Snarky Puppy, the multiple Grammy Award-winning funky jazz fusion jam band collective that defies definition, brought down the sold-out house of The State Theatre in Kalamazoo Friday night in a Gilmore Keyboard Festival performance that kicked off what promises to be a wildly successful summer tour.
The Brooklyn-based group, led by bass guitarist Michael League, was formed in the early 2000s while students at the University of North Texas. Snarky Puppy has shifted and changed over the years, and from performance to performance and album to album with any number of more than 40 musicians joining the jam du jour.
On Friday night, nine musicians, including League; three horn players; two keyboardists who played at least six different keyboards, from a Fender Rhodes electric piano to a Prophet 6 to a Nord Stage 2; two percussionists who played every drum, cymbal, maraca, bell, chime imaginable; and a rocking lead guitarist who made his made-in-Kalamazoo Heritage guitar wail and scream, jammed, grooved, and otherwise filled the beautiful, intimate State Theatre, an ideal venue for this kind of funky party, with an overwhelming and eclectic horn- and keyboard-driven set that sounded both old and new at once.
The vibrations ran high Friday, with each of the stellar musicians taking turns with bold virtuoso improvisations amid the collective grooves that built in energy like a freight train. The horn section, including Michael “Maz” Maher and Jay Jennings on trumpet, and Chris Bullock on tenor sax and flute, beautifully punctuated each lingering song, sometimes with turbo speed, and other times slowing and chilling things down with their precise playing.
With rhythms that ranged in inspiration, from Calypso to Middle Eastern to Latin to New Orleans Street bands, their sound, at turns, swelled with influences from the past to create music uniquely their own that begs to be experienced live — where you literally feel it thump in your body.
Though Snarky Puppy’s discography includes 12 albums since 2006 with a new one due out this fall, the way they listen, groove, improvise and create an astonishingly high-energy, foot-stomping, hand-clapping, head-bobbing wall of sound cannot be captured on a recording, even one produced with a live audience.
It wasn’t the first time Snarky Puppy played Kalamazoo, but it was a far grander, more responsive crowd than the handful of folks who showed up in 2011 at dive club Papa Pete’s down the street, League intimated from the stage. And by the time Snarky Puppy returned for their encore of “Shofuken” from their 2014 album “We Like It Here,” the audience was hooting, hollering and whirling at such a feverish pitch, they took to the aisles for ecstatic dancing — no doubt a first for this year’s Gilmore Festival.
All the musicians clearly fed off the energy and gave it back in kind. League, who at one point appeared to dance the bachata with his bass guitar, seemed especially amused by the audience members who woofed like a dog and yelled out “We love you!”
“We love you back,” League cried out. And everyone in the room felt it to be true.