing array of keyboards and synth modules that look more like the cockpit of an airplane than a musical instrument, Stanton acts as a magician, a spell-caster of sound able to make any noise on the spot. No song better demonstrated his importance to the group than the encore, “Shofukan,” which featured a lengthy breakdown and buildup led by Stanton’s soloistic prowess and timbral wizardry. The fruit of his and the band’s labor was the entire Hill Auditorium crowd singing along to the funky melody of “Shofukan” as the band finished their show.
Daily Arts Writer Jack Moeser can be reached at email@example.com.