Snarky Puppy
Photo: Francois Bisi / Courtesy of Sacks & Co.

Snarky Puppy’s Indulge Their Maximalism Yet Again on Double LP ‘Empire Central’

Snarky Puppy is America’s jazz fusion factory and Empire Central hides an album’s worth of gems amidst well-composed, well-played pieces.

Empire Central
Snarky Puppy
GroundUP Music
30 September 2022

My “Snarky Puppy” standard is the opening bars of “Lingus”. I was sold the first time I heard that slinky, overly slow horn line. The band captured a feeling in a single moment, something that is uniquely theirs and instantly memorable.

You can then imagine my delight when the group’s newest release, Empire Central, leans right into that slow, swampy groove in the first bars of its opening track. “Keep It on Your Mind” starts with a searing guitar line, then brings in the nearly-mournful horns. The moment becomes transcendent with a bass synth counterpoint that adds a new layer of filth. These joyous moments make jazz fusion worth it in the first place – and when Snarky Puppy deliver, they deliver. The question with most of their records, then, is this: how much of it ends up being memorable? For Empire Central, the answer is roughly half.

Another standout is “Take It!” featuring Bernard Wright’s final record performance. Wright’s solo begins with a charming question-and-answer format but soon escalates. In the solo’s second half, he builds a sustained narrative, ratcheting up the scale and getting more harmonically complex before stepping away and letting the band take over. It’s excellent work, worth turning over a few times on its own.

“Take It!” is also noteworthy as one of the more compelling iterations of Snarky Puppy’s trademark approach. It introduces a short motif of three repeating notes underneath the solo sections, at first played only by percussion. Then, more instruments climb in as the motif becomes more prominent. The track concludes with a drum soli. Just as your grounding in rhythmic reality becomes undone, the madness is cut short by a whole-band recapitulation of the motif. It’s a simple but satisfying concept that grounds all of the noodling in something concrete. This is the kind of accessible jazz upon which Snarky Puppy built their reputation.

Because the formula is so well-tested, Empire Central is at its most satisfying when avoiding Snarky Puppy’s full-group sound. A clear winner is album closer “Trinity”, which offers the record’s most decentered and challenging track. Resisting the temptations of the shout chorus, the song is more meandering, more surprising, than much of what comes before it.

Similarly, “RL’s” is the album’s best and lengthiest cut, featuring excellent guitar solos from Bob Lanzetti and Mark Lettieri (whose section is more arena rock than jazz, much to my delight). Meanwhile, the instrumentation beneath both soloists is much less busy than we’re used to, giving Lanzetti and Lettieri a platform rather than cacophony to fight. Overall, the track yanks Snarky Puppy far outside of their friendly confines and into a completely new sonic space – something desperately needed on Empire Central.

That’s because, like many double LPs, Empire Central is about twice as long as it needs to be. Listening beyond track 13 feels more like an obligation than a result of the record’s natural propulsion. On most listens, I’m tempted to skip “Belmont” through “Honiara” to get to “Trinity”. 

Part of the sloggification arises from the dynamic ranges within individual tracks. While songs will start with a distinct motif or sound, most of them wander toward a full-band fusion spectacle near the end. “Fuel City”, for example, opens with an ominous texture, fusing Shaun Martin’s talkbox with more subdued horns and electric guitar, leaving out the percussion for upwards of a minute. As the tune progresses, it regresses toward the Snarky Puppy’s mean. The track acquits itself on its own; the format gets tired over a double album’s runtime.

Empire Central is an album of well-composed, well-played pieces by America’s beloved jazz fusion factory. At this point, I don’t think anybody expects anything less. Maybe that’s the thing.

RATING 6 / 10