Out Of The Grassroots Rise... Snarky Puppy
They're a keyboard band. No, they are a guitar band. Nope! They're a synth band. Wait! Maybe Snarky Puppy is a big band. The truth is they are all of these and they are none of them. They are unique. An enigma. They are an amalgam of a dozen or more highly individual and accomplished musicians. Beyond what you see on the stage, they are a collective of 40 or more musicians, each player capable of being on the next gig in New York, Chicago, London, Bucharest, or Austin. They are the best around, and will be for quite some time if what I have been hearing almost constantly from my speakers these past several weeks is any indication. I love this band!
I am amazed they have flown under my radar for such a long time. However, once I began to study the history of this remarkable ensemble, I understood how many of us might have missed them. In fact, many may have yet to have discovered them. They are, after all, in a musical territory which defies conventional classification, they're working without a net, and they like it so.
Who, or what, is Snarky Puppy? The band first germinated in Denton, Texas over 10 years ago. Many in Snarky Puppy studied in the jazz studies program at the University of North Texas, one of a handful of elite jazz schools in the country. A number of band members also passed through the internationally famous One O'Clock Lab Band at UNT. These roots in formal study of music are key to the group's success. This is an ensemble which can sightread at a remarkably high level, can also improvise in a virtuosic style, and is comfortable playing in a wide range of musical styles. It's little wonder that when the band is not on the road, its players fill important spots as sidemen with the likes of Snoop Dogg, Chaka Khan, Norah Jones, Roy Hargrove’s RH Factor and Yo-Yo Ma's Silk Road Ensemble.
The engine behind Snarky Puppy is front man Michael League. He is an extraordinarily gifted musician and band leader, playing electric bass, electric guitar, acoustic guitar, keyboards, and the list goes on and on. He also generates much of the band's original material, including a book filled with skillfully made accompaniments for the occasional guest artists who appear with Snarky Puppy. League's most recent effort was a suite for Snarky Puppy and the Netherlands based MetropoleOrkest, their first ever recording with a full symphony orchestra. The resulting album, titled Sylva, is a breakthrough on a number of levels for Snarky Puppy. More on that in a moment.
So how is it that this band, fielding anywhere from 10 to 15 musicians onstage at any one time, has stuck it out for a full decade? Michael League gets a good bit of the credit. But it could never have been possible without the skill and dedication of the individuals who make up the band. Musicians know a good scene when they stumble into it, and they keep coming back, especially when the artistic reward is high. For the first 7 or 8 years it wasn't for the money (and one wonders whether even with the band's new found success if the money is that good). In the early years the band spent weeks on the road, playing sometimes to “crowds” which were outnumbered by the musicians on the stage. But word began to spread, through word of mouth, social media, YouTube, and skillful grassroots promotion. All of this was happening as the music industry downsized, to put it kindly. Even had the major labels not been in severe recession, dropping artists right and left, there were few commercial prospects for jazz, even the progressive, fusion-driven variety which is at the core of Snarky Puppy. Which brings us around to the the question posed above: how? I would answer unequivocally: creative commitment! There is a contagious energy about Snarky Puppy, an energy which can be heard, but is perhaps even more evident when seen. For this reason, the band's decision to release much of their work in CD/DVD packaging is genius.
Andy LaViolette, originally a fan, later became the band's official videographer and photographer. He has a great eye for placing the listener/viewer in the middle of the action. He believes this is one of the things which makes Snarky Puppy so believable and likeable. Says LaViolette: “Everything you see on those videos, if you go to a show, that’s actually what they sound like. There’s no studio ‘magic.’” In 2014, LaViolette shot a feature film, We Like It Here, which followed Snarky Puppy through their first European tour. A year later, he shot the film of the band's first concert with a symphony orchestra, Sylva. And before that, he was responsible for the wonderful film of the band's concerts in Roanoke, Virginia, a project which was published as Family Dinner, Volume 1. A followup, Volume 2, was recorded earlier this year in New Orleans, and will be released soon.
I have spent a great deal of time with both Family Dinner and We Like It Here on my DVD player. I can't get enough. I'm in awe of Snarky Puppy, and am hopelessly infected by their enthusiasm, creativity, and virtuosity. There's further magic too. Although I'm seeing and hearing the same performances over and over again (yes, I've done multiple passes through both these recordings), there is a freshness which never gets stale. Interestingly, Michael League says at one point in the film We Like It Here that the band is averse to repetition. The saving grace is that most of what the band does is built on spontaneous improvisation. According to League, there are anchor points which hold together the integrity of the compositions, but everything else is pretty much of the moment. As a quick footnote, I plan to go hear Snarky Puppy this coming weekend, up in Austin, and I can't wait to experience this spontaneous creativity first hand.
