The Boscov’s Berks Jazz Fest as presented by Berks Arts Council always showcases a wide variety of musical genres, but the 27th edition running March 31 through April 9 takes that to an even greater level with the appearance of Snarky Puppy on Sunday, April 2, at 6 p.m. at the Santander Performing Arts Center in downtown Reading.
Snarky Puppy is an improbably successful maximalist, stylistically unbound instrumental funk band that has won three Grammy Awards, the latest the 2017 Grammy for Culcha Vulcha in the Best Contemporary Instrumental Album category.
Snarky Puppy is the jumbo-sized brainchild of bassist/composer Michael League, who shepherds a shifting collection of three-dozen musicians, referred to as The Fam,” playing a variety of instruments including guitar, piano, keyboard, woodwinds, brass, percussion and strings.
Crossing several genres of music, League describes Snarky Puppy as “a pop band that improvises a lot, without vocals.” Snarky Puppy eloquently and gracefully blends various streams of sound, navigating the modern jazz fusion frontier with searing energy and fluid ease. One of the more versatile groups on the planet plays a virtuosic, high-energy blend of jazz, funk, hip-hop and more.
The last few years have brought dramatic changes for Snarky Puppy. After a decade of relentless touring and recording in all but complete obscurity, the Texas-bred/New York-based quasi-collective suddenly found itself held up by the press and the public as one of the major figures in the jazz world.
But as the category names for both of the band’s Grammy Awards would indicate (Best R&B Performance in 2014 for the track “Something” along with Lalah Hathaway and Best Contemporary Instrumental Album in 2016 for Sylva, a collaboration with the Dutch Metropole Orchestra), Snarky Puppy isn’t exactly a jazz band. It’s not exactly a fusion band and it’s not exactly a jam band. Rather, it’s a unique, one-of-a-kind band. It’s a Snarky Puppy band.
To the extent that Snarky Puppy has a core sonic idea, it’s an intricate melody over a multifaceted groove, as generated by multiple horn players, multiple guitarists, multiple keyboardists and multiple percussionists. It gathers ideas openly and avidly from all over the world and throughout the Afro-American popular music continuum, blending freely.
Snarky Puppy has grown a rabid fan base of depth and diversity: young and old, jazz people and lay people, black and white.
At its core, the band represents the convergence of both black and white American music culture with various accents from around the world. Japan, Argentina, Canada, the United Kingdom, and Puerto Rico all have representation in the group’s membership. But more than the cultural diversity of the individual players, the defining characteristic of Snarky Puppy’s music is the joy of performing together in the perpetual push to grow creatively.
With every new project and with every show they play, Snarky Puppy hopes to do something it’s never done before.
The prolific group released two albums in 2016.
Family Dinner, Volume 2 is an eclectic, unclassifiable jazz/funk/global collective recorded live in New Orleans that features an astonishing list of musicians from around the world, including Susana Baca, Charlie Hunter, Salif Keita, Laura Mvula, David Crosby, and an all-star group of Big Easy players including Ivan Neville and Terence Blanchard. Snarky Puppy proves to be an expert backing band showcasing all those stars.
The band then released its Culcha Vulcha album, it’s first true studio record in many years with no studio audience or guest star collaborators. Returning to its roots as an instrumental ensemble, the group spent a week in the middle of a pecan orchard at the remote sonic Ranch Studios in Tomillo, Texas, just a five-minute walk from the Mexican border.
With no cameras, no audience, and the opportunity to overdub, they crafted an album much darker and moodier than any before it. The typical flash and bombastic moments that Snarky Puppy is known for have been replaced by a more patient, restrained, and sonically creative approach to both composition and performance.