Every once in a while during my continuous search for new music, I have the incredible fortune of stumbling upon an artist or band that is indisputably one of most talented acts of today’s music industry. That was definitely the case with Snarky Puppy. No, I’m not talking about an ill-tempered mongrel; I’m talking about one of the most inventive and original instrumental fusion bands that I’ve heard in quite some time. I went to see them at one of their live gigs a couple months ago on a whim, and I’ve been hooked ever since. The reason for this is simple: creative ingenuity.
Of course, all of the music that I post on this blog is here for it’s creative ingenuity, so perhaps I am simply rehashing old themes. Maybe so, however there is something that sets Snarky Puppy apart. I believe that they capture the true meaning of the word “fusion” as it is applied to music. Cicily Janus, author of “The New Face of Jazz: An Intimate Look at Today’s Living Legends and Artists of Tomorrow,” writes that “Snarky Puppy is one of the most inventive [groups] in sound and funk since Maynard Ferguson’s fusion years.” Michael League, the bassist, principal composer, and leader of the group, has aptly labeled their sound as “jafunkadansion.” Now we could probably argue over what exactly such a term means for quite a long time, however the only way we would ever find the answer to such a philosophical question would be to listen to groundUP, the latest (and dare I say greatest) release from Snarky Puppy.
What makes this album interesting is that it is a sort of “live” studio album. Every track on groundUP was recorded within a three day period. Three days is all it took for the band haul all of their audio and video equipment into an empty warehouse, set it up, and perform six sets for over 200 people. Featuring a total of 21 musicians, the recordings heard on the album were all taken from those sessions. What seems like an amazing accomplishment becomes even more incredible after listening to the album. Not only is it musically diverse, entertaining, and complex; it is also extremely tight – certainly tight enough to make one think that they spent weeks in the studio going over it with a fine-tooth comb. On top of all that, it’s got soul. The amount of energy coming from all the musicians is simply breathtaking. If you don’t believe me, listen to the final track on the album, “Quarter Master,” and tell me that you don’t feel the sudden urge to book the first available flight straight to New Orleans.
It starts out soft with “Thing of Gold,” a beautifully written piece that brings a couple of elements to the forefront: the constant presence of percussion that expands the sound field, the well-refined horn section that gives an exceptional performance, and my personal favorite, the keyboards. Not only does this band have the grooviest/funkiest/most soulful analog-style synth sounds that I’ve ever heard, but the organ and piano work is phenomenal. Just listen to the synth solo in the middle of “Bent Nails” or the last couple of minutes on “Binky” and you’ll quickly realize what I’m talking about.
This album is a huge inspiration to all musicians and an outstanding listening experience for all music lovers. I am never bored by any of their songs; every time you start to wonder what will happen next, a new section is brought in with its own distinct set of intricately woven parts. It is evident that each musician is thinking for themselves and is free to put their own spin on things. While sometimes this type of free-for-all attitude can turn into a chaotic onslaught of sound, it works tremendously well for Snarky Puppy, and the record would not be the same without it.
There is definitely something for everyone on groundUP, whether it’s the more sentimental ballad approach on “Like a Light” or the slide guitar technique featured on the Southern rock-influenced “Minjor.” The group is clearly advanced in their technical chops as well; the time signatures on many of the songs will make your mind derail (if it was ever able to keep up in the first place, that is). To make it even better, groundUP was released as a DVD as well, so you can watch the band perform in their makeshift studio! Having seen it myself, I would strongly encourage anyone to check it out; such an elevated showcase of musicianship is surely not something that anyone should miss.