I admit that I am new to Snarky Puppy. Up until about 6 weeks ago, I had never heard of them. Then a disc showed up in my mailbox, something called Sylva, with Snarky Puppy and the MetropoleOrkest. It might have gone to the bottom of one of the numerous piles of “to be listened to later” discs on my desk but for the record label: Impulse. This is big time, and unusual too. As I mentioned earlier, jazz is hardly a big market. Not only that, the whole recording industry has been in some degree of restructuring (code for collapse) for quite some time. Thus, I kept the Snarky Puppy disc in sight, with best intentions of listening to it one day soon. And then came one of those cosmic coincidences. Someone posted video on Facebook of a young jazz pianist playing his tail off, on two different keyboards at the same time! Who the heck is this, I wondered? The answer, of course, is that it was one of the lead keyboard players from Snarky Puppy. I quickly followed a Google path to more Snarky Puppy and found the official trailer for Sylva. "Sylva, Sylva, why does this seem familiar?" I thought. And then it dawned on me that the release was right under my nose. I put it on my player and I have been on a wonderful adventure of discovery ever since. In case Michael League is wondering if all the social media stuff is working (as though he is waiting for my opinion), the answer is a resounding yes. That's what has gotten me here.
Thanks, Impulse! for signing Snarky Puppy to your label. I can't wait to hear what comes next, after Sylva. But forgive me, too, for suggesting that Sylva is best appreciated with a little aperitif, perhaps a pass through Family Dinner, or We Like It Here. Only then does a listener know what a bold step Sylva is for Michael League and Snarky Puppy. Fans of the band, please hear me out! Snarky Puppy of Sylva is the same Snarky Puppy you already know. They are the progressive, forward-leaning ensemble you have come to love. Proceed. You'll appreciate the new doors which are opening. But if you are new to Snarky Puppy, and beginning with Sylva, I'm not sure you'll appreciate the full impact. Instead, take a few days to acquaint yourself with some of their earlier stuff. It's abundant on YouTube, though I hope you will like and respect the music enough that you will purchase at least a few of the band's discs.
Unfortunately, putting a jazz band, or a rock band, onstage with a symphony orchestra is usually a bad idea. There's something gimmicky and, often, unsavory about it. That's why Rolf Liebermann's 1954 Concerto for Jazz Band and Orchestra, given first full attention by Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, was so remarkable. Reiner recorded the work with the Sauter-Finegan Orchestra, and it really works. I guess one key to that success (measured artistically and not by popularity, for the Liebermann recording has been out of print in the US for decades) is the Sauter-Finegan band. I think it not that far fetched to say they were the Snarky Puppy of the 1950s – great musicians, superb arrangements, pushing the envelope. But between Liebermann's experiment and today's suite by Michael League, the landscape is littered with far more failures than successes. This is why Sylva is worthy of our attention. There's a great deal to like, the performances are excellent, both from the orchestra and the band, and League's work as a composer demonstrates great skill.
Throughout the six numbers which make up Sylva, I am engaged by the seamlessness of the performance. The band is enhanced by the orchestra. I suspect the orchestration, which is to say the way in which the instruments are mixed and combined, is somewhat by committee. Not only is Mr. League credited as composer and arranger, but credits are also given to Jules Buckley (conductor of the orchestra), and several others for their contributions as arrangers. However it might have been done, it is convincing. I hear bits of Ravel, and other of the impressionists too. I also hear sounds and textures which remind me of several projects by Pat Metheny which successfully melded a fusion band with a large orchestra. I am certainly not suggesting that Sylva is in any way derivative of Metheny's work, which I admire greatly, nor is the orchestral coloring simply a reflection of the many classical compositions which have come before. True to the spirit of Snarky Puppy, Sylva is an original and progressive step forward.
This is obviously new territory for Snarky Puppy, but any reservations they may have had are kept to themselves. These are great musicians who speak a sophisticated and varied musical language, and whose thorough training is apparent not only in Sylva, but in their earlier work too. Yes, they have a spirit which might suggest a garage band, but they have the ears and intellect to go with their passion. And Snarky Puppy also has the ability to humanize the many electronic devices with which they are constantly surrounded. Are they a synth band? Most definitely, and they are all the more creative for it. But they also know how to bring heart and soul to their Moog Synthesizers, to their Fender Rhodes keyboards, DX7s and even to a Moog/talk box used by Shaun Martin on the Sleeper track on We Like It Here. Another creative instance is the interfacing of trumpet and synth in one of the Sylva tracks. The most amazing thing about it all is that it works, both the fusion of electric and acoustic within Snarky Puppy, and the fusion of the jazz/pop/gospel/soul inflected voice of Snarky Puppy and a full symphony orchestra.
I wish this CD/DVD the best success possible. I also wish for Snarky Puppy and Impulse good fortune in their new relationship. Knowing Impulse for what they have done in the past, I trust they will allow Snarky Puppy to continue to stretch out and grow, that they will not interfere with the creative process. And it will be great if Impulse will support the band's other passion, that of education. According to the band's own bio, “Snarky Puppy is a group of musicians enthusiastically committed to music education and community outreach. Working with groups like ROAM (Roots Of American Music) in inner city Cleveland and the Music Lab at Jefferson Center in Roanoke, as well as giving clinics at hundreds of colleges, high schools, and middle schools worldwide, the band has made a strong commitment to spreading their love of music and general positivity to a young generation looking for something real to be inspired by.” Right On, Snarky Puppy!