Snarky Puppy

In 13 years, Snarky Puppy have grown from a cult pro­gres­sive jazz unit at a Texas col­lege into a Grammy-win­ning col­lec­tive tour­ing the world. Call them jazz, prog or fu­sion – leader Michael League is just happy you called.

Prog - - Contents - Words: Grant Moon Pho­tos: Dun­can Ever­son

The jazz prog pro­tag­o­nists ex­plain their band man­i­festo.

There was a lovely mo­ment near the end of Snarky Puppy’s re­cent sold-out show at The Tramshed, Cardiff. The band had fin­ished fan favourite Sho­fukan to wild ap­plause and be­gan troop­ing off the stage, only for the 1,000-strong Welsh crowd to sing the song’s hugely catchy brass hook back at them, arms in the air, eyes closed, pulling the notes from their very souls. You could see all nine play­ers look­ing out across the room, then back at each other, wowed, taken aback by the sheer love, and sheer vol­ume. Later, their bass player, founder, leader and com­poserin-chief Michael League would call this show “hands down my favourite gig of the world tour to date”.

He had plenty to choose from. Their 2017 se­ries of shows is the most ex­ten­sive and well-at­tended of Snarky Puppy’s 13-year ca­reer.

It’s in sup­port of their 11th al­bum Culcha Vulcha, current holder of the Grammy for Best Con­tem­po­rary In­stru­men­tal Al­bum. The night be­fore Cardiff they played their big­gest ever date on their own ticket – Brix­ton Academy, 5,000 peo­ple. So af­ter a slew of acclaimed al­bums, three Grammy wins and a tire­less ap­proach to tour­ing, the Texas-formed, Brook­lyn-based in­stru­men­tal col­lec­tive are no longer just whis­pered about af­fec­tion­ately by the muso, jazz fu­sion cognoscenti – they’ve al­most risen with­out trace, a name known in ever in­creas­ing cir­cles.

It’s in­ter­est­ing to read how fans of pro­gres­sive mu­sic try to cat­e­gorise Snarky Puppy within our niche world. While noth­ing quite cap­tures their ac­ces­si­ble, 2.0 fu­sion of jazz smarts, rock heft and rootsy tex­tures, com­par­isons have been made with Re­turn To For­ever, Billy Cob­ham, Her­bie Han­cock, Bri­tish jazz/psych rock­ers Nu­cleus and even Um­phrey’s McGee. But one def­i­nite pres­ence is the joy­ous, pi­o­neer­ing spirit of Frank Zappa.

“I love Zappa,” Michael League tells Prog. “I grew up lis­ten­ing to him. At Christ­mas, in­stead of lis­ten­ing to carols, we’d gather round and lis­ten to Apostrophe!”

It’s the af­ter­noon be­fore the Cardiff gig, we’re on the tour bus parked be­hind the venue, League leaf­ing through our re­cent Wind & Wuther­ing cover is­sue as we speak. Be­hind us, in a fully equipped and sound­proofed Pro Tools stu­dio, Snarky’s en­gi­neer Nic Hard is fin­ish­ing the mix of the live record of last night’s Brix­ton set, to be sold on their website in a few hours’ time – quite the most pris­tine boot­leg you’ll ever hear.

“Apostrophe is some groovy, funky ass shit,” say League. He’s wiry, friendly, shrewd and in­tensely bright, with a shock of what, dur­ing our photo shoot, his band­mates call “prog as fuck” hair. “Zappa was funny and com­plex, the hu­mour was a way of putting the com­plex­ity of the mu­sic into the back­ground. The guy was just amaz­ing.”

