Snarky Puppy: Empire Central

The Dallas funk collective, captured over eight nights, always produce something of merit amidst the electro-storms and the thumping


Snarky Puppy, so far the ne plus ultra of 21st-century college-created bands, would drive a minimalist mental with their latest double-CD offering, recorded over eight nights before a studio audience in Dallas, their home turf.

Complementing the barrage of electric guitars, keyboards, percussionists and horns is a crowd of influences that reportedly takes in almost everything bar late-Gregorian chant. And maybe that too. It’s a collective, but one with a capacious trawl net holding in reserve more than 20 musicians, reduced on this doubler to 19 including guest funk luminary Bernard Wright, who died not long after the album was recorded.

The opening Keep It On Your Mind by leader Michael League is a statement of intent. It’s a slow rocker, coagulated by a lot of musicians and a lot of electronica with a few added horn riffs. There’s an interval of repose towards the end in which tempo and texture are reduced to a glimpse of what less of almost every ingredient might accomplish. The whole chart is funky, but reminiscent by default of a time when funk was leaner and invitingly terpsichoreal. You dance to this on a bed of treacle. But, but . . .

Bassist League modestly lists himself towards the end of the personnel info, as is the norm for a non-leader, and shares composition and arrangements with the rest of the band. His Bet strikes a lighter, chirpier note, giving individuals room to breathe over insistent percussion, and showing how important it is with a large sonic armoury to be selective. Pianist and trumpeter Justin Stanton’s Free Fall is more heavily groovy with a nice descending motif, with brass, keyboard, drum-kit and guitar interpolations and with a tempo that maybe curtails any rush towards the wall of sound that ultimately envelops his Broken Arrow. Wright is featured on Take It!, written by organist and keyboardist Bobby Sparks.

Portal, by percussionist Marcelo Woloski, is driven to urgency by drums that are not so much undercurrent as wave motion on which solos surf; but even here it’s clear to see how much can happen when the beat holds back – which is not often. Long before keyboardist Bill Laurance’s Fuel City, a chart that opens quietly with baritone sax and ominous synth clouds, the influence of fusion is well established, as is progressive rock, denigrated more than loved these days for its excesses. League clearly sees how the imbibing of this excess can be mitigated, as in his Belmont, a nascent ballad that could work just as well with less of its weighty underpinning.

Despite acknowledgement of the eclectic that goes to make up their sound, Snarky Puppy are fairly uniform, their tunes basted and boosted by power sources on full charge. Drums and percussion, designed in the past to propel jazz with a lightness of touch, can sound laboured: a paradox. But to ignore the band would be a mistake. There’s always something of merit going on amidst the electro-storms and the thumping. When it’s funky, as on percussionist Nate Werth’s Mean Green, it really ploughs a straight furrow, and guitarist Mark Lettieri’s Trinity ends the album like an expansive work-in-progress.

CD1: Keep It On Your Mind; East Bay; Bet; Cliroy; Take It!; Portal; Broken Arrow; RL’s
CD2: Mean Green; Fuel City; Free Fall; Belmont; Pineapple; Honiara; Coney Bear; Trinity (90.89)
Bob Lanzetti, Mark Lettieri, Chris McQueen (elg); Justin Stanton (elp, kyb, t); Bobby Sparks (org, syn); Bill Laurance (kyb, elp, syn); Shaun Martin (kyb, syn); Zach Brock (vn); Mike Maher, Jay Jennings (t, flh); Chris Bullock (ts, ss, bcl, f); Bob Reynolds (ts, ss); Michael League (elb); Nate Werth, Marcelo Woloski (pc); Jason Thomas, Larnell Lewis, Jamison Ross (d); Bernard Wright (org, syn). Dallas, 3-10 March 2022.
Ground Up Music