The Triumphant Emptiness of Snarky Puppy

If an iTunes library on shuffle needed a house band, Snarky Puppy would be it.
Snarky Puppy
Family Dinner, Volume Two

I first noticed Snarky Puppy when my music students, faced with a bit of downtime in the band room, were pulling up videos of the band’s recording sessions on a big screen. While in the other space wrestling with some students trying to play a basic blues, I starting hearing “Woooo!” and “Oh, no!” through the wall, as the teenagers had the glorious experience of being blown away by dazzling technique.

“I know you must love Snarky Puppy,” a drummer said to me as I entered the room and saw the band move from a percussion jam into a sizzling synth solo or from a soulful vocal into a tricky brass passage that was part James Brown and part Maynard Ferguson. I thought then as I think now, Hallelujah! for a band that can get young people this pumped up about jazz. Not that Snarky Puppy is jazz, exactly.

Making Music After the Fall

If you don’t know Snarky Puppy, then you’re in a shrinking minority. Formed in Texas 12 years ago by exceptional young musicians largely pulled from the famous University of North Texas jazz program, the band is a collective that is orchestrated by bassist Michael League. Today they are based in New York and have won their first Grammy, but they are marked as much by how they have achieved success — and how hard they have hustled along the way — as by the music.

Coming out of music school in the early ’00s clearly posed challenges. The record industry had essentially collapsed and having a degree from UNT might get you gigs, but it wasn’t going to propel anyone into an easy life. Maybe not even a musical life. Snarky Puppy, from the start, took a different path, defying both genre conventions and business conventions.

Musically, the band is sleek but post-modern, perfectly integrated but also a stitched-together Frankenstein’s monster of styles. Which is to say, it reflects its generation and education, as if an iTunes library on shuffle needed a house band. This, as I will discuss below, is both breathtaking and bland.

Beyond the music, Snarky Puppy may be even more impressive. The band has found a way to combine hustle and resourcefulness into success. Relentless touring and do-it-yourself recording and distribution made them a kind of big band version of Medeski Martin & Wood. Winning the 2014 Best R&B Performance Grammy for “Something” featuring singer Lalah Hathaway (from Family Dinner Volume One) and the recent Grammy for Best Contemporary Instrumental Album for its last record, Sylvia, recorded with the Metropole Orkest from the Netherlands made them more than just an underground phenomenon.

Now Snarky Puppy is emerging more clearly into the mainstream with the release of Family Dinner Volume Two, which is both on their own label (GroundUp) and distributed through Universal Music. Like its predecessor, it features a series of guests, particularly singers across the musical spectrum, who are given a funky new setting in a Puppy arrangement, all recorded live before a small audience.

Why Snarky Puppy Dazzles

Snarky Puppy has worked hard and in innovative ways to get heard. Why do audiences respond with such enthusiasm when they hear the band? After all, these guys are not pop stars. They merely play instruments very well and most started out with jazz training. A formula for stardom that’s not.

In Nate Chinen’s recent article in The New York Times (5 February 2016), League credits experience playing church services outside Dallas (and being mentored by Bernard Wright) with moving the band “from white jazz-school stuff to something groovier, funkier, more communicative with the audience. Less nerdy.” To be sure, listening to the music bears this out. Drummers like Robert “Sput” Searight and Jamison Ross drive Snarky Puppy from the ground up — both with core backgrounds in gospel music and then astonishing careers in hip hop and funk (Searight) and jazz (Ross). The music hits you on the backside before it flits with any other part of your body.

Though JazzTimes readers awarded them the “Best Big Band” accolade in 2015, they are first and foremost a tight-as-a-drum rhythm section. The band always carries a percussionist (Nate Werth, Marcelo Woloski, or Keita Ogawa), the leader is your electric bass player, and several guitarists are adding funk, texture, and rock-anthem material on most tracks. More importantly, for me, are the keyboards that drive Snarky Puppy on any given night.

