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Tosa trumpeter wins third Grammy

The hometown boy has made good. Grammy-level good.

Mike Maher, from Wauwatosa, is a trumpeter and composer with Snarky Puppy. And Snarky Puppy is hot – winning two Grammys in the last three years, and just won its third. Today's honor -- for Best Contemporary Instrumental Album.

Who –- or what’s – Snarky Puppy? (Aside from an awesome band name?) Hard to categorize. Examples:

  1. Wikipedia calls it “a jazz ensemble”
  2. Snarky Puppy’s leader, Michael League, describes it as “a pop band that improvises a lot, without vocals”
  3. Oh, and their first Grammy was for Best R&B Performance

So, it’s a jazz/pop/rhythm and blues band. (With a little world music, too.) Check ‘em out and decide for yourself.

But, back to Mike Maher.

“I started playing with friends in grade school – guitar and bass and singing and playing a little bit of piano. Kind of learning from recordings,” he says.

Mike also played some trumpet. And at age 15, attending Marquette University High School, some magic happened.

“I got introduced to Miles Davis by my high school band director, Randy Skowronski, and I was hooked.

“We used to hang out on the lunch period and he used to play records and just kind of introduce me to a bunch of fusion music, jazz and the time I heard jazz, there was no turning back.”

His teacher remembers

Skowronski recalls Mike well – especially his drive.

“What stands out to me more than anything about Mike was his independence,” his teacher says. “Intelligence and self-determination.  His appetite for jazz was always on display. He would spend much of his free time in the band room jammin' with a few other students.  Rarely did he require any special guidance from me.”

Like his teacher, Maher attended the University of North Texas and its prestigious jazz program.

He now lives in Brooklyn. But Snarky Puppy keeps Maher on the road a lot, as does his own project “Maz.”

“I’m all over the world. I’m just drinking in the world culture,” he says.

“I don’t get back home as much as I used to. My parents are kind of splitting time between Milwaukee and California right now, but I was home for Thanksgiving, I heard about the Jazz Estate reopening. I didn’t get a chance to go by.”

His teacher remembers a special trip home -- when not just Maher, but nine members of Snarky Puppy, came to Marquette High to conduct an all-day workshop.

... one of the most exciting moments of my teaching career.

“At that time, they were touring around the country in an old school bus painted a horrible light brown color. What a sight it was,” Skowronski says. “Needless to say, that all-day workshop will long be remembered as one of the most exciting moments of my teaching career."

And the band returned a couple of years later. “It was even more rewarding for me,” Skowronski says. “The group's following had grown to an international level.”

No old school bus that time.

His writing

Aside from playing the trumpet, Maher focuses on writing songs. In his “Maz” project, he sings and plays guitar.

Among his inspirations: Elliott Smith.

“His approach to harmony and to guitar playing and composition is incredible. His lyrics are just incredible. He’s just a genius. He’s on such a deep level.

“There’s a song called ‘Tomorrow Tomorrow.’ Just the guitar production on it is amazing. It’s all acoustic guitars. All the structures of his songs – they’re different than anything I’ve ever heard. I think he’s one of the best songwriters of the last 20 years, honestly. So that’s a huge inspiration to me.”

What’s next

In April, Snarky Puppy heads to Europe for two months, then back to the U.S.

“I haven’t been able to make it to the Midwest yet but I will, I will.”

In addition to Snarky Puppy and Maz, he’s got something else brewing.

“I’ve got a plan for a group of my own that I will be leading and playing trumpet because I want to explore different avenues of my trumpet playing as well.”

Grammys. Touring the world. His high school teacher couldn’t be prouder.

“When a former student reaches the level of success like Mike has, it's hard not to feel a sense of pride,” Skowronski says. “But I feel more honored just to have had the pleasure of working with a student who would become a two-time Grammy-winning artist.”

Now, we can make that three-time.