Snarky Puppy with Ari Hoenig at Blue 5 — a drum-geek’s delight included great Music Lab at Jefferson Center talent
First off, I’ll just say this — the jazz/funk/world monsters of Snarky Puppy, which grace Roanoke with their presence about twice a year, are the rare players who can make a room full of people groove to music that features some very complicated time changes and harmonic wildness.
No matter how complicated the band’s music gets, no matter how far they stretch the improvisation from tune to tune, there is still plenty of real accessibility. That’s what has made the band a guaranteed draw at both Blue 5 Restaurant, where it played on Tuesday night, and Martin’s Downtown, where it played on Saturday.
Two gigs in four days from these guys — how did Roanoke get so lucky? Snarky Puppy’s Saturday gig closed last week’s Down by Downtown Festival. The act ended a Sunday-Tuesday Jefferson Center residency with the Blue 5 show, in which 10 percent of food and booze sales were donated to the Music Lab at Jefferson Center. More on the Jeff Center connection shortly, but first, I’ve got to dig into some drum-geeking.
The big guest on the bill last night was Ari Hoenig, a man who bends time feel with a multidimensional understanding but can still rock out (he makes the good drummer faces, too). Hoenig joined the band at Jefferson Center for some residency-style recording. He deserved both the billing and the love he got playing the second of the band’s two sets. But as always, when Robert “Sput” Searight is behind the kit for Snarky, you’re going to get nasty, funk-laced grooves with insane riffing that never overshadows the rest of the multi-faceted music going on.
And that’s how it went for the first set, in which the eight-piece band ripped and glided through songs from its two most recent discs, “Bring Us The Bright” and “Tell Your Friends.” Set highlights included guitarist Bob Lanzetti’s trumpeter Mike Maher’s “Skate U,” which rolled with a nice Quincy-Jones-meets-Steely-Dan vibe, and keyboardist Bill Laurance’s “The Good Man Deliver and The Beast Is Blessed,” a real ride of a song with lots of moods.
At set’s end, they called up 17-year-old Bukuru Celestin, a Music Lab student, and three of his sisters. The kids, originally from Burundi Tanzania, performed a song that Bukuru wrote, “Yesu.” During the residency, League had arranged the song for young Celestin, and they recorded it. The kid has confidence, a good voice and songwriting talent. That song got one of the night’s biggest responses.
The second set featured Hoenig onstage. He, Searight and percussionist Nate Werth cooked up fierce grooves, playing together and off each other as if they’d been doing it all their lives. But they had only been playing together for the past few days. Searight was playing a second kit, scaled down, sharing a crash-ride with Hoenig, and those cats were getting *off*. The front window curtain was pulled, so I stepped outside to watch those guys do their thing. The technique was incredible, but the soul was undeniable, too. When Searight and Hoenig took twin-solos, it sounded like one dude with four arms and four legs — and crazy, crazy chops for days.
Snarky and Hoenig had used the residency in part to record a couple Hoenig songs — “Arrows and Loops” and “The Painter,” and they played both at Blue 5. The former switched between 11/8, with a four-count pulse implied over the top (thanks for explaining that, Greg Ayers, you who has the sheet music!) and bars of 6/4 and 5/4. But it grooved. That’s some real depth.
They also crushed on “Flood,” from Snarky’s “Tell Your Friends.” It was another drum workout most supreme. Forgive me, those of you who don’t care what bad-arse drummers do live. But I still can’t believe I was watching this go down on a Tuesday night in Roanoke.
We should all get used to it, though. Jefferson Center artistic director Dylan Locke said that Snarky Puppy’s residence is officially an annual thing. Last year, the band brought in drummer Jason Marsalis, of the New Orleans Marsalises and master sax man John Ellis. This year, it brought in Hoenig. I can’t wait to hear what comes out of this week’s sessions and to find out who comes next year.
Not that they necessarily need to bring in anyone else. I can’t say enough about Searight’s playing, and everyone else in this band is world-class, as well.
Best off, they make time in the studio and onstage for the Music Lab kids. Other guests last night — young Gabe Morales, who had the audience screaming as he made his guitar wail through the old blues “Red House,” and Judi Jackson, who nailed Stevie Wonder’s “Always.”
Bandleader/bassist Michael League will be back at the Jeff for a solo residency in early May. His time there will include a Jeff Center show as bassist for pop-noir singer Lucy Woodward, and very likely some time at the Down by the River Festival’s Music Lab stage. People who are serious about music in this town should be glad that League has latched onto it.