Snarky Puppy are without doubt a jazz phenomenon right now. 2014 Grammy in the bag, six best-selling albums behind them, they’ve recently just played to 15,000 people at the Hollywood Bowl as part of a sell-out world tour. They’re moving into rock band territory, such has been their capacity to delight bigger and bigger audiences across the globe with their catchy jazz-classical-rock-funk hybrid sound that, well, just works. And they’re doing it with such brio and panache.
This new album and DVD, Sylva, is their next step on the road to dominating the contemporary international jazz scene, and there’s every sign it’s going to add to their growing reputation as one of the most innovative groups of musicians on the planet right now.
They’re not just coasting, either. Sylva is a concept album with an orchestra. Concept albums should normally be approached with a large bargepole but this is not required here - the concept, such as it is, simply provides a jumping off point for some beautifully engineered tunes. A concept album might suggest a touch of hubris on the band’s part, but it’s clear that this album takes them up another level, broadening out their core jazz sound to appeal to a crossover audience, yet retaining a clear respect and love for their craft.
Sylva represents something of a musical departure, then, but the core Snarky Puppy sound still jumps out at the listener, driven by the rhythm section of League and drummer ’Sput’ Searight, the trumpet playing of Maz Maher and the beautiful keyboard runs of Bill Laurance. On the back of the Snarky Puppy success, Laurance has himself released two highly acclaimed albums of jazz-electronica, Flint and Swift, both of which are worth checking out.
Allusions to woodland in the title of Sylva indicate the thematic thread running through all six tunes: each is part of a story dedicated to the forest, with Michael League across all the tracks capturing the many emotions of a place where, he says, “he feels truly connected to the earth as a human being.” All the pieces were written specifically for playing with Dutch ensemble the Metropole Orkest.
With an orchestra behind them, Snarky Puppy sound radically different: more expansive, more organic (they only used analog instruments), drawing inspiration from the metal and wood landscape in which they recorded this album, with audience members situated in and around the band. The accompanying DVD demonstrates well what fun the band, orchestra and audience clearly had with the music. It is foot-tappingly catchy stuff and the quality of the ensemble playing is a joy to listen to.
Opener Sintra is, after a mournful string elegy opening, a majestic start: League’s pulsing bass introducing the enviable sound of the three-man horn section of Maher, Jay Jennings and Chris Bullock. This is a adventurous tune, with Spanish rhythms and textures introduced by the orchestra, which sets the mood for the rest of the album. There is definitely a sense of this music as both jazz album and soundtrack to a film. Sintra segués into the best track on the album, Flight, with Bob Lanzetti’s insistent guitar lick giving way to some beautiful motifs from Cory Henry on the Moog. In the middle it gives off a ‘70s vibe, but it has a fresh modern sound which exemplifies the magic of 'the Puppy'.
Track three, Atchafalaya jumps right out of the speakers - Ries Schellekens’ tuba pumping out a jaunty riff, giving room for swing from the Snarky Puppy horn section, which embellishes a fun track that is appreciated by the audience which applauds rapturously. The remainder of the tracks are of the same standard and on each, the quality of League’s compositional skill shines through in their emphatic chord changes and rapturous solos. Two long tracks in particular - The Curtain and closer The Clearing - are over fifteen minutes each and border on symphonic film music, with different movements giving the band and orchestra a story-telling opportunity which they pick up with relish.
A total blast throughout and a set which has, judging by the reviews and online social media reaction, gone down fantastically well with audiences across Europe and the US on their current - lengthy - tour. Having listened to this album, I asked myself - what next? How do they build on this luscious and, in the contemporary scene, uniquely marketable and joyful sound? I look forward in anticipation to what they come up with next.
The accompanying DVD of the recording demonstrates just what a smooth running music-making machine Snarky Puppy is. They’re a band which, led by the rhythmic genius of Michael League, is greater than the sum of the fantastically likeable parts and demands to be enjoyed. They are also astute masters of social media, generating an online and live following which laps up their output and creates a real buzz about their music.
Given that, the only way is clearly up for Snarky Puppy and, while the purists might turn their nose up at their populist soundscapes and penchant for hard grooves, they are I think a welcome shot in the arm for jazz and live music, bringing new listeners to the world of jazz in all its forms, which can’t be a bad thing.
A great album that improves on every listen.
Rob has run the London Jazz Meetup [www.meetup.com/london-jazz] for eight years. It brings together London-based jazz fans to support live music and have fun. He likes his jazz “plugged in” as a fan of fusion and jazz-rock. For him, jazz is fundamentally about the bass and the groove.