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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)

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