Snarky Puppy at SF Jazz, by Joshua Huver
Snarky Puppy (photo: Joshua Huver)

Last weekend, the world-renowned jazz collective Snarky Puppy held a four-day, six-show residency at the Miner Auditorium of SFJAZZ in San Francisco.

SFJAZZ has been a home away from home for Snarky Puppy, with previous weekend-plus stretches of shows in the city hosted by SFJAZZ. Friday and Saturday featured matinee and late shows, while Thursday and Sunday were single performances.

Last Friday night, I made my way to the third of six shows. The show was sold out, but there didn't seem to be a bad seat in the house. There were 11 musicians that took to the stage that night, and including the encore, the 90-minute set spanned seven songs, but band leader an chief bassist Michael League set a warm and inviting stage for the band and audience to really lock into themselves. They opened with the song "GØ" from 2016's Grammy-winning album, Culcha Vulcha. A 12-minute take was stretched wide, with bouncing melodies between the horn ensemble and the guitar and keyboard arsenal. Guitarist Bob Lanzetti drove the song home, however, with a red-hot lead.

"Beep Box," also from Culcha Vulcha, followed. Approaching the halfway mark, the synthesizers and a melody appropriate for a Tim Burton film from the '40s set some kind of mood. The vibe continued as the third song, "Sharktank," was introduced as a newer song and a B-Side from Culcha Vulcha.

"It was supposed to be on our 11th official release, Culcha Vulcha, but did not, to be honest because I don't like the F-word," league told the audience. "Fusion. You know? And I think I just live in a state of denial, maybe, but I wrote this tune for the last record and I just thought you know what, it's too... fuision-y."

The 10-minute track took the audience for a high thrill ride. Trumpeter/keyboardist Justin Stanton took an inspired run on the Prophet synthesizer. Percussionist Nate Werth and drummer Jason JT Thomas insured the tempo never slowed and the tension never lightened — except, of course, for an epic break of silence and impending doom in the middle of the track.

Keyboardist Shaun Martin transitioned the room into "Thing of Gold," from the group's 2012 release groundUP. At this point in the show, amid the washes of brass, beats, and soaring melodies, I realized how incredible it was to hear what I am as clearly as I do. The four horns sound symphonic in their harmony, yet Werth's devilishly precise speed slapping was as crystal as if I were on the stage.

A 13-minute "Big Ugly," another pull from Culcha Vulcha, followed. A slow introduction for a behemoth of a song, saxophonist Chris Bullock trades extended and passionate solos with Lanzetti, but nothing was able to prepare the audience for the massive multi-faceted movement that followed.

"Ready Wednesday," from 2010's Tell Your Friends, took up the rest of the set, clocking in at over 26 minutes long. Keyboardist Bill Lawrence led the group with an extended, nearly three minute solo intro. Late in the song, Thomas demonstrated his tenacious timing and electric drum rhythms. The band was very obviously feeling it. As an avid jam band fan, I can honestly say that is the longest single song jam I have ever witnessed live.

For the encore, vocalist Magda Giannikou from Banda Magda joined the stage for a warm and welcome rendition of "Amour T’es La." The show was, as expected, a world-class treat and a clinic in unparalleled improvisation, sound, and execution all while having fun and wearing smiles.

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