Snarky Puppy brings sweet fusion to the SF Jazz Center

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Snarky Puppy at the SF Jazz Center Aug. 9.

By Paul Kenyon Krantz

While hordes of people were packed into Golden Gate Park for Outside Lands Aug. 9, the all-American quasi-collective known as Snarky Puppy made the walls of the SF Jazz Center made ring with their particular frequencies of jazzy, instrumental fusion.

It had been a long day, one in which Snarky Puppy set a personal record by playing a total of four shows in 24 hours. The shows were split between three venues; they started the day in San Jose and closed out the night with two back-to-back sets at the SF Jazz Center. Despite how tired the band members must’ve been, their riffs kept the audience on the edge of their seats, literally leaning forward to watch the band members' hands and mouths make music.

Beyond the awe-inspiring amount of technical skill SP demonstrates, what makes their live show special is their brotherly presence on stage. It comes through in their interactions, like when Cory Henry shouted, “Take your time” at guitarist Bob Lanzetti, as he began a long, soulful solo. Or when the two keyboardists of the evening — Cory Henry, in bronze-rimmed glasses, and Mike Maher, with sunglasses hanging from his shirt — battled it out on stage, taking turns trying to out do each other with ever faster riffs, until their fingers were twirling so quickly through the notes that it felt like the whole room was flying through space.

Or in the middle of each song, when they’d really start to get into it. The band’s composer and bassist Michael League bobbed with a coy smile while Mike Maher rolled his head around as if he was sniffing a glass of wine, and the guitarists had practically become the strings they were playing. Corey Henry started to clap, and the horn players’ cheeks were puffed out to nearly full capacity, and Robert Seawright was smiling like he was the definition of happiness from behind his drum set, and percussionist Nate Werth was shaking a hand as if to signify “it’s okay.” Then suddenly what had seemed to be a runaway train of never-ending rhythm fell off a cliff, and a split second of silence was filled by someone in the audience shouting, “YEAH!” before the rest of the song dropped over everyones’ heads like chains shattering around the room.

All of this to say that the members of SP demonstrate of level of intimacy that can only be explained by the fact that many of the band members met in college, and have since spent roughly a decade touring and playing music together.

Sometime between the middle and the end of their first set at the SF Jazz Center, Michael League made the audience groan by announcing that this would be the “last tune of the show.” Then he clarified, “It’s okay, cause it’s 46 minutes long,” and the groans were replaced by cheers. Already, anticipation of the last song hung like static in the air around the room, with many of the audience members knowing which song was coming.

SP recently was awarded a Grammy for “best R&B performance” with Lalah Hathaway, but they are still in the process of garnering attention from mainstream listeners. Hence the creation of “Lingus,” the catchiest tune from their latest album, We Like It Here.

Michael League said onstage that the song was his attempt at writing the SP version of a dubstep song, adding that it was named after an airline on which he had been riding when he composed the song — while an obnoxious fellow passenger drank beer after beer in the seat next to him and left a pile of cans by his feet.

The fact that the track isn’t in the right time signature for dubstep, as League pointed out, makes it all the more impressive that the influence of computer-generated music comes through on a song played entirely on live instruments. As the song began and the horns came in, lurking behind the beat like a secret agent, I closed my eyes to take it in and, had I not known better, I might’ve imagined that the sounds I was hearing were the result of Beats Antique pairing up with Miles Davis’s band. Sweet fusion, indeed.