A fitted crew neck sweater and scarf might evoke an air of jazzy inclination, but Snarky Puppy’s Michael League can also adeptly discuss his intricate technical knowledge of music composition like an old pro. During an intimate pre-show mentoring session at the Landmark Theatre Thursday May 5, the composer and bassist divulged snippets of his process for composing to a group of drooling fans and fellow musicians, including members from local funk group Casaroja. Cherie Yurco, editor of both Making Music Magazine and International Musician launched the session with a few questions before opening the floor to the young audience.
The clattering of equipment echoed throughout the extravagant, high ceiling theater, muffling League’s voice as he discussed the complexities of collaborating in a collective of over twenty rotating musicians. “It’s a lot of personalities,” he divulged with a thoughtful smile. But Snarky Puppy has a knack for attracting talented, down-to-earth musicians who are easy to work with, something League doesn’t take for granted. Regarding the success of Snarky Puppy, League paraphrased a Malcolm Gladwell quote suggesting, success is based not just on talent, but on circumstances, which for League breaks down to an assemblage of the right people at the right time. Despite an abundance of talent, Snarky Puppy was not an overnight success, spending nearly the first decade of its existence in the red. League explained humbly, “It’s hard to go to bed every night knowing you’re failing.” But a love of experimenting and playing with sound kept an ember glowing, which eventually ignited into the international success the band is today.
Aside from good chemistry, producing quality music is a function of truly understanding methodology of music composition. When asked about his writing process for “Flood,” League referred to himself as a “concept fiend,” offering a textbook response in the truest sense of the word. Where some musicians might disregard the cliched, blanket question with a humdrum and vague reply, League got real technical, real quick. Discussing dividing whole tones and cord progressions with no roots, he began to sound more like a mathematician than a musician. The explanation left many audience members wide eyed, mouths agape and reaching into their pockets for pen and paper to take note, an omen of things to come for Snarky Puppy’s impending performance.
Local funk group Sophistafunk opened the show, the four members aligned stage left on the vast platform, producing a heavy, heart pounding sound bigger than the sum of its parts. The recent addition of Tommy Weeks on saxophone heightened the sophistication of their grooves beyond what Jack Brown (vocals) Adam Gold (keys/bass/vocals) and Emanuel Washington (drums) have done in the past.
Gold took a moment between songs to praise the headliner, relishing in the honor of opening for the renowned group, beaming “We remember getting our faces melted right off our faces by Snarky Puppy.” Towards the end of their set, percussionist Nate Werth joined Sophistafunk with a snappy cowbell performance over Washington’s shoulder, who every so often glanced back at Werth, exchanging wide smiles.
The compelling, non-circular momentum of Snarky Puppy’s brand immediately took hold of the room as soon as the first notes were struck. Werth, relocated to the left rear, conjured his percussive effects from a vast arsenal of noise-making tools, keeping rhythm on a glistening metallic setup wobbling on stage with every beat. Joined by fellow percussionist Jason “JT” Thomas, Caleb McCampbell and Shaun Martin (keys), Justin Stanton (keys/trumpet), Jay Jennings and Michael “Maz” Maher (trumpet), Chris Bullock (sax/flute) and Bob Lanzetti (guitar), the ten-man lineup littered the room with musicianship that didn’t clutter the sound despite the hefty crew. Every instrument retained a right to be on stage, emitting purposeful sound and adding style. Even amidst the medley of notes, disciplined silences punctuated songs with a finessed restraint, demonstrating mastery of navigating crucial white space, allowing the audience short moments to catch their breath.
Leading the musical expedition, League remained hyper aware of every musician around him, maintaining eye contact with his peers, and smiling throughout the entire performance. His hearty grin exhibited not only a true pride for the talent of his band mates, but also the sheer joy of honing a craft and getting to do what he loves every single day. With two encores, both met with a standing ovation, it’s clear Snarky Puppy has made it.