As if Snarky Puppy’s roster wasn’t stacked enough, they found two other musicians to join them for the show at Batschkapp. Who were they? Some relatively up-and-coming musicians by the names of Chris Potter and Eric Harland….
PSYCH! Chris and Eric are undoubtedly two of jazz’s living legends. Chris Potter is one of the greatest saxophonists to walk the face of the earth, and Eric Harland is a dynamic drummer who’s collaborated with McCoy Tyner, Wynton Marsalis, Charles Lloyd, Joshua Redman, Dave Holland, Julian Lage, Joe Henderson, Kurt Rosenwinkel, and Zakir Hussain among others. The entire two-hour performance is sensational, but the final three tunes with Potter and Harland are truly transcendent…it’s so effortless that it almost feels like a casual jam session that 2,000 people were invited to watch. Michelle Willis was the opening act. A bonus video will be linked at the end of this review.
Intelligent Design – Now THIS is interesting! I’ve never heard “Intelligent Design” in the opening spot before…and to be honest, it doesn’t work for me. Personally I prefer slower tunes at the start. After Justin Stanton’s opening Prophet synth chords (and some extra downward pitch-bend), the band launches into the first melody. I hear Chris Bullock, Mike “Maz” Maher, Zach Brock, Chris McQueen, and Bobby Sparks all playing the melody together. The violin/horn section sings with confidence, and the percussion section of Jason “JT” Thomas and Keita Ogawa pushes the tempo along steadily. Maz takes the first solo and develops some cool ideas. For most of the time, he stays in the middle & lower range of the trumpet before climbing higher and going haywire with some crazy melodic runs. The band restates the melody and Shaun Martin adds some wild Moog fills. As the second vamp proceeds, Chris McQueen steps up and concocts a moody guitar solo. The first portion is high-pitched and almost ambient, and then it takes a bluesy turn. McQueen starts churning out more and more notes until he concludes with a power chord-inspired hemiola pattern. Next, Keita Ogawa gets an extended solo on his percussion rig. Keita goes with a colorful polyrhythmic approach by using metallic instruments with very interesting tones and timbres. Finally, the other members replay the melody and march on to the frantic outro.
While We’re Young – Michael League, JT, and Bobby kick this track off with a solid bass/drums groove and clavinet melody. Even at this slow tempo, it’s insanely funky. Bobby converses with the violin/horn section before McQueen and Zach double down on the melody. After the chorus, Zach Brock goes off on the violin. It sounds like he starts with some pizzicato, a musical term for plucking the strings. Then he uses his bow to make magic! He unleashes a flurry of precise double stops and astounding melodic runs. It’s a mesmerizing display of jazz vocabulary and masterful technique. The Pups continue with the horn section’s shout-chorus and the final outro, with McQueen’s guitar fills shining brightly. A standard version of this track.
Semente – Shaun Martin plays a fantastic piano intro with tons of superb modulations and lyrical melodies. He stretches out for four minutes and tosses in classical, gospel, and jazz-influenced patterns. Shaun even quotes his own composition, “The Yellow Jacket.” YOWZA! The fans cheer enthusiastically throughout the solo, and they let out a huge roar when “Semente” begins. Chris Bullock whips out the C flute while JT & Keita play a tight Brazilian baião backbeat. Bobby, Shaun, and Michael handle the chordal stabs; and the entire violin/horn section – with Justin on trumpet – delivers the melody with ease. McQueen adds some nice counterlines on the guitar. Bullock switches to the bass flute for the interlude before the solo vamp. Then Justin performs a rare trumpet solo. His dark, mellow sound is instantly recognizable to me. Justin crafts some heavily syncopated melodies full of amazing rhythms and bold note choices. After the recap & the percussion break, the band moves to the outro and fades out. Bobby’s organ lingers after everything else is gone.
