By Mike Finkelstein
On Thursday night in a Center for the Art of Performance concert at Royce Hall, Snarky Puppy and Kneebody played a sold out show of what might best be called jazz fusion or simply eclectic music, though trying to label music is probably not a great idea. Still, both units had a similar approach and sound and it made for a good match on the bill. And would you believe, both acts were greeted with the enthusiasm one usually sees for rock ‘ n rollers and pop stars? The audience was clearly familiar with the material and from the moment the lights went down people were pumped up for both sets.
The evening began about half an hour behind schedule with parking traffic outside as thick as molasses, coupled with a similarly long line of ticket holders to enter Royce. But, by the time Kneebody came out to open the show, every one was happily in place, and primed to receive. The anticipation hung in the air for this show.
In the fusion medium one sure thing is that there won’t be much, if any, singing to speak of. The tunes aren’t sung, but in the absence of lyrics and a voice to deliver them, they are advanced by stellar musicianship, and precision changes in tempo and texture. In a musical world that sees most of the focus on guitars, fusion is a place where bands often carve their identities without guitars. That was largely true Thursday.
Kneebody is a 5-piece band with only one stringed instrument, the bass, in their lineup. But they do have Ben Wendel (sax), Shane Endsley (trumpet), and Adam Benjamin (keyboards) to mix things up. They used delay units and a good sense of dynamics to keep the music fresh from moment to moment. In fact, they had a nicely authentic early 70’s sound. This may have been due in part to the prominent voice of Benjamin’s Fender Rhodes. Many of the band’s textures evoked 70’s prog bands like Gentle Giant, early Genesis, and the Soft Machine. While nobody in the band blew the doors off with any one solo, the band instead took us for a nice ride with their dynamics and by regularly changing a tune’s atmosphere.
With the absence of a guitar out front of the mix, the horns had room to experiment and play off one other. In 2015 we are some 40 years past the 70’s. But bassist Kaveh Rastegar took advantage of the advances in bass effects technology, and his bass sound evokes a lot of the mid range of an electric guitar. He also went in and out of guitar mode to let the bass growl and hum as needed. And, Rategar was also a pretty funny guy when filling us in on the band’s background and the program of tunes. He even threw in a Rich Karlis (the Bronco’s barefoot kicker) reference for those in the know.
Drummer Nate Wood also turned in an animated performance in the vein of a light touch jazz drummer. Though he used sticks and not brushes, his accents were subtle and even golden, providing a refreshingly light contrast to some of the heavier changes in the tunes.
Snarky Puppy is on a rising curve. They won a Grammy Award last year for Best R & B Performance and this year has been very busy for them. They played over 200 dates in 2014, and were headed to Japan Friday morning. In LA their path of venues is telling – from the Mint, to the Troubador, to the Hollywood Bowl for the Playboy Jazz Festival, and headlining Royce Hall. They actually have a rotation of players they use to keep up with the demands of their tour schedule.
Their set was a crisper sounding production than that of Kneebody. The horns in particular were remarkably brighter. Same basic instruments, but a different mix through the PA made for much clearer sound. For wind instruments that’s crucial.
Snarky Puppy went with a 3 piece horn section on Thursday. They swelled, muted, and flowed with impressive ease, of course, but could these guys ever solo! … and in the end, that’s what people were waiting for. The Puppies did not disappoint, either. In particular, Jay Jennings, who was just joining the tour and heading to Japan, took several choice intricate and articulate trumpet solos.
The onstage dynamics between drummer Robert “Sput” Searight and both Mike Maher on trumpet and keyboardist Shaun Martin were the highlights of the evening. What we got to see was musical communication on a very high level. Searight had a separate musical dialogue with both players. He would speed up and slow down, get loud and soft, and each nuance and tempo shift of his was heard and responded to. Searight simply drew the best out of the guys in his band, and they drew it out of him. Shaun Martin started the evening subdued at his B-3 organ but by the end of the evening he let it all hang out, and Searight certainly pushed him towards that musical euphoria.
Oddly enough the leader of Snarky Puppy, Michael League, had his bass nearly submerged in the mix. He played interesting lines and accents all night, and he grimaced like a rock n roller might. But it didn’t sound nearly as clear as, say, those horns just to his right did. Because this genre of music is so much about the playing, one has to reflect on where these guys got such amazing chops and the ears to guide them. Of course, they were born with the aptitude and refined it impressively in conservatories, and that is a beautiful thing. The resources for becoming a strong and inspired instrumentalist are there. Being active in music education is a large part of what Snarky Puppy does away from touring and recording. They give back what they got on their way up. But for the night, we left feeling lucky to have caught two rising stars in the field at a perfect venue for this sort of thing. It was an electric couple of hours.