With a rotating roster of some 40 musicians, Snarky Puppy has been producing genre-bending instrumental music since it was formed in 2004 by bassist Michael League in Denton, Texas. The first track of Snarky Puppy’s album offers a vibrant, orgiastic taste of just what the Brooklyn-based collective can do. Featuring everything from stark, Phillip Glass-flavored moving notes and unsetting strings to explosions of jazz-informed percussion, “Sintra” is a three and a half minute song that feels like the score to a film that has never been made, perfectly capturing that feeling of sitting in a darkened theater awaiting a rush of light and emotion captured on celluloid, of boundless potential. The profusion of ideas on display in this one slim track is an indication that this is a band on the move. Kinetic, young, and clever without sacrificing craft, Snarky Puppy continues to instill hope in the future of instrumental music.
“Flight” swoops in on a pulsing hip hop bassline and splashes of playful synths, dialing back the opening number’s intensity while showcasing an infectious funkiness. The track is an airy, jazzy confection, but meticulous craftsmanship marks each note. Combining breathless improvisation (check out those delicious keyboard licks) with a slick production gloss makes for modern day jazz that goes down like a mint julep in July.
“Atchafalyaya” doles out big dollops of brass, including three words you never thought you’d hear in the musical landscape of 2015: blistering trombone solo. The piece evokes traditional New Orleans jazz with its gut-busting drums and muted brass instrumentation, then dissolves into lighter-than-air strings straight out of a midcentury pop composition that vanish in a flurry of futuristic synthesizers. Snarky Puppy takes us on a journey, visiting a century of American music in a few seconds without ever stopping for air.
“The Curtain” at first dispenses with some of the musical pyrotechnics to deliver a downbeat ballad that fluctuates effortlessly between spare instrumentation and lush string arrangements accentuated by bossa nova percussion and a soaring trumpet solo. Never content to let the listener get too comfortable, though, an ‘80s-fried synthesizer comes in, weaving in and out of the traditional jazz instruments to create a delightfully weird, dystopian nightmare mutant of a song. It sounds like the soundtrack to Beverly Hills Cop as performed by strung out members of the Weather Report at knifepoint. If this is a selling point to you, as it should be for any red-blooded Earthling, do yourself a favor and purchase Sylva immediately. That this craziness falls effortlessly into an elegant piano solo and a string-led interlude that has just the right amount of matinee schmaltz makes it all the better.
“Gretel” revels in some eastern-inspired chord progressions, building in intensity before fizzling out with tinkling ivories. This brief interlude, sandwiched between two 15-plus minute meandering musical odysseys, is a welcome respite. For its final trick, Snarky Puppy offers a simple (but not simplistic) palate cleanser in “The Clearing”. This track takes a more traditional approach than previous songs on the album, and the result is more satisfying than thrilling. Here the brass blats and woodwind riffs hit the expected beats, but the return to jazz and funk fundamentals is like a long-awaited homecoming after the whirlwind tour of the rest of the album.
It’s easy to describe the collective’s output in terms of scores and soundtracks. Snarky Puppy’s scope is cinematic, its sound vibrant and evocative of moving pictures. The music is endlessly inventive, but, like the best jazz, instantly accessible. Words like “pastiche” and “homage” don’t do it justice, although the band is certainly well aware of its influences. Snarky Puppy remains a bizarre and wonderful amoeba all its own.