Bigly Strictness – Chris McQueen, Michael League, Keita Ogawa, and JT Thomas floor it! This groove is sick in the best way imaginable. Justin, Shaun, and Bobby keep the boat afloat with some solid keyboard comping. The triple-threat combination of Prophet, Mellotron, and Hammond organ is simply fantastic. The violin/horn section locks into the first couple of verses. Then Bullock ignites on the octave-pedal saxophone. It’s a brief solo jam-packed with great licks and powerful altissimo. Next, McQueen tears it up like a savage. He tastefully utilizes the distortion and tremolo effects, and briefly plays in the parallel key of B-flat major against the B-flat minor vamp. It’s a ballsy display of raw blues energy and guitar-hero bravado. In the final solo section, Bobby takes over on the Hohner whammy-clavinet…and his keyboard acrobatics are nothing short of mind-boggling. Bobby uses a compressed wah-effect, and makes the clavinet sing! His technique, phrasing, and passion are truly unmatched. After a rousing ovation, Michael welcomes the German audience and thanks Michelle Willis for opening the show. Then he teaches the 4:3 polyrhythm clapping lesson to the audience. Michael makes several funny remarks that highlight his light-hearted but confident demeanor: “The 3-side is arguably more important, but the 4-side is funkier! So if you think you’re a very important person but not funky, maybe you should move over there…and vice-versa.”
Xavi – After the opening horn blasts, the rhythm section lays down the opening Moroccan groove. Chris Bullock plays the flute melody before Chris McQueen delivers the “spy theme.” The keyboards enter, and the violin/horn section plays the second verse. Solo 1: Zach whips it out with a moody, gritty wah-pedal violin solo. This one is quick, but it still has plenty of mojo! Solo 2 over the “minus one vamp”: Shaun wrecks it on the Moog synthesizer. He dials up an aggressive filter and wails away with some explosive chromatic runs and insane glides. Then the band drops out while the audience claps the 4:3 polyrhythm over Bullock’s solo flute melody. Solo 3: Justin powers through with a nice Fender Rhodes solo. It’s a tad low in the mix, but I still hear some incredible melodic passages and rhythmic patterns. After the final recap, the Pups hit the outro as the fans clap along with the polyrhythm. Michael praises the crowd’s clapping: “Very nice job, Frankfurt!”
Tarova – the opening synth chords get bent like a pretzel. JT provides a driving beat on the kick drum and stacks while Michael delivers the hefty bass line. Keita smashes his stacks on beats 2 and 4. Bobby and Shaun exchange pleasantries on the organ and talkbox, and it’s funky as hell. Shaun delivers some REALLY insane fills at 1:39-1:44 (a low pitch-bend) and 2:11-2:17 (possibly channeling his inner Eddie Van Halen). After the unison melody, the whole band jumps into the pool. The violin/horn section joins the keyboardists for the first full verse before the chorus. The tempo bounces along through the bridge. Next, Maz hollers on the wah-effected trumpet. He opts for sustained tones and longer melodic phrases in this solo. Maz and JT take a sixteen-bar spotlight for themselves before the Pups return and play the outro. Bobby bends the last clavinet chord and the audience loudly shows their appreciation.
What About Me? – Justin plays a cool Fender Rhodes intro. He plays a chord progression that shifts from G-minor (the key of “Tarova”) to E-minor (the key of “What About Me?”) and eventually Michael, JT, and Chris McQueen build up to the intro. Then the slowed verse arrives, and it oozes confidence and SWAG. Keita, Bobby, and Shaun hop on for the ride; and the violin/horn section doubles the guitar melody. The tempo picks up before the second verse. Bullock leads the transition into the chorus. Then Michael quickly introduces the band and invites “one of the baddest musicians on earth” onstage: Chris Potter! And believe me when I say this: Mr. Potter unleashes a ferocious musical tsunami that nearly makes the venue collapse in on itself. I could go on about how amazing this solo is, but words simply wouldn’t do it justice. So I’ll make it fairly quick: Mr. Potter works his tenor saxophone into a frenzy using altissimo, rapid chromatic runs, double-tonguing, and large leaps between notes. He stretches for nearly seven minutes before JT seals the deal with a ridiculous drum solo. JT plays some short, punchy stack hits and then delivers some bone-jarring drum rolls on the snare & toms. The outro goes off without a hitch, and the band wraps up a staggering 17-minute version of “What About Me.” The audience goes absolutely bananas and claps for more music. Michael comes back out and thanks the fans for coming. He also plugs Michelle Willis’s music, the “Live Snarky” website, and the GroundUp Music Festival. Finally, Michael invites another guest onstage – drummer extraordinaire Eric Harland! Interestingly, Eric played with Snarky Puppy in Essaouira, Morocco back in June 2018, but their tunes were rearranged specifically for the Gnawa musicians. Michael laughs, “So Eric doesn’t really know any of our songs…but he’s about to!”
