The first thing that I think when I see videos of Snarky Puppy playing is, “need there be so many of them?” Too many cooks. Or in this case, too many pots. The tune “Don’t You Know” is ten and a half minutes long and features something like twenty musicians. Composed by the boy genius Jacob Collier, it is conceptually quite simple. It roves between the two poles of free form, out of time sections and grand, pumping big band funk parts. Most chords’ names in this piece would take even a serious jazz student many sweaty seconds to name and rename.
The number of musicians in Snarky Puppy’s fan base is probably greater than that of many bands who are as well travelled as they are. They are at the forefront of what I reckon to be a jazz renaissance of sorts spilling out from American high schools and universities. Being into jazz is no longer solely a dork’s domain. In fact, bands with serious jazz intentions have struck mainstream success in recent years, perhaps more than in the preceding two decades. Not to mention the very attentive jazz listening of two decades worth of hip hop producers, the likes of Badbadnotgood, Snarky Puppy, Vulfpeck, and Thundercat (to name a few) are propelled forward by an increased patience for ‘academic’ music—jazz. The trouble is that sometimes this patience can wear thin, and that the music can be too academic for the mainstream ear.
This Snarky Puppy performance swings within perilous proximity of the overly-academic. In fact at many points it crossed the line for me. There is so much musical showing off: Five dollar chords and two hundred mile an hour drum fills. I am of the firm belief that there must be an easily apparent reason for your ‘interesting’ time signature. If it doesn’t feel natural, then do without it. It’s like what William Morris says, if it’s not beautiful or useful, leave it out. In high school music class, one of the catch-all phrases I learned to use to describe the function of various musical elements was that it ‘maintains interest’. Well, does showing off maintain interest? What does interest mean? Is it that important? I feel compelled to listen to this piece – that is, interested – yet it fails to produce any kind of real feeling within me. There are so many parts in this performance with insanely fast drumming that just slide past me. I don’t care that you can play so fast. Well done, a gold star for you.
This tune, like many of Collier’s, is very complex. There are A sections and B sections and all the way down to K sections, depending on how you count them. It moves quite slickly between subtly chaotic yet peaceful free parts, to monstrous clashing crescendos. I admire the capabilities of the musicians present here. It’s just that the song has no emotional tone that I can discern. It’s a strange hybrid of so many genres that it stumbles right out of the gate. He may be a musical genius but he is yet to learn the value of simplicity.
As a musician, I cannot deny the virtuosity of these people. I love how effortlessly and carefully they play. This virtuosity would be apparent to anyone watching, that’s probably what sells tickets. My gripe with a tune like “Don’t You Know” is that it falls for the same old ‘jazz for its own sake’ routine. It is emotionally absent like a chess computer. This is the problem that I have with Snarky Puppy, heroes of the quiet music nerds, champions of the pop-jazz genre. It’s one thing to play a million miles an hour, but who cares if you can?