Much has been made of the com­plex­ity of Snarky Puppy’s own mu­sic – which is jazzy, funky, melodic, eclec­tic, brass- and groove-heavy – and much has been writ­ten about the vir­tu­os­ity of their 30-plus-strong list of play­ers (on any one night there’ll be nine or more of them on

“I love Zappa. I grew up lIs­Ten­Ing To hIm. aT ChrIsT­mas In­sTead of lIs­Ten­Ing To Carols we’d gaTher round and lIs­Ten

To aposTrophe!”

stage). But League doesn’t like to pan­der to that as­pect of their sound. “What you don’t want is to play ev­ery night to thou­sands of gui­tar play­ers, be­cause you’d be play­ing to peo­ple into tech­ni­cally im­pres­sive things. Every­body in this band hap­pens to be a vir­tu­osic soloist, but the band is about groove and melody and feel. Pat Metheny men­tioned us re­cently and he sin­gled us out for our melodies. I was so pleased that out of every­thing, that’s what he picked out. We make sure what we write is eas­ily di­gestible but with­out sac­ri­fic­ing depth or mu­si­cal­ity.”

Born in 1984 in Long Beach, California to a mil­i­tary fam­ily, League fell in love with mu­sic in high school, with Mo­town leg­end James Jamer­son and Bootsy Collins among his bass he­roes. At 20 he en­rolled on the Jazz Stud­ies course at the Univer­sity of North Texas, a ma­jor mu­sic in­sti­tu­tion in the States (the likes of Al­lan Holdsworth would lec­ture there on the in­tri­ca­cies of mu­sic the­ory), and later League would be men­tored by for­mer Miles Davis key­boardist Bernard Wright.

In his fresh­man year, League founded what would grow into the Snarky Puppy col­lec­tive, ‘The Fam’, now based in Brook­lyn. Their current core in­cludes key­boardist/trum­peter and fel­low UNT alum­nus Justin Stan­ton and Lon­don-born key­boardist Bill Lau­rance.

Among other regulars shin­ing at the Cardiff gig are sax­o­phon­ist

Bob Reynolds, sax/wood­wind player Chris Bul­lock, gui­tarist Chris McQueen, and the ex­tra­or­di­nary Cana­dian drum­mer Lar­nell Lewis. They’re all highly ac­tive on the jazz scene, with their own ca­reers as record­ing artists, ed­u­ca­tors and ses­sion men, work­ing with artists from Erykah Badu and Aretha Franklin to Wil­lie Nel­son. Snarky’s pal­ette is a broad one, and their record­ing method is un­usual.

Their de­but The Only Con­stant (2006) was fol­lowed quickly by The World Is Get­ting Smaller (’07) and Bring Us The Bright (’08), but while the band were start­ing to gain mo­men­tum on the live cir­cuit in UNT’s home town of Den­ton and across the US, their loyal gig-com­ers were com­plain­ing. “They didn’t like our records,” says League, “and said they un­der­stood us much bet­ter live. So for our next al­bum we de­cided to try to have an au­di­ence and film it. It seemed like com­mon sense.”

Recorded in the stu­dio be­fore a live crowd, 2010’s Tell Your Friends saw a shift in en­vi­ron­ment that af­fected the band’s ap­proach. With just the band in the stu­dio each player would want their part

to be tech­ni­cally per­fect, while in front of an au­di­ence, they had to com­mu­ni­cate di­rectly with the lis­ten­ers present. It’s a sub­tle shift that League says put their per­for­mance on a more musical plane. Un­til Culcha Vulcha, all sub­se­quent records were made in front of a live au­di­ence and filmed. Their 2013 work Fam­ily Din­ner fea­tured guest vo­cal­ists, and their take on Brenda Rus­sell’s Some­thing with Lalah Hath­away – daugh­ter of late soul great Donny – earned them their first Grammy, for Best

R&B Per­for­mance. The of­fers started pour­ing in, on con­di­tion the band tour with Lalah.

“And we said no to every­thing,” says League, “be­cause we knew it was the kiss of death. Af­ter that no one would have wanted us to play on our own. It’s never easy to say no to money when you’re broke. Af­ter Fam­ily Din­ner I had 110 dollars in my ac­count. I had to leave dur­ing rehearsals, fly from Virginia to New Orleans to play a corporate gig so we had money to make the al­bum. It re­ally has been hand to mouth for a decade.”

