Snarky Puppy Shine On Genre-Crossing New Album Empire Central

Snarky Puppy aren’t for everybody – of course, no music ever is. The instrumental genre-crossing group definitely also falls outside of my core wheelhouse. And yet when I came across their new album Empire Central, released last Friday, September 30, I was immediately intrigued. Now I’m hooked, even though there aren’t any vocals – and I usually pay great attention to vocals! In fact, I can go on forever raving about strong voices and great harmony singing and have done so repeatedly on this blog. None of that is here. And dare I say it, in this case, I’m not missing it!

Before taking a closer look at Empire Central, I’d like to provide some background on Snarky Puppy. Other than their great name, I had not heard of them before. Even though they have won four Grammy Awards, I suspect they’re not exactly a household name. Snarky Puppy were founded in Denton, Texas in 2004 by bassist and main composer Michael League as a group of college friends who were in the jazz studies program at the University of North Texas. Initially, they started out as a 10-piece but have since more than doubled in size.

Michael League (front row second from left) with other members of Snarky Puppy

On their website, Snarky Puppy describe themselves as “a collective of sorts with as many as 25 members in regular rotation” who “each maintain busy schedules as sidemen (with such artists as Erykah Badu, Snoop Dogg, Kendrick Lamar, and D’Angelo), producers (for Kirk Franklin, David Crosby, and Salif Keïta), and solo artists (many of whom are on the band’s indy label, GroundUP Music).” When it comes to characterizing their music, notably the website focuses on what the group isn’t: “Snarky Puppy isn’t exactly a jazz band. It’s not a fusion band, and it’s definitely not a jam band.” I would call their music a blend of jazz, rock, funk and R&B.

Empire Central, Snarky Puppy’s 16th album, is “a tribute to the band’s hometown of Dallas, recorded over the course of eight nights in front of a live-in-studio audience at Dallas’ Deep Ellum Art Company,” according to this review in Glide Magazine. “The album also features the last recorded performance of ‘80s funk pioneer and major inspiration Bernard Wright, who passed away tragically at age 58 shortly after these recordings were completed.” Glide Magazine adds the recording includes 19 musicians altogether. Empire Central marks the group’s first album, for which members other than League were involved in the writing of the 16 tracks. Let’s take a look at some, together with League’s thoughts he shared with Apple Music.

Since I just included the opener Keep It On Your Mind in my latest Best of What’s New installment, I’m skipping the track here and go directly to East Bay. “Our woodwind player Chris Bullock wrote ‘East Bay’ while we were on tour in Oakland. He sees Oakland as a sister city to Dallas in terms of its music, and what I love about Chris’ composition style is that he approaches it like J Dilla or a hip-hop artist, interlocking parts in disjointed sections. Somehow, he fits it all together beautifully, with a groove-laden ride-out at the end.”

Next is Bet, written by League, which has a cool funky groove, some neat bass playing and great horn action. “‘Bet’ was written in honor of my good friend RC Williams, who is Erykah Badu’s musical director and essentially the musical heart of Dallas. Every Wednesday night, he runs a jam session in the city, where I was part of the house band for a number of years, and he is just a connector of people who makes things happen. I love midtempo tunes like this that come in, slam it, and get out without trying to be too epic.”

Here’s another great funky tune titled Take It!, featuring the late Bernard Wright. It’s definitely among my early favorite tracks on the album – so good! “This is the only song we’ve recorded as Snarky Puppy that has been previously released by another artist. Our keyboard player Bobby Sparks had this on his MySpace page years ago, and it was a big part of the formation of Snarky Puppy’s sound, since we would listen to it all the time when we were touring in our early days. We kept playing it during sound check for these recordings and decided to throw it into the set list one night. It features the great Bernard Wright for his final recorded performance, where he plays one of the most amazing solos I’ve ever heard.”

The next tune I’d like to call out is Broken Arrow. “Justin Stanton, our keyboard player, wrote ‘Broken Arrow’ to showcase a different side of Texas—its country music. When he brought the tune to the band, he said to think of Crosby, Stills & Nash, which was a fun reference, and it also has a soulful feel, bringing to mind Al Green in sections before going back to being guitar-driven. It’s all over the place, which I love.” Me too!

I’d like to leave you with one more track: RL’s, an homage to Texas blues penned by League. “As a band, we love to take a well-established genre and see what we can do to make it ours. The shuffle is like a religion in Texas, and I wrote this track in homage to a legendary blues shack in south Dallas where I have spent many wonderful nights listening to bands play blues shuffles. ‘RL’s’ is bluesy, but we extrapolate the shuffle, and, at the end, we all come in hard over the foundation of our drummer JT’s groove.”

There is so much more great music on Empire Central, which I cannot include in this post. Here’s a Spotify link to the album in case you’d like to further check it out!

“This album is a chance to say thanks to our home,” League told Apple Music, summing up Empire Central. “It is also a tribute to Bernard and his incredible musical legacy. He left us far too soon.”

