Friday, June 29, 2012

Funk Friday - Spotlight on Snarky Puppy

In 2004, bassist, composer and producer Michael League formed the jazz-funk ensemble Snarky Puppy at the University of North Texas College of Music in Denton, TX; a hot bed of musical talent in a city that is self-described as a "stomping ground of Jazz musicians and enthusiasts." The band, which operates as something of a collective with a revolving array of nearly 30 musicians, is on the cutting edge of both funk and jazz music. Today's Funk Friday is all Snarky Puppy and you should be very, very happy about that.

Michael League grew up in Texas, in the American South and this is important. Jazz was born in the South and since its ascension to the mainstream in the early 20th century, it has continued to be defined and shaped by Southern musicians. Texas borders Louisiana, a state whose largest and most cultured city, New Orleans is the ultimate mecca for big band style jazz-funk, which I like to call NOLA Funk music. Here's a great performance from Snarky Puppy that takes the NOLA style and slowly builds a steady groove until hitting a climax that almost literally explodes with sound.

This Wednesday I had the glorious pleasure to see Snarky Puppy play live at The Rex, arguably the finest bar in Toronto to take in a show by local and international jazz artists. Playing to a packed house of mostly jazz-hungry teenagers and early twentysomethings, the Snarky Puppy live experience is something of an intense, but inclusive, accessible and wholly memorable trip:  jams happen slowly, starting from basic melodic themes that eventually build their way into satisfyingly heavy grooves provided by League and his tighter-than-tight rhythm section. League and Snarky Puppy's addictive blend of jazz, funk and hip-hop has cemented them as an inventive, powerful force to be reckoned with. I for one will be on my toes to see where they go next.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Funk Friday - Bonnaroo! - June 1st 2012

In a few days I leave for Bonnaroo. It is my third American music festival in three years and I can reasonably predict it will by all respects be the most musically satisfying and physically arduous aural journey I will have embarked upon. Held at the same 700-acre farm in Manchester, Tennessee for the past 10 years, the first Bonnaroo in 2002 saw 70,000 people, selling out the festival far in advance. Today, it has evolved to become one of the, if not the most high profile annual American music festival.

Mostly known for a wildly diverse slate of musical acts and the blistering Tennessee heat of the campgrounds that has effectively killed a handful of attendees in years past, Bonnaroo takes its namesake from New Orleans legend Dr. John's 1971 Meters-backed funk/R&B album Desitively Bonnaroo.

1. Red Hot Chili Peppers - Mellowship Slinky in B Major

The anchoring headliner at Bonnaroo 2012, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, formed in 1983 by vocalist Anthony Kiedis and Michael "Flea" Balzary are in my view, the most successful, prolific funk rock band of all time. Rooted in Parliament/Funkadelic funky guitar rock and the fun, aggressive California punk rock of the late 1970s and early 1980s, RHCP have consistently maintained a broad, strong following for almost three (!) decades.

While the hugely successful 1999 release of Californication saw the band finally reach a decidedly mainstream audience with a new, more mature sound complete with soaring, anthemic hooks and instantly replayable singles, 1991's Blood Sugar Sex Magik stands as an unheralded funk rock masterpiece. This is my favorite cut off that album.

2. Darondo - My Momma and My Poppa

In the early 1970s, William Pulliam recorded a slew of enjoyably sublime soul singles in the San Francisco Bay area as "Darondo" for Music City Records, a locally popular label that due to distribution problems, had never left California. After having been unearthed by British DJ Giles Peterson, the 1973 single "Didn't I" caught the attention of modern Californian groove label Ubiquity Records and Darondo's complete discography, which at that time had only been treasured by dedicated collectors of rare funk and soul records, was very quickly re-exposed to modern listeners.

Known to have only actually released three singles and played four shows in the 70s (including one opening stint for James Brown), Darondo disappeared from the music business for over 30 years; it is widely rumored that Pulliam created a life for himself as a pimp, but had been known to host local Bay area television specials, including "Darondo's Penthouse After Dark." Darondo's upcoming gig at Bonnaroo will certainly be his most substantial yet in this, the second stage of his musical career.

3. Dr. John - (Everybody Wanna Get Rich) Rite Away

I think there is a good reason why Bonnaroo takes its namesake from Dr. John and The Meters' 1971 funky blues classic Desitively Bonnaroo LP. The factually obvious reason is that "Bonnaroo" is Ninth ward NOLA slang, encompassing the French word "bon" meaning "good" and "rue" meaning "street." Taken literally, we would have the phrase "the best on the streets." According to Dr. John, "desitively" is a simple mash-up of "definitely positively."

Beyond etymology though, I think what music festivals, and specifically what Bonnaroo offers is a brief escape from everyday reality. A lot of the preconceived notions about music festivals involve a sort of survivalist, too-drugged-out-to-function atmosphere, but this could not be further from the truth: The music festival is a place of unbelievable positivity; where the capacity for a truly shared kinetic experience is as close to realized as we can get. If the objective of Dr. John and The Meters and the soul of NOLA funk music in general is to invigorate listeners with "the best on the streets" then we should only hope that we get a little "Bonnaroo" before our time is up.