Cory Henry is a Hammond B3 organ specialist, and he’s often the most imaginative soloist. His playing with Lalah Hathaway on “Something” is the song’s critical connection, hip and soulful at once, harmonically interesting and heart-tugging. Henry’s current work beyond Snarky Puppy is roots-driven soul music, searing feeling with a backbeat. His band the Funk Apostles probably says it all. Bill Laurance released a 2014 album on GroundUp that moves across vast territory, but “The Good Things” will remind many of Brad Mehldau.

So, every time you hear Snarky Puppy, you’re in for a snaking, electrifying synthesizer solo with harmonic movement, something that wouldn’t have been out of place on a ’70s Return to Forever album. If you like some amplified Chick Corea, then the Puppy probably also reminds you of Weather Report, the jazz fusion era’s most orchestral band, which traded in funk grooves, synth-y expression, and also the world music grooves that similarly pleases the Puppy. While we’re dwelling on The Me Decade, let’s also note that Snarky Puppy — with its emphasis on trumpets in the horn section (usually carrying two to just one reed player) — will remind older listeners of the brassier big bands of that time: Maynard Ferguson’s glitzy band being the most prominent and the most likely to engage with pop material (see 1974’s Chameleon, with a cover of Hancock but also McCartney’s “Jet” and Stevie’s “Livin’ for the City”).

These bands to which Snarky Puppy refers (intentionally or otherwise) jolted listeners of an earlier era. They were triumphs of virtuosity, first and foremost. Return to Forever was fast and precise; Weather Report was an ingenious amalgamation of styles achieved by players who were nearly or exactly the best on their instruments at the time; and the Ferguson bands were stocked with hot-shot young players emerging from the first generation of “jazz schools” of the ‘70s such as Berklee and North Texas State. Beyond the playing, these bands were early incarnations of what every “band geek” of the ’70s dreamed of: chops in the (attempted) service of coolness. It was music that only a jazz guy could play, but reached for rock beats, soul tunes, and funk grooves. It scored hits: Weather Report had “Birdland” in 1979 and Ferguson hit No. 28 on the pop charts when he released “Gonna Fly Now” (the Rocky theme) in 1977.

This is not to argue that Snarky Puppy doesn’t create music that is also subtle or imaginative. Family Dinner Volume Two opens with a beautiful and then driving arrangement of Becca Stevens’s “I Asked” that merges folk elements from the Swedish band Vasen to a metrically complex synth-bass funk that never overwhelms the singer’s subtle vocal. The track you imagine will get the most attention is a collaboration with folk-rock icon David Crosby that is all pastel organ tones, guitar subtlety, and a hinting swell of wind instruments, but just barely.

If you want to know what’s selling out sizable theaters all across the world, the answer is in the plethora of live recordings Snarky Puppy is selling on its website, where crowds in Europe and South America all know the bluesy horn melody to “Lingus”, from 2014’s We Like It Here, with its stuttering keyboard part, its melodic bass line, its catchy guitar hook doubled by the trumpets, and a decent set of harmonies to inspire truly dashing jazz playing a la Corea — just before the Corea-esque synth lines that trade fours with electronically processed trumpet. The opening bars of “Shofukan” (also from We Like It Here) get cheers in Buenos Aires, and the cinematic world music groove eventually becomes a singalong, with plentiful synth accompaniment, followed by a clattering percussion jam. “What About Me?” gets the crowd singing along to an instrumental melody as well: its polyrhythmic groove speeding up expertly on cue, the drum fills sounding positively prog-rockish before a guitar solo rocks for a deeply complex five minutes of fusion-y speed.

The crowd drinks deeply from the band’s well of musicianship and invention and showy virtuosity.

Why Snarky Puppy Can Feel Flat

Here is the great dilemma with Snarky Puppy, its glory and its Achilles Heel at once. The musicians are just fabulous. They do many things very, very well and play with a seamless professionalism. When the tenor player revs up for a wild improvised solo, well, he sounds like Michael Brecker on steroids — and the crowd goes wild. When what’s called for is atmospheric Americana guitar, yessss, there it is, gorgeously delivered — and your heart string, well, she’s been tugged a bit.

