Snarky Puppy LIVE! at McCarter Theatre Center

Spotlight Central
Spotlight Central

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By Spotlight Central. Photos by Love Imagery

Music lovers at Princeton, NJ’s McCarter Theatre Center this Tuesday, April 16, 2024 evening ready themselves for an unleashed New Jersey performance by Snarky Puppy. The Texas-based ensemble, which has performed with artists as diverse as Michael McDonald, Justin Timberlake, and Snoop Dogg, is known for an appealing combination of jazz, rock, funk, and world music that has earned them five Grammy nominations and five wins, including a 2023 Best Contemporary Instrumental performance award for their latest recording, Empire Central.

Explains Keith from San Diego, CA, “I love Snarky Puppy! I came to New Jersey from California especially for this concert. All the musicians are so talented and their leader — bass player Michael League — is a genius.” Matt from Yardley, PA, concurs, adding, “I’ve been following Snarky Puppy for two years now. They have such high-quality musicians and they’re so innovative. In my opinion, there’s no other band like them.”

Peter from Princeton exclaims, “I like that they’re so young and energetic! I saw Snarky Puppy a few years ago, and it was an amazing experience hearing all the different types of music they were able to create on stage.” Michael from New Jersey, agrees, noting, “It’s the diversity of the music that I like so much. There’s always a little surprise to everything they do that keeps me listening to whatever they play.”

The lights dim, and tonight’s opening act, musicians Natalie Cressman and Ian Faquini, take the stage. Lead vocalist/trombonist Cressman greets the audience and the duo opens tonight’s set with “Sereia (Mermaid)” where Cressman sings in Portuguese in her appealing alto voice, accompanied by Faquini’s vocal harmony line and classical guitar playing.

The pair’s voices blend as they rise above Faquini’s soft guitar picking before Cressman slides out a trombone solo on the interlude to large applause.

Following “Tenho sede (I’m Thirsty),” a sweet tune which Cressman describes as a love poem that suggests “the search for water in the desert is like the search for love in our life,” the duo performs a medley of five songs by the Brazilian guitarist and composer, Guinga.

Opening with the syncopated “Capenga,” the medley cycles through “Influencia do Jackson,” “Nitido e Obscuro,” and “Geraldo no Leme” before concluding with the rhythmic “Lavagem de Conceicsao,” where Faquini’s crisp vocal and Cressman’s smooth trombone work elicit hoots and hollers from the crowd.

Cressman sings, “In autumn night a song will come/To ring out right when day is done,” on the dreamy “Auburn Whisper” as Faquini expertly fingerpicks his guitar accompaniment.

Cressman and Faquini conclude their set with “Ralando coco,” a delicious Brazilian piece on which Faquini’s guitar work perfectly accompanies the duo’s rapid-fire vocalizing and Cressman’s rhythmic trombone solo. At the conclusion, audience members hoot, holler, whistle, and applaud for this talented world music duo.

Following intermission, the musicians of Snarky Puppy — Chris Bullock on woodwinds, Jay Jenning on trumpet, Mike “Maz” Maher on trumpet, Zach Brock on violin, Marcelo Woloski on percussion, Mark Lettieri on guitar, Jason “JT” Thomas on drums, Bill Laurance on keyboards, and Justin Stanton on keyboards/trumpet, along with bandleader/bass player Michael League — take the stage.

Opening with “Keep It On Your Mind,” the Snarky Puppy musicians generate a funky musical vibe which winds and snakes its way through the theater. On this rhythmically diverse tune which features long sustained lines played by the horns and violin, Mark Lettieri rips a wailing guitar solo and Justin Stanton and Bill Laurance make their keyboards rise and fall together to enthusiastic cheers and applause.

Following “Broken Arrow” — a breezy number which features rhythmic breaks from the ensemble that elicit cheers from the crowd — the group launches into the syncopated jazz fusion piece, “Bet,” which opens with a drum solo by Jason “JT” Thomas before the rest of the band jumps in. On this arrangement, Chris Bullock plays flute, Zach Brock renders a rollicking violin solo which features a frenzy of runs that bring screams and applause from the audience, and Michael League is featured playing low and funky on the bass under flashing lights.

League greets the crowd, announcing, “How are you doing? This is a beautiful space and a beautiful place to play! All of the songs we just did are from our latest album, Empire Central, which is about saluting our musical heroes in Texas,” before adding, “Although this next song, ‘Flood,’ is from our album, Tell Your Friends, the one that follows it is ‘Cliroy’ from Empire Central, and it’s dedicated to the great trumpet player, Roy Hargrove.”

Chiming keyboard sounds float above the Latin feel of the percussion and drums on “Flood,” a composition in 7/4 meter. The rich sound of a flugelhorn warms and rises as rays of lights move up and down the stage, adding to the funky syncopated atmosphere. Justin Stanton impresses with a Fender Rhodes keyboard solo, his legs bouncing in time to the river of music pouring from the stage. Following a flugelhorn intro, the Snarky Puppy musicians join in on the delightful R&B-infused number, “Cliroy,” where League’s bass defines the slow groove supporting the tune’s tasteful wind lines.

