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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The Sunday Six

Celebrating music with six random tracks at a time

After a busy week with two back-to-back “big ticket” concerts, I’m ready to take a short break from live shows and celebrate the beauty of music from home with another Sunday Six. Hope you’ll join me on my trip to visit six tunes of the past and the present.

Weather Report/Forlorn

Let’s get underway gently with some jazz fusion by Weather Report. Forlorn is a smooth track from their ninth studio album Night Passage, which came out in November 1980. The piece was composed by Austrian jazz keyboarder Joe Zawinul, who is regarded as one of the creators of jazz fusion. Zawinul co-founded Weather Report in 1970 with saxophone maestro Wayne Shorter. By the time Night Passage was released, the group also featured the amazing Jaco Pastorius (fretless bass), Robert Thomas Jr. (percussion) and Peter Erskine (drums). Weather Report would record six more albums before they disbanded in early 1986 after Shorter had left to focus on solo projects.

The Guess Who/Hand Me Down World

While I’ve only heard a handful of songs by The Guess Who, I know one thing for sure: I love this next tune! The Canadian rock band’s origins go back to 1958 when Winnipeg singer and guitarist Chad Allan formed a local group called Allan and the Silvertones. In January 1965, the band, then called Chad Allan & The Expressions, released their debut album Shakin’ All Over. The group’s cover of the Johnny Kidd & the Pirates song also became their fourth single. The band’s American label Quality Records thought it would be clever to disguise the group’s name by crediting the tune to Guess Who? Not only did the publicity stunt work but it also gave birth to the band’s new name. Hand Me Down World, written by lead guitarist Kurt Winter, is from The Guess Who’s seventh studio album Share the Land, released in October 1970. It also became one of their hit singles, reaching no. 10 in Canada and no. 17 in the U.S. A version of The Guess Who is still around and currently touring the U.S.

Tal Bachman/She’s So High

Let’s stay in Canada for this next pick from April 1999. There’s also another connection to the previous tune. Tal Bachman is the son of guess who? Yep, Randy Bachman, who in turn was a co-founder of The Guess Who and, of course, Bachman–Turner Overdrive. When I heard She’s So High in 1999, I loved it right away and got Tal Bachman’s eponymous debut album on CD. It’s pretty good power pop, and I’m a bit surprised Bachman junior only issued one additional studio album, Staring Down the Sun, in July 2004. Man, with this jangly guitar sound and the catchy melody, I still love this song as much as I did back in 1999. Beware, it might get stuck in your brain!

The Kinks/Till the End of the Day

After some catchy power pop music, I think it’s time for some ’60s rock, don’t you agree? I’ve said it before. The Kinks are among my favorite British rock bands, together with The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and The Who. Till the End of the Day, written by the great Ray Davies, first came out as a single in November 1965. Subsequently, it was also included on the band’s third studio album The Kink Kontroversy, which appeared a week after the single – clever and quite appropriate title. If you’d like to know why I’d encourage you to read this post by fellow blogger Dave from A Sound Day, who just discussed The Kinks’ volatile behavior the other day. Till the End of the Day became their sixth top ten single in the UK (no. 8). It was most successful in The Netherlands where it peaked at no. 6. Elsewhere, it charted in Germany (no. 19), Canada (no. 34), Australia (no. 63) and the U.S. (no. 50). Baby, I feel good!

Band of Horses/The Funeral

If I recall it correctly, it was on Eclectic Music Lover’s blog where I first learned about Band of Horses. In fact, his most recent Weekly Top 30s installment features Warning Signs, a tune by the indie rock band from Seattle, off their current album Things Are Great. Band of Horses have been around since 2004 and released six studio albums to date. The Funeral, despite its grim title, is a great tune from their March 2006 studio debut Everything All the Time. The music is credited to the entire group, with lyrics written by singer-songwriter Ben Bridwell who has been the band’s sole constant member throughout numerous lineup changes. The Funeral also became Band of Horses’ debut single – check out that great sound!

Rival Sons/Pressure & Time

And once again it’s time to wrap up another Sunday Six. Let’s make it count with a kickass rocker by Rival Sons: Pressure & Time. The band from Long Beach, Calif. was founded in 2009 and still includes three original members: Jay Buchanan (lead vocals, harmonica, rhythm guitar), Scott Holiday (guitar, backing vocals) and Mike Miley (drums, backing vocals). Dave Beste (bass, backing vocals) who has been with the group since 2013 completes the current lineup. Pressure & Time, credited to the entire band, is the title track of the group’s sophomore album. Released in June 2011, it was their first to make the charts, climbing to no. 19 in the U.S. on Billboard’s Top Heatseekers. Wikipedia notes that while Rival Sons oftentimes are compared to ’70s rock, they have cited Prince, D’Angelo, The Roots, Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf as influences. Whatever the case may be, when listening to Pressure & Time, I can hear some Zep in here, and that makes me really happy!

Last but not least here’s a Spotify playlist featuring the above tunes.

Sources: Wikipedia; YouTube; Spotify