On Wednesday in Denton, leading Snarky Puppy through a two hour set at Hailey's, Michael League dipped and waved his electric bass like a conductor's baton. He also led the band with series of grimaces, smiles, laughter and frowns, his facial expressions helping to punctuate musical phrases and sequences, signal tempo and key changes. His bearing announced the pleasures of performing on his former stomping grounds.
Snarky Puppy worked in a musical passage channeled by Incognito and Groove Collective rather the one that, say, Robert Glasper and Esperanza Spalding have been moving through lately. At its best, the band swings on the finest line between R&B and jazz, a place where there is room to develop a signature aesthetic and singular sound. That's exactly where Lalah Hathaway drives the band on "Something," the Grammy winning track from Snarky's Family Dinner. Notice how Hathaway takes over that number, improvising in and on the tradition, stringing a narrative line from Sarah Vaughan to Brenda Russell to herself. Last night the band could have used a vocalist to focus their efforts on a few numbers.
Our own Jonathan Patrick came away from Tuesday's Dallas show disappointed. And I agree with him on at least one point: Snarky Puppy don't really play jazz. Jazz is a music generated from the blues, pop, and avant-garde traditions and a practice that demands soulful extension and aesthetic revision of those traditions through improvisational performance. These days, however, "jazz" seems to be a label slapped on anything that isn't category ready or commercial-radio friendly. The musicians in Snarky Puppy are highly trained and could very well play any number of things, including true improvisational jazz. But in its current formation, this band's fusions are really concocted treats.
What Snarky Puppy did really well at Hailey's was build beats from their spongy percussive core, drizzling them with infectious keyboard riffs, and then letting the soloists (on keys, tenor sax, trumpet or guitar) coat these confections with sugary improvisations. For the youthful Denton audience, the jammy, sticky grooves motivated much swaying, syncopated clapping, arm-churning, jumping, head-nodding, hooting, howling and whooping. The kids recognized the gooey stuff when it came, singing along and yelping with pleasure. Amped, on high, they danced and roared.