Several band members leave the stage as Jay Jenning is featured on a flugelhorn solo which is deftly accompanied by the rhythm section. The band returns to build to a cacophony of sound that brings avid cheers from the crowd.

Funky slapping bass and flute characterize the intro to “Xavi,” a tune in 6/4 time which shakes up the audience with its infectious melody and vibe. Mark Lettieri bends his strings as he fingerpicks his guitar and tastefully employs the instrument’s whammy bar for effect before Zach Brock plays a fiery violin solo filled with thrilling stops and starts.

Bill Laurance offers up a keyboard solo with his eyes closed as bass, drums, and percussion percolate all around him. The piece concludes with bandleader Michael League and Snarky Puppy stage crew member Mason Davis playing hand-held percussion on the coda.

The crowd whistles and cheers, and League dedicates the group’s next number to the memory of celebrated jazz keyboardist Bernard Wright.“Belmont” opens with an ethereal keyboard pad sound which is accompanied by bass and drums before rays of light drift across the stage and the unique composition in 10/8 meter builds as it wafts its way throughout the McCarter auditorium.

Drum rolls kick off the upbeat and funky “Pineapple.” The horn section is featured playing the catchy melody and interweaving countermelody. Chris Bullock renders a quick and funky tenor solo on this feel-good tune before Justin Stanton introduces the sound of a synthesized sax solo which morphs into a swirling synth keyboard solo while lights shine down on the band.

The crowd hoots and hollers, and League announces, “We’ve got one more for you!” Concertgoers cheer when they recognize the mystical sounding intro to “Shofukan.” Mark Lettieri picks out the intro on his guitar before the horn section joins in, and Justin Stanton is featured on a bright and shiny trumpet solo.

Natalie Cressman joins the group for a graceful trombone solo which adds to the feel of this mystical Eastern sounding number. The band invites the audience to sing the modal “Oh, oh-oh, Oh” melody as they clap along to the beat.

At the conclusion, music lovers stand and cheer demanding more before the lights dim and League returns to the stage. He introduces special guest Becca Stevens who joins League for a cover version of Gillian Welsh’s “Everything Is Free.” Stevens’ soft soprano voice hugs the crowd as she accompanies herself on electric guitar, and League provides vocal harmony while Bill Laurance and Justin Stanton lend support on keyboards and Justin “JT” Thomas plays drums.

For a final encore, the entire ensemble returns to the stage for “What About Me,” a fast-paced jazz fusion number which has sparks flying from Mark Lettieri’s guitar. The song builds as Lettieri plays faster, bending strings before bass, keys, and percussion join in.

Justin “JT” Thomas and Marcelo Woloski duel on a captivating percussion solo which has Woloksi playing with one stick and one hand before the band rejoins and the audience bursts into applause, ending the night with a roaring standing ovation.

As concertgoers exit the McCarter auditorium, several comment on tonight’s performance. Declares Jessica from Stamford, CT, “I love Snarky Puppy! They’re a great band and seeing them at this beautiful venue was great. They’re always doing something new and really exciting, and they never fail to bring amazing energy.”

Charlie from Hillsboro asserts, “This show was more than I could have ever imagined! Before tonight, I had only heard recordings of Snarky Puppy, so hearing Michael League’s bass live felt like I was feeling the music in my soul. The horn section was fantastic, the keyboard improvisations were excellent, and when Natalie Cressman joined in playing trombone, that was incredible, too.”

Michael from Warren County acknowledges, “Tonight was my fourth time seeing Snarky Puppy. Being a musician myself, I can really appreciate the quality of the band’s musicianship. I’m a bass player, and one thing I really like about Michael League is that as a bandleader, he always gives everyone in the group the space to play. Plus, Snarky Puppy songs are very challenging to pull off — it’s not easy performing any of their music.”

Allison from Warren County agrees, explaining, “I really appreciate what they are able to do. For me, it’s always great to hear something so unique and different.”

Lastly, whereas first-time Snarky Puppy concertgoer Felix from Princeton exclaims, “I thought Snarky Puppy was great! I don’t know what they were doing up there — I can’t figure it out — but it was wild and I was really impressed,” his listening companion, Max from Princeton, asserts, “The energy onstage was awesome — it was like a party up there!” prior to concluding, “It was so much fun, I’d see them again, 100%!”

To learn more about Snarky Puppy, please go to snarkypuppy.com. For information on Natalie Cressman and Ian Faquini, click on nataliecressman.com and ianfaquini.com. For info on great upcoming programming at Princeton’s McCarter Theatre Center — including Joshua Bell and Larisa Martinez on May 28, Chris Botti on June 1, and Esperanza Spalding on June 2 — please go to mccarter.org.

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Spotlight Central
Spotlight Central

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