Readers Poll Winner / Snarky Puppy: A Different Kind of Big Band

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Snarky Puppy is a big band with a difference.

(Photo: Michael Jackson)

If you ask Michael League, founder, chief composer and cat-herder of the 19-member jazz-funk-rock-world juggernaut known as Snarky Puppy, to recall the largest crowds for which the group has ever played, he answers immediately.

“As a headliner? About 6,000 at the Royal Albert Hall, 2019,” he said via Zoom from Barcelona, near his home in the tiny village of Prats Del Rei, Spain.

And the smallest?

“On my birthday, April 24, in 2012 or 2013. Right after our first European tour, which gave us this enormous boost of confidence, because our crowds were actually decent. We started thinking that something had changed. We flew back from Europe, and the second gig we did was in Arcata, California. There were two people. And one of them was the bartender.”

Snarky Puppy had already been together for eight years at that point. They have come a long way since then, playing thousands of shows all over the world, making 14 albums and winning four Grammys, most recently for Best Contemporary Instrumental Album in 2021.

League, the driving force behind Snarky Puppy and the architect of their rise to worldwide popularity, seems constantly surprised by their success. He shakes his head in wonder at the band’s third win in the 2022 DownBeat Readers Poll.

“We spent so many years being a totally unknown band, I don’t know that I’ll ever start to think of it as something that people care about. … I’m flattered that a publication like DownBeat would even want to write about us.”

Their win is particularly impressive for a group that is more jazz adjacent than jazz.

Snarky Puppy is a big band with a difference. The 19 musicians are configured atypically, to say the least. Any given song might include three electric guitars, three or four keyboard players, two trumpets/flugelhorns, two saxophones/flutes, a violin, three drummers, three percussionists and League’s prominent, ever-funky bass.

They’re a sleek Lamborghini of a group, a fine-tuned, elite machine that has certain things in common with the best big bands of former eras: ingenious arrangements, an ability to breathe as one and high entertainment value that requires no degree of musical literacy to appreciate.

But they’re distinguished from those former paragons by their grounding in guitar and synth-driven rock, funk and blues, hooky riffs combined with sophisticated harmonies that point to the band’s roots at the University of North Texas’ esteemed jazz studies program.

“Even though Snarky Puppy isn’t playing jazz, per se, everyone in the band is a jazz musician,” League said. “So we have the feeling of liberation that you get with jazz: flexibility, freedom and, above all, vocabulary. We are dealing with that vocabulary, but we’re packaging it in a way that doesn’t have the esthetic of what one would call straightahead jazz.”

The band’s success might seem inevitable now, but it was anything but for its first decade. The band built its loyal international fan base painstakingly, League says, one fan at a time, at first in tiny bars.

“During our first few years of touring, everybody in the audience was a family member or a friend. That mentality continued as we started gaining fans. There was always a feeling of a close personal relationship. … We’re not doing anything different than we were doing 18 years ago. Hopefully, we’re just playing less badly.”

League possesses “the rare combination of knowing how to be an inspiring bandleader as well as understanding the intricate ‘business of music,’” said Michael Leonhart, composer, arranger and Steely Dan trumpeter, a friend since 2015. “He’s an incredibly gifted multi-instrumentalist/composer/producer, and he’s had the foresight to continually surround himself with equally talented musicians.”

They recently worked together almost daily when Steely Dan picked the group to open 20 dates on the Dan’s recent national tour.

“I’ve always had the utmost respect for the members of Snarky Puppy, especially Chris Bullock (flute and tenor saxophone), who has been a key part of my Michael Leonhart Orchestra family in recent years,” Leonhart said. “Most of the members are notable bandleaders, composers and producers in their own right.”

Leonhart said Snarky Puppy “crushed it” night after night. “The audience seemed to find the Steely Dan/Snarky duo a very elegant match.”

For his part, League said that touring with Donald Fagen and company was “a dream. God, that’s probably the band that has had the biggest single influence on Snarky Puppy ever. So, to be able to play before them every night, to be able to meet Donald and, above all, to hear those songs every single night, sounding amazing, the band playing amazing … I mean, I’m a fan. I was in the audience every night singing along.”

