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Snarky Puppy: The Whole Family

Tyler Henderson By

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I didn’t imagine the sound would be like this. I think the guys from the band have influenced the sound just as much as I have conceived from the beginning." —Michael League
Snarky Puppy is currently one of the freshest sounds in modern jazz. Lead by bassist Michael League, the young troupe of North Texas grads mixed in with the best and brightest of the New York and Dallas music scenes features a funk and groove style that can't be matched.

Snarky Puppy is coming off of a year where their 2012 album/DVD, groundUP, reached critically acclaimed heights with funky hits such as "Thing of Gold," "Young Stuff" and "Binky." League plays with a self-dubbed "family" of players that include Robert Searight on drums, Nate Werth and Keita Ogawa on auxiliary percussion, Bobby Sparks, Shaun Martin, Cory Henry and Bill Laurance playing keys, Chris McQueen, Bob Lanzetti and Mark Lettieri on guitar, Justin Stanton, Jay Jennings and Mike Maher playing trumpet, Chris Bullock on tenor saxophone, and Zach Brock making appearances on violin.

All About Jazz: So you guys just came back from Europe, right? How did that go?

Michael League: It was great. We played North Sea Jazz Festival for the first time, in Rotterdam, which was really great. And we hosted the jam session afterwards, so there were people like Roy Hargrove, Terence Blanchard, Eric Harland and Kendrick Scott that we got to play with. And we got to do Jazz Avien, we played a 4 a.m. set in a 2,000-year-old Roman ampitheater, which was cool right after Steve Gadd and Bob James.

Justin Stanton: And George Vincent before that.

ML: Yup.

AAJ: Do you feel like you have a good following over in Europe?

Bill Laurance: Yeah, we sold out KOKO in London, which was about 1,200 people, and it feels like Europe is... there's just a real buzz in Europe.

JS: A real positive experience all the way around.

AAJ: Alright, so I know you must get asked about this a ton, but how would you give yourselves a genre?

ML: You know, people say a lot of different stuff, the only word I use as far as a genre is instrumental music. It's the only thing that really stays consistent about it is that it doesn't have lyrics. People called it fusion, but fusion is such a broad term, technically the word fusion can describe any form of music that combines genres. When I hear the word fusion, it makes me think of an era, you know what I mean?

AAJ: Yeah, definitely.

ML: I think of Return to Forever and Mahavishnu and stuff like that. And I don't think we have a lot in common with those bands. Even though I think a lot of people who like that stuff like our music. But I never listened to that stuff. The only fusion band that I ever listened to Weather Report, which I love. Anyway, yeah, you know, I would just call it instrumental music. Because it's consistent. Our styles and genres move all over the place.

AAJ: Well you just did some really different music, away from your usual sound in your most recent album with Bukuru Celestin, Amkeni. How did that connection happen?

ML: We met Bukuru through this place called the Music Lab in Roanoke, Virginia. At Jefferson Center, which is like an afterschool music facility for kids in the community where they have access to recording studios, music software, things like that. Bukuru is a student there, so he had dozens and dozens of songs on a computer that he had demoed, and I listened to them, and we recording a song with him and Ari Hoenig, great jazz drummer. The song went so well that the Jefferson Center applied for a grant for us to record a whole album with him, and we got it.

AAJ: What was it like, working with Bukuru? Did he have a lot of stories to tell?

Chris Bullock: He's had a very interesting life, because of the country he's from, he was like a refugee, he and his family. He was born in Burundi...

ML: Born in Burundi, lived in Tanzania for most of his life...

CB: Basically, they came to the states for a better quality of life for all the kids, they come from a big family. And there was a war involved too, wasn't there?

ML: Yeah, the countries are pretty war torn over in (Central Africa), it was Burundi, Tanzania, and the Congo, and then Virginia. So he and his sisters, and his parents as well, refugees that ended up in small town Virginia. He's a super sweet kid, smart kid, he's going to school to be a doctor.