Snarky Puppy, ultimately, is not a funk band or a jazz band, big or medium. The Puppy is not a rock band or a pop band, either. So what is it? Snarky Puppy is rather like an old-fashioned talk show band: an updated NBC Orchestra led by Doc Severinsen for Carson’s Tonight Show, a more harmonically lush CBS Orchestra led by Paul Schaffer for Late Show with David Letterman. These comparisons, I want to note, are a form of high praise. Those were astonishing bands made of the finest players. But they were bands that were asked to be ready on any given night to play any style, and play it brilliantly and on a dime.

Which is why no one ran out to buy recordings by the NBC or CBS “Orchestras”. You relied on them to execute imitations of other things, but not to deliver new ideas.

Just one detailed example. From Family Dinner Volume One you have a track like “Too Hot to Last”, featuring Lucy Woodward, a singer-songwriter who is Puppy-esque in her diversity of ability and influence. I dig its roots guitars and slow-build to an alt-country, T-Bone-Burnetty climax, but its presence on the record is one-off peculiar. On the very next track, “Turned Away” featuring the fabulous guitarist Tony Scherr, the Puppy is playing a funky New Orleans slow drag, sounding nothing at all like they did on “Too Hot” and nothing much like the band tears up tracks like “Lingus” or “What About Me?”

Which brings us back to those jazz fusion bands and the Maynard Ferguson band from the ’70s. All those musicians were supremely talented, but they did not always make great music. The Ferguson bands, no matter how beloved they were by the band geeks of that era, were committing artistic adultery, if you will. Corea and Zawinul were great musicians and they were leading astonishing bands, but the impulse to blow the audience away eventually ate away at the bands’ nuance and feeling.

Snarky Puppy wavers in that zone. They’re not nearly as bankrupt as the Maynard Ferguson band of the ’70s, but they’re not nearly as original and brilliant as Return to Forever or (especially) Weather Report at their best. For audiences seeking a “fusion” that is truly fun to listen to, new music that has the joie de vivre of “Birdland”, this is the music to answer the call.

Snarky Puppy also has the advantage of being of its moment in a particular way that Chinen identified in his article. “Within the last several years, since clawing its way out of obscurity, Snarky Puppy has become the most visible of a crop of young bands building on a foundation of funk, rock, hip-hop and electronic music, typically with streamlined internal combustion and an overlay of vaulting, anthemic melody.” True, and he compares them to Christian Scott and GoGo Penguin, both good examples of how “jazz” these days has a much more authentic and organic association with groove music then Zawinul or Ferguson ever could have. There are dozens more examples of bands that come out of “jazz” training and playing that are, rhythmically at least, really rock or soul bands just with better chops. The Puppy can claim that, too.

However, here’s a less flattering comparison that Chinen mentions but doesn’t unpack in the New York Times. Snarky Puppy has also been compared to the latter-day jam bands, groove bands like Galactic and Umphrey’s McGee and, certainly in their business model, Medeski Martin & Wood. The audiences skew young, and all these bands are celebrated for a nerdish combination of technical skill and musical wit. But compared to these bands, the Puppy is rather tame and predictable. They don’t much “jam” even when they improvise. They play and dazzle but they don’t explore. Medeski Martin & Wood gives you the groove, but they also take you for a safari in a jungle of sound.

By comparison, Snarky Puppy is a roller coaster: thrilling, dazzling, fun, but never daring or free of the tracks over which the music flows. At the end of the night, you wind up out of breath but right where you started. The larger question lingers: does the band have a vision for what it wants to sound like? Is it “art” or merely very amazing commerce, commerce that is not at all easy to pull off?

Hey, man, I can hear Puppy fans thinking already, not all music has to break new ground. Who cares if it meets some ‘jazz’ standard of innovation or invention some critic sets forth? That’s a totally fair question. I’m rooting for Snarky Puppy to keep thrilling us, keep the coaster rolling while also, once in a while, veering off the tracks. Now wouldn’t that be a song you’d want to hear?