Recorded with the Nether­lands Metropole Ork­est, 2015’s Sylva earned them an­other Grammy, for Best Con­tem­po­rary In­stru­men­tal Al­bum. Last year’s Fam­ily Din­ner II fea­tured more spe­cial guests, from Malian Afropop star Salif Keita to David Crosby, who was vo­cal in his approval of the band’s style. League pro­duced and re­leased Crosby’s last al­bum Light­house on GroundUp, the la­bel he set up orig­i­nally to re­lease Snarky’s own cat­a­logue, and which now is a taste-making pro­duc­tion house in its own right.

“There’s been no sud­den up­lift,” says League. “Ev­ery time we’ve won a Grammy or when an im­por­tant mu­si­cian like David, Metheny or Prince has said some­thing nice about us, there’s been a slight peak in the slope, and we’ve re­ally taken ad­van­tage of so­cial me­dia too. [Renowned sax player] Chris Pot­ter sat in with us at Chel­tenham Jazz Fes­ti­val this year, we put some footage up and that sparked in­ter­est.”

Chick Corea was at Chel­tenham too, which brings us back to that f-word – fu­sion. League says Snarky Puppy’s ranks are di­vided over Re­turn To For­ever (though all agree Light As A Feather is a great record), and also the fu­sion tag reg­u­larly tied to them.

“We ac­tu­ally talk about this all the time on the bus! Fu­sion’s like the jazz step­sis­ter of prog rock, and like all gen­res, it’s got some amaz­ing mu­sic, but the vast ma­jor­ity is de­fined by cer­tain char­ac­ter­is­tics I don’t want as­so­ci­ated with this band at all – over-ath­leti­cism, vir­tu­os­ity and com­plex­ity for their own sake.

I don’t want to at­tract peo­ple wait­ing for us to play a lot of notes.

I want them to come to be in a vibe and an at­mos­phere.

“Any­way, our most com­plex, nerdy stuff is in­ten­tion­ally veiled.

All my favourite records are that way – there’s some poly­phonic shit hap­pen­ing on D’An­gelo’s records – some­times all the in­stru­ments are in dif­fer­ent keys, but you just feel the soul. Prince, Earth Wind & Fire, Quincy Jones’ work with Michael Jack­son – you can get deep and say, ‘Wow, this one line’s a met­ric su­per­im­po­si­tion,’ but the com­plex­ity’s hidden un­der this un­de­ni­able feel­ing, the feel­ing you get when you lis­ten to a record like Off The Wall.”

Weather Re­port are a mu­tual band favourite; Ma­hav­ishnu too, though League prefers McLaughlin’s work with Shakti. “My own sense of fu­sion comes more from Her­bie Han­cock’s Head Hun­ters,” he says, “more of a black, groove-based sense of fu­sion rather than the prog rocky side.”

Among the bands on that prog rocky side, ELP, Yes and Jethro Tull are beloved by nu­mer­ous mem­bers, and of all of Snarky Puppy’s own records, 2013’s We Like It Here – which con­tains that Cardiff crowd-pleaser Sho­fukan – is the record League reck­ons a prog rock fan might get the most out of. “There are riff-based, vir­tu­osic el­e­ments to the solo­ing – maybe that muso side is more on dis­play. And Justin has a tune on there called Out­lier, which is just such a proggy ti­tle!”

How­ever you choose to la­bel League’s as­cen­dant col­lec­tive, their own pro­gres­sive, award-win­ning, ‘funky ass shit’ is earn­ing them a rapidly grow­ing au­di­ence. When you’re selling out big venues world­wide, when thou­sands of fans are singing your horn lines back at you at the top of their lungs, and when you’re led by a guy for whom Don’t Eat The Yel­low Snow is a Christ­mas carol – some­thing good is clearly hap­pen­ing. Snarky Puppy are out­liers no more.

“AF­TER FAM­ILY DIN­NER I HAD 110 DOLLARS IN MY AC­COUNT. I HAD TO LEAVE DUR­ING REHEARSALS, FLY FROM VIRGINIA TO NEW ORLEANS TO PLAY A CORPORATE GIG SO WE HAD MONEY TO MAKE THE AL­BUM. IT RE­ALLY HAS BEEN HAND TO MOUTH FOR A DECADE.”

MICHAEL LEAGUE: PROG-AS-FUCK

HAIR, PROG-AS-FUCK AT­TI­TUDE.

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