At the penultimate stop of the first U.S. leg of the Immigrance tour, Snarky Puppy played to a large, receptive crowd at The Anthem in the nation’s capital. Michael League revealed that he grew up in the area (Fairfax County, to be exact), so this evening’s concert meant a lot to him. A special guest musician also comes out for “Xavi” towards the end of the set…who will it be?
Kite – The horns kick off the evening with their lush opening statement, backed by Justin Stanton on Fender Rhodes. Mike “Maz” Maher’s trumpet sounds lovely as usual, and Chris Bullock and Bob Reynolds are the saxophone dream team for the ages. Their combined sound is as rich and decadent as chocolate. Bobby Sparks adds some great flourishes on the organ and holds back the tempo on the descending melodic line shared with the horn section. Maz plays a silky solo with some descending chromatic bebop lines thrown in for good measure. Justin follows it up with a brief solo on the Rhodes, and it’s full of ingenious reharmonization and intriguing melodic ideas.
Embossed – Jason “JT” Thomas and Marcelo Woloski open this number with a spiffy syncopated percussion groove before Mark Lettieri slides in with the guitar melody. The horn section’s entrance is superb and each part blends exquisitely. Bobby’s aggressive Moog adds so much funk to this track. Mark plays a solo that sounds like it’s based on a Middle Eastern musical mode. He uses a lot of whammy bar for the final seconds before the horns re-enter. Bobby doubles the bassline on the clavinet and locks in with Michael. For the outro, he returns to the Moog and really milks it.
While We’re Young – We begin with Bobby’s clavinet melody over Michael and JT’s backbeat. Mark really bends the notes on his guitar. Zach Brock steps forward and plays a bluesy solo based on the underlying A major – B minor chord progression. I really enjoy hearing Zach craft a solo from a simple melodic idea or scale, and then work the violin into a frenzy until it’s practically sawdust. It’s always a thrill to hear him – or any member of Snarky Puppy – build a solo from scratch, and it goes just about as well as one would expect.
Tarova – This is the Metropole arrangement that was done frequently throughout the 2019 tour. Justin lays down the synth chords, and the percussionists cook up a sizzling, colorful groove. Bobby opens up with a very groovy organ solo (I’m guessing that he pulled out most, if not all of the drawbars), and then he lays waaaay back behind the beat during the opening melodic statement. The horns’ verse jumps out…again, having three horns and an amplified violin really spices up the Pups’ sound! Then Chris Bullock stretches out during his tenor sax solo. He utilizes every trick in the book: short stabs, sustained melismatic runs, growling lows, and piercing highs! At one point, everyone drops out and he lowers his volume without losing any momentum or flubbing notes. Bullock’s bright sound really cuts through, and his solos are always awesome to experience! Marcelo puts a bow on it with a quick percussion solo centered around his timbales, crashers, cowbells, and bombo. Michael welcomes the crowd amidst thunderous applause and thanks Jose James for opening.
Bigly Strictness – Mark kicks things off with the chromatic guitar riff. Once again, the horns come on strong. Bobby fires up the Castlebar clavinet and really bends the notes. Then Maz blows on his “Hendrix-trumpet” and leaps between guttural lows and ear-splitting highs, just like Bullock did in the previous tune. For the final solo, Bob Reynolds takes his time before unleashing a dazzling flurry of notes. Another great example of how to craft a solo: Bob creates a single spark, which leads to two, then eight, and then a massive fireball. He also leaves appropriate spaces in between notes or phrases so as not to overstate himself. Way to go, Bob!
Bad Kids to the Back – A very tight rendition! Mark uses a percussive chopping style with what sounds like a phaser. He, Michael, JT, and Bobby mesh together effortlessly like chemical bonds. After the horns sing, Bobby solos on Hammond organ. Like his compadres, he builds from sparse notes to wailing runs. Mark and Zach play the dual lead and then the horns open up. Then everybody clears a path for JT, who delivers a bone-jarring drum solo with sparse, syncopated accompaniment.
Palermo – Listening more closely, I hear simultaneous duple and triple meter in this track…there’s a slight ambiguity but that’s what makes it awesome! The horns seem to be reinforcing duple, but Marcelo’s groove could be felt in either 4 or 6. After Maz’s opening melody, Mark plays a blazing solo. Starting with a pentatonic motif, the solo erupts into a full-fledged shred-fest! Then Marcelo bends time and space with his percussive stylings as the crowd claps a rhythm based on the Argentinean chacarera.
Xavi – Michael League introduces a guest musician, Kinobe! He plays the akogo, also known as mbira or kalimba. Then Michael teaches the crowd how to clap the 4-over-3 polyrhythm in preparation for “the boss-level palm challenge.” After the opening with Chris Bullock on flute, Zach breaks down the walls with a crazy wah-effected violin solo. Next, Kinobe gets his moment in the spotlight and goes to town with some cool pentatonic licks to the crowd’s delight. After the mellow interlude, Justin turns up the heat with a succinct but jam-packed Rhodes solo. Finally, the crowd claps the 4-over-3 polyrhythm over the wild outro. Michael is pleased at the end: “Yes, D.C.!”
Sleeper – After Justin lays down the renowned Rhodes chords, Bobby steps up to play the lead…not on Moog, but on the Castlebar clavinet! For readers who don’t know, the Castlebar clavinet is essentially a keyboard with a whammy bar that produces a tremolo effect similar to an electric guitar. Needless to say, he goes absolutely nuts. I personally prefer hearing Shaun Martin’s talkbox lead on “Sleeper,” but Bobby’s clavinet lead adds a very unique twist nonetheless. Based on what I hear, Justin switches back and forth between synth and Rhodes…maybe he could be playing both at the same time! If so, mad props to him.
What About Me? – After the band introductions and a slight technical mishap/delay, Michael calls out to the lighting engineer, “Francis, we’re doing ‘What About Me?’” After the “slowed” opening, the band picks up the pace. Bob Reynolds freaks out on his tenor sax for a while and even travels to different tonal territory. JT drives everyone home with another short but sweet drum solo over the legendary bass/synth vamp.
This is a very, very good show. The solos are exceptional, and the guest musician adds another element of excitement. The crowd is feverishly excited for the old tunes AND the new ones as well. My selected standout tracks from this show would be “Kite,” “Tarova,” “Bad Kids to the Back,” “Palermo,” “Xavi,” and “Sleeper.”
- Michael League (bass & krakebs)
- Bob Reynolds (tenor sax)
- Chris Bullock (tenor sax, soprano sax, & flute)
- Mike “Maz” Maher (trumpet, flugelhorn, and vocals)
- Justin Stanton (keyboards & trumpet)
- Mark Lettieri (guitar)
- Zach Brock (violin), Bobby Sparks (keyboards)
- Marcelo Woloski (percussion)
- Jason “JT” Thomas (drums)
- 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.