AAJ: I'll bring it back to the roots for a second. How did you all get together? And did you imagine a sound like yours?

ML: That's funny because in this room, I know these two guys were in the original band which I started while I was in college. Then Bill (Laurance) played on the first record even though he wasn't in the first band, but by the time we made our first record Bill was in the band. Chris (McQueen) was playing with us from our first tour. But it was weird, because guys kept moving to New York, then moving back. Were you (Bullock) playing full time before or after you were in New York?

CB: Before.

ML: Yeah, before. And then we picked up Justin (Stanton), because Justin came to school right after we came to school (North Texas). Then I met Keita basically right before we moved to New York. We've picked up guys along the way, but I think the most significant change came when we met guys like Sput (Searight), Bernard Wright, Bobby Sparks, Shaun Martin, the whole Dallas gospel crew. Up until that point, my vision for the band was like... Music was kind of funky, but it was more worldly? It was very jazzy and worldly, but those guys came and that's when the synth thing came into the band, and we started being heavier on groove stuff. So, no, I didn't imagine the sound would be like this. I think the guys from the band have influenced the sound just as much as I have conceived from the beginning.

AAJ: Give us a behind the scenes look, what are you guys up to on your free time?

JS: Drive and soundcheck.

Chris McQueen: Free time is rare!

Mike Maher: I think that over the years, we've developed some chops for hunting down some badass restaurants.

ML: We play Frisbee a lot too.

AAJ: So it's basically Frisbee and food?

MM: The two F's.

ML: Yeah, that's on tour, but if you're asking about when we're off tour, everybody has a bunch of things that they do, music or otherwise.

AAJ: Alright, well let's get hypothetical here. Where do you see this group going in the future?

MM: I'm starting to feel like this band is going to be together for a long, long time. I know Mike's vision for it, which is a great one, is kinda having it be a jumping off point for people. Helping make ideas, creatively. Which is cool, like a business sort of thing. I imagine we'll probably get back together, if we ever part, over the years.

ML: He's talking about individuals doing solo projects, using the band as a launching pad.

MM: Yeah, getting together with other artists. Everybody wants to do their thing.

CM: It's a big thing to say, but it's sort of parallel to, like, the Jazz Messengers.

MM: I was definitely talking to somebody about that the other day. Like Jazz Messengers, and Miles' band. The idea was to be encouraged to go on.

JS: Yeah, Terence Blanchard said that when we were over at North Sea Jazz Festival. Blakey would say "when you're finished with this band, you're going to be a band leader."

AAJ: Well until that day, you guys are playing together. Sounds like you're busy, too. Amkeni is the first of three 2013 albums, right? Any sneak peeks on what is coming up?

JS: Well, we're playing a few of our new songs tonight. When does the next one come out?

ML: Bukuru's came out this week, Family Dinner is September 24.

JS: And then in October, we're doing a month and a half tour in Europe, and it will begin by doing a four or five...

ML: Four.

JS: Four day recording session in Holland, and similar to our last Snarky Puppy albums, the original compositions, we'll be doing live studio recordings in this really cool place called Kytopia. It's run by this trumpet player who basically made an album that was a runaway success in Holland, and he said he bought all the property on the street and converted all the property into recording studios and places for artists to live. Created a great space, so we're really looking forward to that.

AAJ: And you guys typically record pretty quickly, huh?

ML: Yeah, well that's the advantage to doing everything live. You don't have that super tedious overdub process, it's like, what happens in that eight minutes is the track. We've kind of set a precedent of having records not sound perfect or clean, so people don't really expect that from us. They expect that stuff to be raw.

AAJ: And that helps the improv, of course.

ML: So we can feel free. Especially when we play four nights in a row, playing the same music, you can take a lot of risks and go in different directions with the song, because you know you have four chances to get it, as opposed to one.

CB: And the live energy. You can't match that, being in a sterile recording studio, as hard as you try. Having an audience in front of you, connecting with you.
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