League mused about Steely Dan’s influence on his own group: “When you think about them,” League added, “you think about how they packed so much musical depth, color and information into a box that everyone can understand, groove to and dig. That’s the most influential element of them on us: the ability to not sacrifice any musical depth in the pursuit of making music that reaches people.

“I think there’s a common mentality among musicians that’s like, ‘Well, OK, we can play the shit that we wanna play and that we love … or we can play the stuff that people will like.’ And that’s not just cool — that’s ridiculous! People are smart enough to understand deep and beautiful things. I’m not saying Snarky Puppy creates deep and beautiful things; I’m saying Steely Dan does. The fact that they proved it can be done was very inspiring for me. I wanted to do that too — just without lyrics.”

Snarky Puppy, League concludes, is “basically like Steely Dan plus (Herbie Hancock’s) Headhunters,” plus a few other things like the impact of the Black American music scene in Dallas and Roy Hargrove’s RH Factor. “But I think (the first two) are our biggest influences. Both of them did an incredible job of making stuff that musicians love to play accessible to the common listener.”

League holds those listeners in high esteem. “Probably a lot of bands say this, but I really think we have the best audience in the world. Our fan base holds us to a high standard. We have conditioned them to expect a different thing every night. We’re not the band that always plays the hit for the encore.

“We play a different set every night. Sometimes we pull out very old songs. On this last tour we were playing 95 percent new songs that no one had ever heard. With most audiences, that would not go over well. People would be pissed off that they didn’t hear the song that they came to hear.

“We’re lucky … because our audience genuinely wants us to surprise even ourselves onstage. I can’t think of a more fortunate position for a band to be in. All we’re being asked to do every night is to go onstage and push ourselves to do something new and fresh, to explore and play and grow. … Our audience encourages us to do that, even to the point where, if things aren’t going well onstage, you can tell the audience knows. And I love that.”

The group’s latest album, Empire Central (GroundUP) is, like Snarky Puppy’s 13 previous albums, a showcase for engaging, fresh compositions, but this time League and company up the funk and R&B quotient considerably.

“It’s about Dallas, and Dallas is an incredibly funky and soulful city,” League explained. He mentions Erykah Badu, Roy Hargrove, Kirk Franklin, and Jason Moran, among others, as Dallas musicians who “revolutionized the way we think about Black American music.”

League wrote four of the album’s 16 songs; for the rest, he asked his bandmates to write about what Dallas meant to them. When they did, “I think they all thought about bass, so the music ended up being funkier. There’s a lot more bass playing on Empire than on most Snarky Puppy records because that’s what the songs asked for, and I was happy to oblige.”

The album reflects the band’s musical evolution since its North Texas days. While they learned the catechism in the school’s famed jazz studies program, League has said that the majority of his musical education came from playing in Black churches in Dallas.

“Jazz school was great, because when I arrived at North Texas, I lacked all the fundamentals; I didn’t know what I was doing. North Texas got me on top of my technique, scales, jazz history, playing and practicing all day. But when I dropped out, moved to Dallas, and started playing 80 percent of my gigs in churches and 20 percent in Black clubs, that’s when I learned how to make music. Not just as a theory, but that’s where I developed a much deeper relationship with the spiritual, emotional and communicative side of music making.”

League’s bandmate at those church gigs was ’80s funk star and Dallas musical mainstay Bernard Wright, whom League identifies as the group’s mentor.

Wright died tragically this year in Dallas at age 58, as a result of a motorist-pedestrian accident, not long after recording a synth track on “Take It!,” a song from Empire Central.

“He took me under his wing,” League recalled. “When we’d finish playing a service, I’d drive him to jam sessions. That’s where Bernard introduced me to a lot of people that ended up playing in Snarky Puppy. I would also play gigs with his band. … We played together between three and six times a week for several years.

“He shared so much wisdom with me. He taught me … how to tell stories with your phrasing. He taught me about reasons to take a gig — whether to grow as a musician, to help a friend, to make money — all good reasons, but if you have all three it’s perfect. Above all, he proved to me that being musical is number one, always. It always trumps hype, energy, swag, all these things. Your real power is in being musical.” DB

Click HERE for the complete DownBeat 87th Annual Readers Poll listings.




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