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Michael League: Snarky Puppy's Jazz-Schooled, Grassroots Visionary

Mike Jacobs By

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There's a mojo, there's a juju, there's a mystical thing that's unable to be identified when art lifts. Connecting with that is like going to church... but I think probably healthier. —Michael League
Bassist, composer, bandleader, sideman, producer, record label owner, festival head...

These are some of the many hats Michael League has acquired since embarking on his musical odyssey at the University of North Texas with a "little" band named Snarky Puppy in 2003. With its Jazz-but-not-Jazz / Music for Brain and Booty ethos, multiple poll wins, Grammy awards, and a worldwide fan base that's still growing, Snarky Puppy is looked upon by many as more of a phenomenon than just a band. All About Jazz recently spoke with the architect of that phenomenon during a break on the road.

All About Jazz: So Michael, you're just coming off a tour with David Crosby?

Michael League: Well, we're actually in the second week and we have four more weeks left and it's great. It's Becca Stevens, Michelle Willis, David and I—just the four of us playing guitars and singing harmony. A very different scene from the Snarky Puppy thing. The record that we did (Here If You Listen, BMG, 2018) just came out. I produced it, with Becca, Michelle, David, and Fab Dupont as co-producers.

AAJ: I guess the next big thing on your plate is the GroundUp Music Festival?

ML: Yeah, we just made the announcement today.

AAJ: The festival seems to be going pretty strong with some fairly exciting and eclectic names outside of your GroundUp label roster taking part last year— Lionel Loueke, Bela Fleck, Jojo Mayer... Have you encountered any unexpected rigors running GUM Fest?

ML: Well fortunately, I don't run it. (laughs) I just pick the artists and basically act as the architect of the musical experience. Paul Lehr is the festival director, I'm the artistic director, so he's dealing with the ugly details. I'm dealing with the beautiful, idealistic ones. (laughs) Yeah, I'm excited. My vision for the festival is for people to come to it and maybe not recognize anyone who's on the bill, but end up with a list of new artists they've discovered. That's the dream for me—and maybe eventually not even announce the artists, period. Just to have people come and experience everything blind—in a very pure and open-minded way.

There are some artists this year, that I know people have never heard of, that they are just going to be floored by—because we first encountered them in the same way. We were in Bogota, Colombia, one night and my friend said, "You have to check out this band that's playing downtown called La Perla (the pearl)." It was these four girls singing, playing percussion and gaita, switching from instrument to instrument and singing folkloric as well as original music. It was like a spiritual experience for us. They don't have a huge internet presence, and we only stumbled upon them because of a friend's recommendation. So for us to bring them to Miami and watch 2000 people freak out hearing them for the first time is what the festival is about. THAT'S the experience that I want to present—every concert. We're working in that direction. If the audience can just trust us to put great artists in front of them, we can make programming decisions from a strictly creative mindset instead of a practical one.

AAJ: From the beginning your musical mission has always seemed to be to bring the average music listener into the fold. What's your take on instrumental music getting traction with the layperson these days?

ML: The fact that it IS getting traction and that non-musicians are going to see shows that previously would have only been attended by musicians is a good sign, and it's not a one way street. When you are a musician and you are playing for people who are not musicians, you play differently. In many ways, those people are much more in tune with what is really happening musically onstage than the musicians. You know what I mean?

AAJ: Yeah, as in they're not keying in on what the bassist is doing or the guitar solo. They're listening to the whole picture, the emotion...

ML: Exactly... and the show and all these kinds of things that are important, things very easy to forget as a musician when you're only looking at things in a microscopic kind of way. You see the cells but you miss the animal, you know? I think this is a very good thing that's happening. It's beautiful seeing people like Esperanza Spalding, Robert Glasper and Thundercat and Hiatus Kaiyote—all these musicians that people CAN nerd-out on—reaching non-nerds. It's becoming a little movement. Man, I mean when we started, audiences AND club owners were allergic to us. They were like, "What? Is this a joke? Ten people playing instrumental stuff that's too loud for a jazz club and not rock and roll enough for a rock club? No way..." (laughs)

AAJ: I imagine many balked at just the size of the band.

ML: To be fair, there are a lot of things to balk at. (laughs) Let's just say I'm not unaware of the unattractive elements of my organization. (laughs)

AAJ: I feel a twinge of pride that I can say I first saw Snarky Puppy—about '08 or '09—in a small brew pub in Delaware. There were eight guys crammed onto a postage stamp-sized stage playing to an audience of about four people. It was nuts, great, and kind of amazing to me that the band existed at all. You somehow slogged a large band through those kind of clubs when most were only paying enough for solo, duo or trio acts to have a decent take. How did you did you do it? WHY did you do it?

