The genre of jazz fusion has always been controversial. On one extreme you have jazz purists who feel electric instruments are a bastardization of what jazz is all about. On the other side are pioneers who feel that for jazz to progress forward it must embrace technology. This has been debated ever since Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock invented the genre. But if we take a step back and look at the big picture, we can see that this controversy is actually good for music lovers. It creates an environment of self-evaluation where each artist creates it’s own answer to the question, “What is jazz and what role should technology play?” But the answer to that question, it seems, varies from person to person.
If one were to draw a flow chart of jazz fusion, it would obviously include the greats like Miles, Herbie, Weather Report, Pat Metheny, Stanley Clarke, Chick Corea, Mahavishnu Orchestra, and the Yellowjackets. But how far towards mainstream genres can you go before it isn’t jazz anymore? Would that chart include rock bands that lean jazz like Steely Dan, Toto, or Aquarium Rescue Unit? Or pop instrumentalists like George Benson, Chuck Mangione and Kenny G? Does it include R&B jazzers like Stevie Wonder, Al Jarreau, or Marvin Gaye? (“What’s Goin’ On” contains many jazz elements.) Most would agree the line certainly would stop before you get to Yanni and John Tesh, but how far? At what point does it cease to become anything resembling jazz and it just instrumental pop?
It is in the context of this tension and controversy that all jazz fusion artists are evaluated. And the jazz community is relentless is their elitist classifications and dismissals. I, myself, tend to have a very dim view of any new release which sounds heavily sequenced and programmed with MIDI tracks and drum machines, or sounds like it follows the “smooth jazz radio” formula. Although I champion the use of electric instruments and synths, I still want the musicians to play LIVE and with each other – not by themselves and their computers. I am always on the lookout for bands that are true masters of their instruments, have great song ideas, and can play as a real ensemble.
Enter Snarky Puppy.
In case you’ve been living in a cave the past few years, Snarky Puppy is a Brooklyn-based instrumental fusion band led by Grammy Award-winning bassist, composer and producer Michael League. Formed in Denton, Texas in 2004, the band features a collective of nearly 40 musicians, referred to as “The Fam” on their recordings and tours. The musicians perform on a variety of instruments including guitars,pianos, keyboards, woodwinds, brass, percussion and strings. Many of the current and former band members were once students at the University of North Texas.
And they are increasingly blowing the genre of jazz fusion away. They are going the opposite direction of the established jazz community. They are young. They have a grueling touring schedule based on their belief that live is the best way to enjoy the music. In fact all of their albums are essentially “live” albums recorded all together as a group and mostly with a studio audience. And even though they have a large ensemble with many keyboards and horns they perform old-school without in-ear monitors and without clicktracks. Their fans are a Godin-esque Tribe that is rabidly loyal and evangelistic. They are humble and accessible and utilize social media. They embrace collaborations with other artists in different genres. They are all really good. And the most interesting difference – they always look as if they are having a blast playing music together. They are having FUN onstage. They visibly challenge and surprise each other, which I would suspect is hard to do when you are with each other practically ALL the time when touring.
A great comparison framework that works well for me is Snarky Puppy vs. the Dave Weckl Band. Dave Weckl is a world-class jazz fusion drummer who gained notoriety as the drummer with the Chick Corea Electrik Band. In the 2000’s he created his own jazz fusion band called the Dave Weckl band. The band was a hit among fusion lovers and the band made seven memorable albums 1998-2005. Weckl is the master of a technique called “displacement.” Bassist Tom Kennedy is blazingly fast and is a great match for Dave. Jay Oliver on keys is basically a Chick Corea clone. Guitarists Buzz Feiten and Frank Gambale brought fire and intensity, and Brandon Fields’ light touch on the Soprano saxophone brought great balance. In short the band was full of technical virtuosos who could play anything. But as good as this band was, there was just something… missing. The band lacked heart. It was cold and sterile. It was like watching 5 brain surgeons. It was impressive but it didn’t move your soul. This has always been the danger of the genre, but this particular band is a singular example.
Snarky is the exact opposite. They are fresh. They are innovative. The fall into a groove and let it breathe for a while before someone wails a solo. They are very dynamic. They let songs build intensity naturally. It is organic and free and emotional. It feels GREAT. And everyone in the place knows it is happening. They also challenge the audience, stretching them along for the ride and not just relying on rote repetition. They are employing the best of jazz traditions – improvisation, mastery, collaboration, the cerebral intellectual challenge but also the emotional heart and soul that connects with people.
In summary, they are completely redefining the genre of jazz fusion. Or in the recent words of David Crosby, they are “the most advanced band in the world.” I totally agree.