This is a remarkable show for two reasons. First, all five Snarky Puppy horn players are present and accounted for: Chris, Maz, Justin, Jay, and Bob! This intensifies the horn line’s sound, especially on tunes like “Embossed,” “Bad Kids to the Back,” and “Tio Macaco.” Second, four special guests appear. That’s right: FOUR. In total, fifteen musicians performed onstage at the Orpheum Theatre, not including Roosevelt Collier and his band as the opening act. Other than the occasional featured duo or ensemble (Metropole Orkest, Väsen, Dafjen Music), there aren’t many times where the number of musicians in a Snarky Puppy concert was greater than ten. A star-studded night to remember!
Even Us – We begin with the somber opening led by Mark Lettieri on guitar and Justin Stanton on piano. Bobby Sparks’s wavering organ creeps through before Zach Brock delivers the poignant violin melody. The drums-and-percussion accompaniment is sparse but it’s just the right thing for this tune. Then we get a nice horn solo from (I assume) Jay Jennings. He plays some wandering lines before he explores the full range of the instrument. Towards the end, Jay slips in a fast lick that could have been lifted straight from Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Flight of the Bumblebee.” Justin and Mark end the tune in tandem in the same way that they started it.
Embossed – Nate Werth and Jason “JT” Thomas start with a tight groove. Mark plays the melody on slide guitar and works the tremolo. Thanks to the beefed-up horn section, the melody and harmony jump right out of the speakers. During the solo, Mark does what he was born to do and shreds the guitar to pieces! He utilizes several nifty effects that almost make his guitar sound like a synthesizer…incredible! But in the end, Mark’s guitar is too high in the mix and the keyboards and bass are too low.
Tarova – After Justin plays the opening to the Metropole Orkest arrangement, Bobby delivers the goods over the opening vamp. His organ prowess is on full display here! Eventually he adjusts the drawbars for a different sound. To cap it off, Bobby plays the melody so far behind the beat that he nearly travels back in time to the previous day. After the horns wail, Mike “Maz” Maher steps up to the plate and homers with a wah-effected trumpet solo. In an interesting move, he hits some high notes right away before sticking with the G-minor blues scale in a lower range. And he ends with a sustained G# – the sharp 9th of the scale! Wow! I will go on record and say that Maz’s solos are some of my favorites because of the lyrical phrases, his bright tone, and the special effects (wah, pickup, etc).
While We’re Young – After the head (with Bobby leading on clavinet), Justin cooks on the Fender Rhodes. As usual, he challenges the listeners’ – and the band’s – ears with some spectacular reharmonization. It’s always nice to hear Justin solo because we can really hear the bebop and fusion influences (Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, George Duke, Joe Zawinul) in his playing. The rhythm section adds some tasteful comping – shout-out to Nate and JT for some unobtrusive playing.
GØ – JT segues directly from “While We’re Young” into a drum solo based on the afoxê groove. After the first verse and chorus, Chris Bullock wails on tenor sax. He develops his solo from a single-note motif into a showcase of wild licks. Then the baton gets handed off to Reverend Bobby and his almighty clavinet. And Lord, does Bobby rip it apart! Finally, Mark writes the exclamation mark with a thrilling solo that reminded me of Joe Perry of Aerosmith. It’s technical, brash, and funky…just how Perry would like it! The tune fades out as Justin and Bobby tinker with their keyboards. Once again, I will go on record here: “GØ” has my favorite solo vamp of any Snarky Puppy tune: the middle section in C minor gives way to G minor here, and it’s brilliant. It opens up so many opportunities for tonal exploration. I also like the staccato rhythm of the bassline too.
Bad Kids to the Back – Michael welcomes the crowd in a hilariously awkward way before deciding to shut up and play. After the first verse and chorus (and a few bars of the horn chorus get lost in the mix), Bob Reynolds opens up for a while and he plays some amazing runs on his saxophone. I believe that Bob has an incredibly lyrical style…he truly tells stories through his playing! He leaves plenty of space where he deems necessary before gradually upping the ante. Finally, JT gets another drum solo and really goes to town with some stuttering beats and rumbling fills.
Bigly Strictness – Bobby plays a freaky Minimoog solo with lots of modulation, pitch, and filter effects…I wonder if he made any contact with his home planet? Next, Maz goes wild on his souped-up Hendrix trumpet (with a pickup on the mouthpiece). It’s awesome to hear Maz channel his inner guitar hero – Clapton, Page, Beck, Satriani – through an uncommon rock instrument. After things soften up, Zach Brock finally gets his two cents in with a brilliant violin solo full of resonant lows and screeching highs.