In addition to the great music and top-notch musicianship, I love the cultural diversity Snarky Puppy represents, illustrating once again music oftentimes is color blind and knows no narrow-minded racial boundaries. To cite their website one more time: “At its core, the band represents the convergence of both black and white American music culture with various accents from around the world. Japan, Argentina, Canada, the United Kingdom, and Puerto Rico all have representation in the group’s membership.”

Sources: Wikipedia; Snarky Puppy website; Glide Magazine; YouTube; Spotify

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What I’ve Been Listening To: David Crosby/Sky Trails

As somebody who considers Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young to be one of the best vocal harmony bands, you’d think I’d pay more attention to their individual members. With the exception of Neil Young, I guess I simply accepted that the sum is more than the parts. Even if that’s oftentimes true when it comes to top-notch bands, ignoring the parts can mean missing out on great music. Case in point: David Crosby and his album Sky Trails from September 2017, which is only his sixth solo record – pretty remarkable for an artist who released his solo debut in Feb 1971.

David Crosby

With David Crosby having been a founding member of The Byrds and Crosby, Still & Nash (CSN), and CSN having been active on and off between 1968 and 2015 – sometimes with, most of the time without Neil Young – I think it’s fair to say most people associate Crosby with the aforementioned bands. But, as noted above, he has released various solo albums. Sky Trails recently popped up as a listening suggestion in my streaming music platform. I’ve since listened a few times to the album and have to say I really dig it. I was also surprised how jazzy it is. I guess I had expected something more folk rock-oriented.

Let’s get to some music and kick it off with the opener She’s Got To Be Somewhere. This Steely Dan style tune is my favorite on the album. It was written by James Raymond, who produced the record, played keyboards, and, it turns out, is Crosby’s son – one of his four kids, not counting the two children born to Melissa Etheridge via artificial insemination.  Commenting on the tune, Crosby says on his website, “We didn’t consciously do that. We just naturally go to a place where Donald [Fagen] goes. I loved Steely Dan right from the first notes I heard.” Well, the man has good taste!

The album’s dreamy title track was co-written by Crosby with American singer-songwriter and guitarist Becca Stevens. The tune reminds me a bit of music I’ve heard by Clannad. Admittedly, it’s been a long time I’ve listened to the Irish folk band, and it would probably be worthwhile revisiting them. The saxophone fill-ins add a dose of jazz to the tune. “She’s a stunning, amazing singer and a great writer,” Crosby says of Stevens. “I’d rather be in a band with her than almost anybody.”

Here It’s Almost Sunset is a track co-written by Crosby and Mai Agan, an Estonian bass player and composer. It’s another tune on the quieter side. Most tracks on the album are. Again, there are nice saxophone accents. Wikipedia lists three saxophonists who supported the recording, Chris Bullock, Jeff Coffin and Steve Tavaglione, but unfortunately does not reveal who played on which song. Neither do the YouTube clips, which only list the aforementioned core musicians.

Capitol is a protest song co-written by Crosby and Raymond, expressing their less than flattering opinion about legislators: …And you think to yourself/This is where it happens/They run the whole damn thing from here/Money just burns, filling up their pockets/Where no one can see/And no can hear… Sadly, these words seem to ring true more than ever in this country these days.

The last tune I’d like to highlight is called Curved Air. It’s another co-write by Crosby and Raymond. The flamenco guitar sounded was created by Raymond using keyboards. “Hell no, I can’t play like that,” Crosby comments on the track that examines life’s contradictions.  “It’s James on keyboard. So is the bass. It’s the only time I’ve ever heard anybody write singer/songwriter music with flamenco playing.”

In addition to Raymond, Agan and Tavaglione, the core musicians on the album include Jeff Pevar (guitar), British-born, Canadian-raised singer-songwriter Michelle Willis (keyboards, vocals) and Steve DiStanislao (drums). “All the people in the Sky Trails band are much younger than me, so I have to paddle faster to keep up,” Crosby says with a laugh. This was not the first time he had played with them. Between 1996 and 2004, Crosby performed with Raymond and Prevar in the jazz rock band CPR, or Crosby, Prevar & Raymond. DiStanislao and Tavaglione played on CPR albums as well.

David Crosby, who turned 78 years in August, is still going strong. His most recent studio album Here If You Listen appeared in October last year. With four of his seven solo albums having been released since 2014, it appears Crosby is on some sort of late-career surge. He also continues to tour. In fact, he’s currently on the road in the U.S., with confirmed dates until September 17. The tour schedule is here.

There is also a new documentary, David Crosby: Remember My Name. Released on July 19, the film was directed by A.J. Eaton and produced by Cameron Crowe, who has known Crosby for many years. Based on the trailer, the film looks intriguing, and I’m going to watch it on Sunday evening at a movie theater in my area.

Sources: Wikipedia, David Crosby website, YouTube