On tape there's something eloquent, even graceful about how Denton-formed Snarky Puppy blend various streams of sound. A great deal of these recordings capture the group in a live environment, reflecting the searing energy and fluid ease with which these artists navigate the modern (jazz) fusion frontier. It's what has made them so exciting, on both a regional and national scale. It's also why there was a line wrapped around the block last night at the Prophet Bar. Everyone wanted a glimpse of the shiny beast live. To see and hear its majestic movements in the flesh.
The night started off magnificently. Opener Banda Magda was endlessly charming and refreshingly diverse. Wearing an apple red dress, with an accordion draped upon her shoulders, the wildly charismatic Magda (her sensual, knotted English could charm a stuck bull) began the set with a slithering ethno-gypsy number that sounded like Beirut doing tango. The performance danced about various world music touchstones: Greek, Brazilian, Argentinean and French, while never settling for pastiche. It was thoroughly tasteful and masterfully executed from start to finish. From space odyssey guitar to a flurry of Rhodes piano play, Magda and her Banda put on a rhythmically illustrious show that was nothing short of inspirational.
See also: Snarky Puppy are a Delight
Then there was an intermission, and soon the Prophet Bar was full. The audience was one of the most diverse I've seen at a Dallas show. You were as likely to see suits as street-wear. There were even a few suspender-clad fellas in the mix. There was a sense that half the crowd were music theory and ethnomusicology majors. As expected, the UNT students were out in full force. The tension was palpable -- a rumbling, small-talk groan --- and when the lights dimmed, whispers were exchanged for fevered chatter. A collection of horns with drizzles of hazy-edged string tones started things off for Snarky Puppy. There were an unusual number of band members standing around on stage, bantering. This would persist for the entire two hours. It was a worrisome omen.
I thought this assignment would be a breeze. After all, a colleague in London relayed that "wherever they go, they dependably blow off the roof." Experiences like that tend to write themselves. Unfortunately, the roof stayed fully intact.
Showy, cheesy and routined, Snarky Puppy were unconvincing from start to finish. There was no creativity on stage: Notes were carried like anchors and originality was nowhere in sight. There was no heat, no pulse, no sex, no life, just sounds that you've heard before (maybe in a commercial or elevator), and a stage presence that was plastic and overtly theatrical. You didn't have to be a connoisseur or a jazz purist to see it either. Technical know-how will tell you nothing about a performance's quality, but your nerves and gut will. My nerves said they were both wrecked and under-stimulated. My gut told me to drink 15 more beers, anything to distract me from the scarecrow circus that played out on stage.
Whereas a lot of jam music in this vein leans on one or more grooves, breaking every so often to highlight a single performer, Snarky Puppy's set was little more than a series of bombastic solos carried on a sea of bobbing heads, roaming hips and goofy smiles. The group seemed more interested in maintaining their showmanship and exhibiting the number of instruments they had managed to pack on stage than on creating any sort of engaging instrumental interplay. The sections seemed to run in parallel, never truly interacting with another. All manner of sophistication was lost in this rigid execution.
The back end of the set was considerably better. There were a number of Kosmische-tinted chill-out interludes that waded somewhere in the realm of nu-jazz. Snarky Puppy seemed more poker-faced throughout these lyrically superior sections, though even here, at their boldest, they were little more than borrowers -- sounding much like London three-piece Troyka on a sleepy day.
Where were Snarky Puppy last night? Where was the band that's famed for igniting spirits and breathing fire into jazz fusion all over again, the guys who earned a sea of overwhelmingly celebratory ink and a lot of stunned converts in the process? What I witnessed was a classic case of going through the motions, lukewarm through and through. At their most fierce, the band sounded like gutless Bitches Brew B-sides; at their most languid, they sounded like soundtrack music fit to background all the blurry romance scenes in your parents' VHS collection. With sap like that, it's no wonder our folks needed Viagra.
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This the kind of ornate, emotionally vacant junk that's contributing to the dispiriting sameness that's been choking the life out of jazz for the last 30 years. The whole time, Snarky Puppy carried on like a big-budget movie that goes nowhere. They had all the tools but they never seemed to take off. These guys are much too young and much too talented to be re-cooking the same well-worn "improvisations," the way they did yesterday. Their concert was one big reminder that technical proficiency does not a good performance make.
These guys won a Grammy and no one can take that away from them. But if any art, any music, no matter how affable or renowned its purveyors, doesn't break something loose, move those gears inside your soul that grasp at the meanings of heart and emotions and inspiration, then it's useless, a waste of your time.
Tonight a band called Snarky Puppy are playing. They are a waste of your time.