Empire Central

Snarky Puppy

Ground Up Records, 2022


REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


Of all the things I love about Snarky Puppy, the strangest one may be this: their albums verge on unreviewable.

Challenge accepted. But first, three other things I love about Snarky Puppy.

First, the name: honestly, it couldn’t be more perfect… seeming opposites paired in a way that defies both convention and expectations, delivering a statement that feels both direct and layered with complexity.

Second, the nature of the group: they are a true musical collective, currently numbering 19 official members, with a least half a dozen songwriters... and yet they also have a clear leader (ringmaster?) in co-founder, producer, songwriter and bassist Michael League.

Third, their fearless commitment to making art: Snarky Puppy is a true orchestra that plays the quite unique music that moves them—bold, dynamic, inventive instrumental jazz—and trusts their audience to come along for the ride. They have built a substantial following as the cultiest of cult bands, playing complex fusion pieces that dip their toes into rock, soul, gospel, blues, jam band and bebop, among other styles, with the only truly consistent elements being guts and flair.

Reflecting that fearless commitment, the group chose to record this double album of new music live in the studio in front of an audience of invited guests, giving these performances the added fuel of a concert setting, highlighting the interplay and exchange of energy between the players, as well as between the band and their appreciative, fully engaged audience.

What makes it all work is a combination of phenomenal chops and a remarkable esprit de corps. This is a group of people who appear to derive tremendous joy from the simple act of making music together, and to not really give a damn what anyone outside of their immediate circle thinks of the end result. That joy, that passion, that artistry is what makes Snarky Puppy special, and makes this album giddy fun to listen to, as long as you’re in the right headspace to take it all in; elevator music, this isn’t.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

Disc one kicks off with the gospel-soul-funk fantasia “Keep It On Your Mind,” with soaring horns and overdriven synths pushing the energy level through the ceiling, before settling in for a continuously engaging journey through wonky math jazz (the syncopated space fusion piece “East Bay” and the dense, elastic, guitar-heavy “RL’s”), soul-jazz (“Bet” features snappy horns, slinky guitar, bubbly bass, hard-hitting drums, and a wild clavinet solo), and strutting funk (“Take It!” which featured guest Bernard Wright lights up with exuberant keyboard solos).

Percussionist Marcelo Woloski’s “Portal” is classic SP in the way it develops and morphs steadily from a coolly sophisticated opening with lilting guitar, rhythmic keyboards, and percussion; a band with 19 players gives its writers and arrangers the flexibility to combine instruments in an infinite variety of formations. That versatility is equally present on “Broken Arrow,” which leans to the slinky-jazzy side of things; slinky on the rhythm end and jazzy on the horns.

Disc two offers a similarly eclectic and engaging ride through tasty funk (“Mean Green”), contemplative light jazz (“Free Fall” and especially the dreamy “Belmont”), rollicking soul-jazz (“Pineapple”), and what could only be termed graveyard space jazz (guitarist Mark Lettieri’s closing “Trinity,” an eerie, evocative, shapeshifting dialogue among guitars, horns, and rhythm section). Of particular interest are the soul-jazz leaning “Honiara,” featuring powerful push and pull between the stuttering rhythm section and the sweet flow of the horns, and  guitarist/songwriter Bob Lanzetti’s “Coney Bear,” whose snaking riff gets picked up on by the entire ensemble before it’s complemented by a second, very spacy guitar line. Imagine a mind-meld between Luis Conte between Pink Floyd, or something; it’s that wild.

In the end, though, I can’t help feeling all of the above description amounts to trying to use an old pencil stub to paint a rainbow. Snarky Puppy music is what it is. Maybe the most fascinating part—and I still don’t know how they do it—is that the music has structure and hooks, yet feels organic and spontaneous. Its flowing free-form quality makes it feel as if each passage was freshly discovered in the moment, even as it’s clear that the music has been carefully arranged and is played with tremendous precision.

Empire Central is both a gift for longtime fans of Snarky Puppy and a great point of entry for those just discovering the group—a kaleidoscopic bounty of complex jazz fusion that’s also accessible, tuneful, and consistently engaging. Highly recommended.

Rating: A-

User Rating: Not Yet Rated



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