Review: Snarky Puppy at Sage Gateshead

Fred Grand sees the young US collective successfully mining the highs and lows of what many still consider jazz’s most blighted decade

A significant cohort of younger players in NYC are currently mining the highs and lows of 70s funk and fusion, and Snarky Puppy are perhaps the best known ambassadors of this unofficial movement. Almost perpetually on the road, they use the same word of mouth approach that once served Medeski, Martin & Wood so well. Formed in Texas around a decade ago, they’re now a 40-strong collective based in the Big Apple. With line-ups in a constant state of flux, electric bassist Michael League and his decidedly retro repertoire are the group’s only real constants.

This short UK tour includes most of the UK’s major cities and coincides with the release of their eighth album We Like It Here (Ropeadope, 2014). It's already garnering rave reviews in the mainstream national press, and if you’d only ever heard last year’s Family Dinner Vol.1, a frankly pedestrian showcase for a string of R&B/soul vocalists which managed to scoop a Grammy, you’d be forgiven for asking what all the media noise is about. Fortunately the focus was placed squarely on their grittier and more essential instrumental side for their first visit to Tyneside.

It was standing-room only, the large and highly vocal crowd packed shoulder-to-shoulder. With an average age considerably lower than my own - slightly perplexing as I'm too young to remember the music of the 70s first time around - there were lots of bobbing heads amongst what Nate Chinen recently and memorably described as the “Jazzbro” fraternity. Keyboard alchemist Bill Laurance, who despite being a Londoner was actually a pivotal early member of the group, was generously featured throughout the show by this nine-piece version of the band. They kicked off with the rousing What About Me? and the room bristled with energy as Carlton-esque guitar soared above the group’s floor-shaking twin percussion attack. Corey Henry’s synthesiser doodled irresistibly cheesy period fills, but in the piece’s floating ambient passages his organ tones reminded me of Sun Ra’s otherworldly Farfisa.

It became increasingly clear during the evening that whilst Snarky Puppy are a super-tight ensemble, they’re not necessarily blessed with the kind of show-stopping soloists who characterised that flamboyant decade. Chris Bullock’s ugly processed sax would surely have made Eddie Harris wince, and whilst each member of the group has chops to burn and plays their role to perfection it’s the sheer audacity with which they evoke the sounds of Steely Dan, Headhunters, Tower Of Power and Parliament which is the group’s biggest selling point.

They unashamedly worked the crowd, and audience participation was king on Shofukan, its anthem-like theme enthusiastically rendered a cappella by the cheer-leading horn section. Laurance’s lyrical Kite and Ready Wednesday were perhaps the pick of the originals, bringing much-needed nuance to League's fast-moving and highly accessible show. They were standing on the same stage that Robert Glasper’s Experiment had wowed barely a month ago, and one look at the youthful audience spoke volumes about what sells jazz in 2014. Whether or not you feel that the 70s deserves such reverence is largely a matter of taste, but I’m not too uncomfortable with what many still consider jazz’s most blighted decade. Sure to be coming to a venue near you in the not-too-distant future, Snarky Puppy showed exactly why they’re currently one of the hottest tickets on the circuit.

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