All in a day's Snark
BRATTLEBORO -- And to think it all started with a student teaching his teacher.
One of Eugene Uman's students at the Governor's Institute of Vermont handed him a DVD and said, "Eugene, you gotta check this band out."
Uman accepted and resigned himself to the fact that he was about to see another semi-cool jam band. Instead what he saw was a hard-working, highly skilled funk-jazz fusion band that just about blew him away.
"I was thrilled by the musicianship and the care that went into their arrangements," recalled Uman. "I thought ‘Note to self: Starting trying to get them.'"
That was about four years ago, and finally Snarky Puppy is coming.
On Saturday, the Vermont Jazz Center is presenting newly minted Grammy Award-winners Snarky Puppy at the Latchis Theatre at 8 p.m.
"I'm really excited to get them. If I hadn't gotten them before they'd won the Grammy, I don't think I would have been able to," said Uman, director of the Vermont Jazz Center. "I think this is going to be one of those groups that shoots right to the top."
For the band itself, the sudden spotlight provided by the Grammy is really the residue of eight years of hard work and constant touring. Snarky Puppy was founded as a side project of bassist, composer, arranger and bandleader Michael League while he was a student at the top-flight University of North Texas jazz program.
"I was writing music that really wasn't straight-ahead jazz. I just got the guys together that I wanted to play with," said League in a telephone interview last week. "It started really, really humbly."
Beginning with that core group of seven or eight players, Snarky Puppy evolved with an elasticity that allows it to stretch to sometimes as many as 20 or 30 musicians. That elasticity also opens up doors to all sorts of collaborations.
Snarky Puppy has done an album with musicians in Central Africa that made a splash among world music aficionados. On 2013's "Family Dinner," the band took a backseat on its own CD to play behind A-list singers like Chantae Cann, Magda Giannikou, Tony Scherr and others. The Grammy they won on Jan. 26 was for a track from "Family Dinner" which they recorded with singer Lala Hathaway. The award was for Best R&B performance.
"It's definitely exciting. It's not a thing we expected at all." said League of the Grammy. "I didn't even really write a speech or buy a suit until the day before."
Individually, the members of this jazz-R&B-funk collective have played with a whole galaxy of artists, including Snoop Dogg, Erykah Badu, Justin Timberlake, Kirk Franklin, Roy Hargrove, Chaka Khan, Celine Dion, P Diddy, Jon Hendricks, Norah Jones, Michael Buble, Usher, the Jonas Brothers, Jessica Simpson, Willie Nelson and Marcus Miller.
Little wonder, they don't fit easily into standard musical labels.
"I don't think we really care," said League. "I think people generally call it fusion, because that's what it sounds like to them, but I don't call it that, for sure. "
On their website, the Pups have a pithy tag for it: "Music to move the brain and booty."
"If we enjoy what we're doing, then the audience will enjoy it," said League. "We just kind of like having fun making music with our friends and challenging each other."
At its heart, though, lies jazz. The core members met at the North Texas jazz program, and their arrangements leave plenty of room for improvisation.
"I think the real strength of this band us its ability to improvise on the composition," said League.
For Uman, Snarky Puppy was a perfect fit for the VJC, which strives to honor jazz traditions while showing how those traditions are evolving.
"The Jazz Center tries to present music that is open-minded. I'm always looking for people that speak using the vocabulary of jazz but fit it into different forms," said Uman. "To me, to incorporate funk is another way of developing that language of jazz. These guys certainly have a dexterity within the language of jazz."
Performing for the VJC at the Latchis Theater will be: Michael League, electric bass; Robert "Sput" Searight, drums; Nate Werth, percussion; Bob Lanzetti, guitar; Justin Stanton, keyboards and trumpet; Chris Bullock, reeds; Mark Lettieri, guitar, Mike "Maz" Maher, trumpet and Shawn Martin on keyboards.
The band just finished a tour of Jakarta, and its current tour of the U.S and Canada includes stops in Washington, Baltimore, Boston, New York Montreal, Toronto and Brattleboro. Upcoming plans in 2014, include tours of the UK, Austria, Germany, Finland and The Netherlands, where they plans to record with the Metropol Orchestra.
The Pups also just released an album, "We Like it Here," which came out on Feb. 25 and has already cracked the charts in the U.S., the UK, France, Germany and the Netherlands. In their spare time, the band's members are committed teachers.
"Most of us are products of musical education. I think it's important for everyone in the band to share the same experience," League said. "Especially, since popular music right now is not exactly at its musical high point."
Their concert stop in Brattleboro was moved from the VJC to the Latchis Theatre in part to handle the kind of crowds Grammy-winners draw and the kind of equipment a powerhouse nine-piece combo brings. It's also at the Latchis, because the Vermont Jazz Center is currently expanding its Cotton Mill site, breaking down the walls between its concert space and its refreshment/box office space, a move which will add some 40 much-needed seats to the growing organization.
"We're booming," said Uman.
The hope is to have the work done in time for its April 19 tribute concert to Howard Brofsky.
General admission to Saturday's 8 p.m. show at the Latchis is $20, $15 for students, $35 for premium seating. Tickets are available at www.vtjazz.org, the VJC ticket line at 802-254-9088 or at In the Moment, 143 Main St., Brattleboro.
The concert is co-sponsored by Clear Solutions, with assistance from the Hampton Inn, Vermont Public Radio and the Vermont Arts Council.
TALK TO US
If you'd like to leave a comment (or a tip or a question) about this story with the editors, please email us. We also welcome letters to the editor for publication; you can do that by filling out our letters form and submitting it to the newsroom.