Sunday, September 28, 2008

No Need to Be Snarky; These Puppies Can Play

Last night brought the first long-awaited show of the fall semester: The CD release party by Snarky Puppy, the jazz/funk/dance/party band out of Denton that has enjoyed a growing fan base (both local and otherwise) since its founding several years ago.

The band is heavy on horns (which on the recordings include One O'Clock Lab Band alumni Brian Donohoe, Clay Pritchard, Justin Stanton, Sara Jacovino and Chris Bullock) and keyboards (which include local hero Bobby Sparks and ex-Miles Davis sideman Bernard Wright), with tasty rhythms by Grammy-winning drummer Robert "Sput" Searight, and anchored by bassist/founder Michael League, whose composing/arranging talents stood out during his student days. They play a music that's almost beyond category: Funky jazz? Jazzy funk? Dance music for the musically fluent? Whatever you want to call it, it works, and it was a great experience to see them live for the first time.

The reason for this gig at Hailey's club was to celebrate the release of the band's third CD, Bring Us the Bright. Those of us who were lucky enough to pre-order have already had a copy in our hands for slightly over a week now (and it's rarely left the CD player in Kevmobile 2.0 since then). It was the second of a three-night series in the D/FW area before the band embarks on a tour that takes them from New Orleans to Atlanta, followed by stops in places like Virginia, New York, Toronto and Milwaukee before stopping back home in early November.

Over the course of the past several years, the group has become a true collective, with up to 18 people performing on some tracks. While the entire gang wasn't there tonight, the band up on stage did boast ten members, and it was great to see Wright, Sparks and Searight as part of the proceedings. The near-capacity crowd was there to party, and it didn't appear that anyone walked away disappointed.

The evening was of course heavy on the new material, which is outstanding, and--like most jazz-based music--sounded fresh in a live setting, whether from new solos (of course!) to slightly different twists in the arrangement (tempo, a new ending, etc.). Tunes that stood out were the Metheny-tinged title track (which also serves as the CD's opener), the tight and technically dazzling "Loose Screws," and the tribute to Jewish klezmer music, "34 Klezma." When the band found out it had a few extra minutes, they closed the evening on a mellower note than one might have expected with the CD's closer, "And Soon We'll Be One."

In the signature box of every email I send is the following John Philip Sousa quote: "Jazz will endure as long as people hear it through their feet instead of their brains." Snarky Puppy certainly embodies the ideal of this quote, and seeing them live is a requirement to complete the picture of what this band can do; as fine as the CD's are (and trust me, they are indeed fine), there's a certain energy that can only be captured when the band is onstage. I had heard some of my Denton friends talk about this band for a few years now, and I finally got the first two CD's early this year, but the stars and planets hadn't aligned to allow me to see them in person until last night. Trust me when I say that I can't wait until the tour brings them back home for a bit, and I'll be bringing even more people next time.

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Snarky Puppy invited a few friends to their party as well; in fact, the evening was a quadruple feature. Going right before Snarky (and sharing co-headliner status in the minds of many) was John Ellis and Doublewide, another group whose recent CD (Dance Like There's No Tomorrow) has also had a prominent place in the Kevmobile's rotation for the past several months. The tenorist, a native of rural North Carolina who did most of his formal music study in New Orleans, has put together a fun romp featuring organist Gary Versace, drummer Jason Marsalis (yes, of that family), and sousaphonist Matt Perrine (doing crazy bass lines, as is the rage in some circles nowadays). So basically, it's an enhanced organ trio, which Ellis spices up with odd meters, starts and stops, and so on. Add Ellis' technical fluency and clean altissimo register to the organ grooves, and it comes out sounding like Joshua Redman's Elastic Band with a southern twist...and a tuba.

While Ellis didn't have any of his bandmates in tow last night (Versace, for one, was in Wisconsin, playing at one of my friends' schools with another group) the replacements (whose names escaped me) on organ and drums proved more than competent, negotiating their way through the saxophonist's tricky charts as if they'd been playing them for years (and these may be his top-call understudies, for all I know). It would have been fun to have Perrine on the gig, as the sousaphone adds a great deal to the sound of the band, but his absence just gave more space to Ellis, who is a serious young talent on the saxophone. With any luck, he and Doublewide will come back to town and do a headliner set on their own, but last night was a great sampler of what he can do and the perfect setup for the festivities that followed.

Also on the bill were The Suite Unraveling, a Brooklyn-based band that actually started out in Denton, led by UNT-ex Lily Maase on guitar and featuring two tenor saxes plus bass and drums. The music, while based in jazz, often contained elements of rock and the avant-garde as well. It wasn't exactly something that one could whistle while walking down the street, but it was interesting, and saxophonist Evan Smith contributed some impressive solo work.

Opening the entire thing was the Burntsienna Trio, a folk-rock-country group whose lead singer played a banjo instead of the usual guitar. Style-wise, they didn't seem to fit in with the other bands on the bill, but evidently they're old friends with Maase and some of her Suite Unraveling bandmates. They were entertaining nonetheless.

(Ten bucks, four bands--what a bargain!)

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