by Nick Stubblefield
It seems unconventional for the Brooklyn-based jazz collective Snarky Puppy to play at Carnegie Hall, but Snarky Puppy isn’t a conventional band. When I walked into Carnegie’s Stern Auditorium last week, an usher handed me a tie-dyed bandana embroidered with “The 60s: The Years that Changed America.” The night’s program was part of a concert series this year throughout New York that honors social justice and protest in America. With their history of frequent collaborations with artists from many musical and ethnic backgrounds, Snarky Puppy were the perfect hosts for an evening celebrating protest, peace, and unity.
Michael League, Snarky’s bandleader, chief composer, and bassist, stood front and center. The band, consisting of drums, a smorgasbord of auxiliary percussion, keyboards, guitar, and horns, managed to comfortably fill a stage mostly known for accommodating concert orchestras. The group’s musical style proudly defies classification. There were elements of bebop, Latin-American styles, and African-American gospel in the music, but Snarky’s purposeful blurring of musical boundaries is largely what defines the group’s sound. As the stylings and textures ebbed and flowed throughout their all-instrumental mini-set, there were ever-shifting variations in timbre that kept the music engaging. Multi-instrumentalist Justin Stanton alternated between a trumpet and a vintage Fender Rhodes, shredding equally skilled bebop-inspired jazz improvisations on each.
Just as Snarky’s music reflects a range of musical heritage, so did the night’s special guests. League acted as M.C., with brief introductions and light banter. Each musical guest entered independently in a seemingly random order, took the lead on the following tune, then remained on stage for the program’s duration. British singer-songwriter Laura Mvula sang with her trademark slow, lush, and moody vocals. Folk-rocker David Crosby, a big draw for the older crowd, did not receive special headliner treatment as expected, but instead took a backseat for much of the program. He belted with startling power on protest classics like “For What It’s Worth” and had the audience quickly singing (read: yelling) along. I even smelled a little protest in the air at one point — despite the fact that pot smoke and Carnegie Hall mix like oil and water.
The starkly contrasting energy between each guest was delightful to behold. New-grasser Chris Thile shined on bluesy numbers with powerful vocals and genre-bending mandolin picking, all while gyrating to and fro like a marionette puppet gone haywire. His energy was goofy and infectiously enthusiastic. Fatoumata Diawara delivered a percussive call-to-action for unity in Mali, while dancing around the stage, flipping her braided hair, and even dancing face to face with the far more introverted Laura Mvula. By the end, she had the audience on their feet and clapping.
In a politically divisive time in the country, during a cold and isolating time of year, great music can inspire, rejuvenate, and re-energize the people that need it the most. I’m glad Snarky Puppy and friends were up to the task.