ML: It's just the music I was writing. I've never been able to write well for small ensembles. Even writing this stuff for Crosby... The four of us—Me, Michelle, Becca and David—were writing for the record for two weeks and as we're writing, I'm thinking, it would be great to have Moog bass here and Rhodes here... I mean, it's my instinct to pollute the sonic landscape with as many things as I possibly can. (laughs) As time goes on I feel like I'm getting a little better at minimizing, being more succinct, but it's just part of my process. When I write music, I'm already thinking about the production stage. I'm not just, "Here's chords and here's a melody." As I'm writing it, it's like, "This chord would sound great on this instrument with this sound, this melody could be nice harmonized like this..." So Snarky Puppy was just the sound that I heard in my head—a combination of Headhunters, Roy Hargrove's RH Factor, Avishai Cohen's International Vamp Band, Modereko, Dave Holland's Quintet—all these large ensembles' sounds were in my head. That's just how I hear music most of the time.

AAJ: So in doing this new record with Crosby, did he keep you tamped down to the four voices and instruments?

ML: No, in this acoustic project [The Lighthouse Band], he really surrenders those decisions to me. He has another band, fully electric, more rock, which plays more of the tunes he's been famous for over the years as well as new ones. Ours is like the weird acoustic stepchild. It was my idea to have the four of us on a track on a record of his I produced, called Lighthouse (GroundUp, 2016). David loved that combination of people so much that when I recommended it to him for the tour of that record, he was way into it. He dug the tour so much that when I said, "Hey, we should make a record with these four people" he was way into it. It's one of my first attempts to form a small ensemble. It's not mine—it's David's—but I mean, to create for one. That said, Michelle's playing Fender Rhodes and Moog bass and singing. Becca's playing charango, ukulele, electric guitar, acoustic guitar and singing. I'm playing acoustic guitar, electric guitar and bass... so the whole stage is still filled with instruments because I just don't... I can't.... I have a problem. (laughs)

AAJ: You recently released a new album with your group Bokanté. Tell a little about that project.

ML: I started Bokanté about two years ago so it's still in its infancy I guess... (pause) Snarky Puppy is an apolitical band technically—there are no lyrics and no political mission statement—but you also can't just separate politics from music, especially when things get as extreme as they are in this moment. I mean, no person is really apolitical, we're human beings and we do not exist in an apolitical vacuum. We have three guys in the group whom I sponsor for their immigration status and half the band's members are minorities. These are people who are experiencing discrimination and xenophobia on a daily basis in my country. Generally though, politics is not something that gets explored, at least musically, with Snarky Puppy. Bokanté, however, is specifically designed to address social and political issues. [Singer] Malika [Tirolien]'s lyrics are very direct.

AAJ: She sings in Creole but I haven't read the translations...

ML: They [the lyrics] are strong. They're not preachy, but she tells really beautiful stories and has a really no-holds-barred approach to tackling certain situations. She's a very powerful, very observant human being, a black woman living in North America. She's from the Caribbean but she lives in Montreal. She's tri-lingual, she's led a very interesting life and has a lot to say. You feel it. And the guys in the band... we have people from four continents—Asia, Africa, Europe, North America, plus the Caribbean—so just being together in a room, you have a political situation. (laughs) This band was designed to address problems that we face in the current state of the world. Musically, for me, it's a blues band. West African music, Arabic music, Caribbean music, North American music, all following the diaspora of slave music. The West African part [of the blues] is something that I think is very well known. You listen to Ali Farka Toure or Bassekou Kouyate or Tinariwen and you have that whole desert blues sound. But the Arabic ancestry of the blues is something I really wasn't aware of until the last couple of years. It was surprising to me that on our most recent record that we did with the Metropole Orkest and Jules Buckley [What Heat?—Real World Records, 2018] those sounds just fit right in. I play oud on most of the record and there's so much daf and riq and other Arabic instruments on there. So when I say "blues," it seems like it's really pigeon-holed, but actually it's incredibly open depending on your definition of what that is. It's a great forum for discussing things that are socio-political, within the context of the blues as an emotive, cathartic, grooving, soulful thing. I think it's a nice combination.

AAJ: In addition to Bokanté's What Heat?, you and Snarky Puppy worked with Jules Buckley and the Metropole Orkest on Sylva (Impulse, 2015). It seemed then as if you had been itching to write for an orchestra for a long time.

ML: Yes, I love it.
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