The first Family Dinner Volume 1 won Snarky Puppy a Grammy in 2014. So, no pressure then for the sophomore album in this series.
The Family Dinner concept grew out of informal jazz sessions with vocalists and composers which the members of Snarky Puppy - primarily up to now an instrumental group - admired. Its combination of sophisticated composition by the band, improvisation and soul wowed the Grammy judges. This time, not resting on their laurels, band leader Michael League and his Snarky Puppy bandmates are extending the concept to include guest musicians as well as singers.
The result? Well, you know the way that some flavours of modern ice cream you get in posh restaurants - raspberry and crushed chilli, and suchlike - seem on the face of it odd choices that, somehow, work, deliciously? Michael League’s got the same results with some unusual singer/musician pairings which bring together disparate musical styles and cultures in a creamy mix of melody, harmony and lashings an lashings of fun and joy.
The band has become known - and hugely popular - around the world for its rich melodies, precision group playing, and satisfying mix of jazz, funk, soul and classical elements which have become the band’s signature dish. Here, that sound is retained and embellished with a fantastically eclectic range of vocal guests. "Unlikely but natural pairings" was the band’s goal. They’ve certainly achieved that.
Take first track I Asked. This pairs Appalachian singer Becca Stevens with Swedish folk-sters Väsen. Listening to the opening bars, one could be forgiven for thinking one is in the west of Ireland, so haunting are the string sounds. But then … ah, yes, in comes the lush Snarky Puppy groove over the breathy warblings of Stevens, making a plaintive plea to her lover tell her what makes him happy. A charming start.
This musical travelogue moves next to South America with Peruvian torch singer Susana Baca whose track, Molinero Morero, - rather unenticingly translated as ’the brown mill’ - is brightened by the fantastically jaunty playing of seven-string bassist and guitarist Charlie Hunter. This track, all hand claps, finger clicks and plaintive Spanish, breaks into a bluesy-jam by Hunter which shifts the track in a totally new direction without losing the underlying beat.
Track after track on this album, it’s like a chocolate assortment with no coffee liqueurs - every selection seems to work. Guests such as Salif Keita, Chris Turner, Bernardo Aguilar and Brit Laura Mvula all bring a touch of their own special magic to the next three tracks - Liquid Love, Soro (Afriki) and Sing to the Moon - all enthusiastically greeted by the band and the invited audience in New Orleans. Soul, funk, Afro-beat, folk, pop - it’s as if Michael League has chosen to layer as many different sounds as possible onto the core Snarky Puppy groove. And while in other hands this might end up as an unlistenable hodgepodge, on Family Dinner Vol 2 it works. The fusion isn’t forced; the singers and musicians are given space in the song to express themselves; the bombast of the band’s live show is toned down. The elements are brought with all the skill of a Paris pastry chef by League.
Track six is one of the most exciting on the album, introducing into the Snarky brotherhood of musicians the UK up-and-comer, multi-instrumentalist Jacob Collier, paired with singer Big Ed Lee on Don’t You Know. This has a gospel-funk feel with a soulful edge. It benefits from a punch from ‘Sput’ Searight’s taut drumming and staccato andJames Brown-style brass interjections from the battle-hardened Snarky Puppy brass section. The track then opens up to a more languid, romantic middle section from Collier, showing why he’s seen as tomorrow’s wunderkind. With the Snarky Puppy seal of approval, expect to hear much more from him in 2016 and beyond.
The most talked-about track on this album will be the last, Somebody Home, which - as Michael League told Kind of Jazz in his recent interview - is a new composition by rock singer and music legend David Crosby offered up to the project. The only ballad on the album, it feels like genuine hallmark Crosby to the touch, the quality in his fresh lyrics evident from the first stanza. Defiantly acoustic, the song is charming and well-crafted, with appropriately light-touch backing from the band which suits it perfectly.
This album is a tasty menu to serve at any dinner with the music lover of your choice. Snarky Puppy’s infectious and joyful approach to music here acts as a launchpad to boost young careers and give the listener another perspective on more established musical voices. Another booster rocket on Snarky Puppy’s gloriously happy ride to the musical moon and beyond, this is a choice album which deserves repeated listening.
What will be served in volume three, I wonder? My napkin is already affixed and my lips are smacking in anticipation.