Tio Macaco – After Michael says hello to his grandmother and aunt in attendance, he introduces three special guests who were all drummers with Snarky Puppy: Mike Mitchell, TaRon Lockett, and the great Robert “Sput” Searight of Ghost-Note. Together with Nate and JT, they lay down a driving groove on hand drums, timbales, micro-snare, tambourines, and drum set. After three minutes, Chris enters with the flute melody. Jay, Bob, Chris, Maz, and Justin all take great solos while Mark, Michael, and Bobby form the tonal bedrock. Then it’s the moment of truth: the percussion section completely annihilates the solo spot for seven glorious minutes. It is an ear-splitting symphony of drums, cowbells, and cymbals…“Drumageddon,” if you will. Because I don’t have any video footage, I can’t tell who played what…but it’s still amazing nonetheless. After the final crashes die off, the crowd cheers so loudly that the roof nearly flies off the theatre!
Lingus – As soon as Justin plays the opening lick on the Rhodes, the audience goes nuts. After the horns trade fours, Jay Jennings takes a rare flugelhorn solo! Needless to say, he crushes it. Jay is one of those cats who can play with deliberate finesse and balls of steel at the same time…it’s truly bewildering and jaw-dropping. Mark and Bobby drop in a funky E minor riff in the background.
Xavi (Encore) – Michael introduces the band and teaches the polyrhythmic clapping lesson…and then without any warning, he invites Cory Henry onto the stage. The audience loses it. Total euphoria. The cheering lasts for a full thirty seconds. After the chorus, Zach turns up the heat with a gritty, wah-effected violin solo. Cory follows with an absolutely scorching organ solo. Not easy, especially given the complex vamp. But of course, he nails it because he’s Cory freaking Henry. Bobby must’ve been smiling like a proud papa. After a huge round of applause from the crowd, the rhythm section takes the reins on the 4-over-3 section, and Chris resumes the melody on soprano sax. Then Justin plays a jaunty solo on the Fender Rhodes…this entire solo section has a very Weather Report-type feel to it. Finally, the band plays the outro along with the crowd’s clapping. As the Orpheum crowd roars, Michael reintroduces all the band members and special guests before saying goodnight.
FINAL THOUGHTS: Despite some minor mixing goofs on a couple of tracks, this performance is amazing! The energy is super-high, the Pups are definitely enjoying themselves, and the special guests make this concert extra special. And any concert with Cory Henry automatically gets high marks in my book. That guy is something else! This is a recording that you should get your hands on if you can overlook two small mixing issues on “Embossed” and “Bad Kids to the Back.” My selected standout tracks from this show would be “While We’re Young,” “GØ,” “Bigly Strictness,” “Tio Macaco,” and “Xavi.
- Zach Brock: violin
- Bob Reynolds: saxophone
- Chris Bullock – tenor sax, flute, and alto flute
- Jay Jennings – trumpet
- Mike “Maz” Maher – trumpet and flugelhorn
- Justin Stanton – trumpet and keyboards
- Bobby Sparks – keyboards
- Mark Lettieri – guitar
- Michael League – bass
- Jason “JT” Thomas – drums
- Nate Werth – percussion
- Robert Sput Searight, Taron Lockett and Mike Mitchell on Tio Macaco
- Cory Henry on Xavi
- Matt Recchia – engineering and sound (front of house)
- Michael Harrison – monitors
- Nic Hard – mixing
About the Reviewer
Hi! I’m Doug, and I really love Snarky Puppy. I first learned about this supergroup in 2014 when some college friends introduced me to their albums Groundup, Family Dinner Volume 1 and We Like It Here. I was amazed by the caliber of talent and how all the parts (melody, harmony, rhythm, and accompaniment) came together seamlessly.
Then on July 31, 2015 my family and I went to the Newport Jazz Festival. Snarky Puppy was one of the featured artists along with Christian McBride, Chris Botti, Arturo Sandoval, the Maria Schneider Orchestra, Jon Faddis, Lucky Peterson, Kneebody, and Jon Batiste & Stay Human. Over the course of ninety minutes, Snarky Puppy played a lot of material from WLIH, including the ultra-popular “Lingus.”
I was absolutely awestruck by the infectious grooves, the wild jazz harmonies, and the mind-blowing solos that each band member took. That performance changed my life. Although it is still the only Snarky Puppy concert I have attended, it certainly won’t be my last. I hope to see them perform in the United States very soon, once things start to open up in greater capacity after COVID-19.