Lingus (Encore 1) – Justin plays the Rhodes chords and the crowd loses it. JT has moved to Keita’s rig and he handles the mounted percussion while Keita slaps the congas. Shaun turns into the hypemaster as the violin/horn section delivers the first verse. The crowd sings along VERY loudly! McQueen gets a turn with the melody before the crowd sings along with the second verse. The rumba-clave vamp begins, and Eric Harland blows a hole in the roof with a monstrous drum solo. It’s polyrhythmic, dexterous, and dynamic. His technique is nothing short of masterful. Eric also inserts some metric modulations that really messed with my brain. The band does their call-and-response with the entire percussion section to close the tune! The last chords get held out for an eternity.
Quarter Master (Encore 2) – Snarky Puppy segues directly into a laid-back E-minor vamp right after “Lingus.” Bobby goes off on the clavinet. I think Eric stays behind the drum set but I’m not 100 percent sure. Then the band moves to a rearranged “slow-jam” rendition of this classic track from 2012’s GroundUp. The violin/horn section plays the melody MUCH slower than usual, and the groove simmers. Shaun gets the crowd to clap before the chorus. Chris Potter returns for another saxophone solo, and he kills it. It’s incredible how effortlessly he balances finesse with technique that’s more rough around the edges. Michael League and Bobby Sparks follow up with some funky showcases of their own. Yup, it’s a double-header of bass and clavinet solos! Michael has frequently called Bobby “the funkiest human on the planet,” but I’d argue that they’re equally talented and funky. After both musicians obliterate their axes, the band transitions to the outro. I’m amazed by how every single person onstage maintains the slow tempo with such high levels of energy and musicianship. Finally, everybody milks the last chords and the German fans flip out. They go totally batty, as they should after a 17-minute “Quarter Master” marathon. Michael thanks the crowd again and says goodnight: “Thanks for letting us mess around in front of you for a long time!”
It’s always a ride and a half whenever Snarky Puppy invites any of their esteemed peers – or idols – onstage. This is no exception. Chris Potter and Eric Harland are two giants of the jazz world, and they fit right into Snarky Puppy’s eclectic musical environment. I can’t wait for the day when Snarky Puppy resumes regular touring – it would be such a treat to see them perform with a guest musician in addition to their supporting acts! Which leads me to a special PSA: please support great jazz artists like Chris Potter and Eric Harland. And obviously, please support the lesser-known but equally gifted musicians such as Michelle Willis, Becca Stevens, Malika Tirolien, Cecile McLorin Salvant, Magda Giannikou, Roosevelt Collier, House of Waters, PRD Mais, and Forq. Buy their records and go to their shows if you can. After the devastating impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the music industry, live music is coming back and we need it more than ever. My selected standout tracks would be “Intelligent Design,” “Semente,” “Bigly Strictness,” “What About Me,” “Lingus,” and “Quarter Master.”
The full performance of “Lingus,” featuring Eric Harland on drums.
- Zach Brock – violin
- Chris Bullock – tenor sax, flute, and alto flute
- Mike “Maz” Maher – trumpet and flugelhorn
- Justin Stanton – trumpet and keyboards
- Shaun Martin – keyboards
- Bobby Sparks – keyboards
- Chris McQueen – guitar
- Michael League – bass
- Jason “JT” Thomas – drums
- Keita Ogawa – percussion
- Chris Potter on What About Me? and Quarter Master
- Eric Harland on Lingus and Quarter Master
- Michael Harrison – engineering and sound (front of house)
- Matt Recchia – monitors
- Neil Macintosh- mixing