Music can have political meanings without being directly about political issues, says Nick Grant, reviewing the 'deeply humanist vision' of Snarky Puppy's latest album, Family Dinner: Volume Two.
When my son tipped me off in 2012 about a band he thought I might like, I ignored him. I mean how on earth could a band with such a stupid name as Snarky Puppy be any good?
More fool me. How wrong could I be?
Snarky Puppy’s (SP) recordings and live performances have tons of what musicians call ‘feel’ and ‘groove’. Their sound is a high energy, top quality, infectiously joyful melodic, outgoing art, performed to adoring fans with smiles all round.
It is always difficult to convey the impact of certain music by reference to conventional genre labels emanating from industry marketing departments. Words like jazz, funk, soul, gospel start to sketch the picture. But it’s probably best to go to this wonderful 2012 track to get the best idea of what I am on about.
By 2013 I was devouring everything I could find from SP and their spin-off projects. Meanwhile they managed 184 gigs in 18 different countries.
In 2014 I got to see them play three times in England, plus one gig by keyboard player Bill Laurance’s quartet. It is quite astonishing to find crowds singing along with wordless riffs and melodies as they would to the lyrics of many other performers’ back catalogue.
In November 2015 they filled London’s Hammersmith Apollo to a rapturous response from a very mixed crowd – in terms of gender, age and ethnicity. They don’t dress up to perform and are not dramatic in their presentation. Unlike any others who play this venue the band were straight out to the foyer after their show posing with fans for selfies, signing stuff and answering technical questions from ardent fans.
Meanwhile 2016 sees this second volume of one of their music projects being released on their own Ground Up label. I cannot recommend it highly enough to Culture Matters readers. Here’s why…
SP is a collective of young musicians now based in Brooklyn, New York City. Its leader is bass player, composer and educationalist Michael League. He started the band whilst studying music at college in Denton, Texas combining other jazzers with musicians from the local rap and funk scene.
A fascinating recent radio account of their origins and working routines by acclaimed bass player Christian McBride can be found here. It really is worth checking out.
A typical touring line-up of the band will additionally include a drummer and percussionist, two keyboardists, three brass players and two guitarists. Notably they have no vocalists and are all male. For recordings there may be double or triple this number of players.
The actual personnel filling those roles can vary but the invariable fact is that they will all be highly talented, rehearsed to perfection yet able to improvise at will and inject the utmost polyrhythmic fun and intensity into club and festival performances on global tours for many weeks of any year.
They debuted on record with the concert album Live at Uncommon Ground in 2005. This was followed by The Only Constant (2006), The World Is Getting Smaller (2007), Bring Us The Bright (2008), Tell Your Friends (2010), groundUP (2012) and We Like It Here (2014).
Their collaborative recordings began with Family Dinner: Vol. 1 (2013). This featured a wide range of different guest vocalists per track. One such song -‘Something’ written by Brenda Russell and sung by Lalah Hathaway - surprised everyone by winning a 2014 Best R ‘n B Performance award at the Grammys.
Michael League thanked the twelve band members who had managed to get to LA for the awards ceremony. He said
'They’ve spent the last 10 years with me, eight of them touring very unglamorously on the road and sleeping on floors and couches. To be here right now is completely unimaginable.'
They then released a collaboration with the Dutch Metropole Orkestra called Sylva on Impulse (2015). This surprisingly again won their second Grammy award in 2016. This time it was for The Best Contemporary Instrumental Album.
Which brings us to the latest release. What makes it so special?
Family Dinner: Vol. 2 is essentially a DVD though a CD is also included in the package. This means that we see the music being played live to an audience over six days in the converted New Orleans church that is Esplanade Studios. Rather than being invisibly woven together for months or even years by a studio engineer layering all the tracks one-by-one into a sound often unreproducible in live performance, we are able to witness the creative process live, it's foregrounded as an essential aspect of their musical art. There are no overdubs in the mixing studio.
Plus, today’s advanced recording technology allows for musicians anywhere on the globe to transfer their parts online for an engineer to drop into a final mix. That only happens once on this project because Malian legend Salif Keita was too ill to travel to New Orleans for the version of his classic song Soro. His vocals with backing singers are explicitly shown to have been recorded in his Bamako home.
SP’s prioritizing of collective performance over mixing room wizardry is a deliberate rebuttal of that conventional creative route albeit a risky high-wire balancing act in itself. You won’t see any scores printed out for the various players to follow as you would in classical music performance. In quintessential jazz terms the musicians work from memory, interaction and experience and are never shy of showing their admiration of others’ contributions in smiles, whoops and hollers.
SP music is too complex, concise and absorbing to constitute pure improvisation yet it's pliable enough to generate deep emotional response. The same song will be played differently on different days at different gigs, but the hooks, structure and feel will be the same. Thus SP are prioritizing both the buzz musicians get from collective creative performance and the necessary presence of an audience to feel, witness that buzz in real space and time. Obviously there will be some post-production tweaking to iron out any bum notes or missed cues, but there won’t be many of those. There is a freshness of execution that is just exhilarating.
In addition the DVD includes snippets of interviews and conversations by or with the performing artists, filling in their commitments and aspirations for this music. Our understanding of personal backstories or technical insights is deepened as well as the music’s political and social context.
For example in describing his admiration for SP the singer David Crosby here talks about their music and song more generally being part of 'the opposite of war'. One uplifts, the other degrades humanity. Peruvian musicologist Ricardo Pereira believes that there is a statue to the unknown soldier in every country but never one to the unknown artist. A number of other guests attest to the profound humanity in the presence of singing voices.
As an aside I have often wondered why the performers of yesteryear never included such spoken word interludes between tracks on LPs to enrich our appreciation of what the music means. There has certainly been quite a recent demand for albums collating all the out-takes, mixes and stages of great albums such as The Pet Sounds Sessions from the Beach Boys or The Beatles. I certainly know that advertisers lobbied unsuccessfully for decades to buy time between album tracks for adverts much as Spotify or You Tube do today.
This same format was used on the excellent ground UP and We Like It Here releases from which we can learn much more about the personalities, history and working lives of the band members.
The latter for example tells the amazing story of the band converting an Amsterdam space into a recording environment. Michael League wrote and rehearsed the music in just a week with Larnell Lewis jetting in as a last-minute stand-in drummer to improvise his parts on the day with next to no sleep.
For all the above reasons film director Andy LaViolette and sound recordist Eric Hartman should be regarded with as much respect as the musicians. Several discreet camera operators and dozens of microphones and headphones need to be in place to capture the raw data for the final audio-visual mix.
Utterly tragically, Eric Hartman died suddenly in the wake of this. Michael League explains in the sleeve notes that,
“He pioneered the musical Mt. Everest that is making one-take-in-the-studio-with-a-live-audience albums, and touched the lives of every person he worked with through his childlike innocence and unrelenting conscientiousness. In all sincerity, I have no idea how our records are going to sound without him.”
There is also a sense in which Family Dinner: Vol. 2 could be ranked within a sub-genre of great live recordings.
My own favourite is Donny Hathaway Live recorded at the famous Los Angeles Troubadour Club in 1972. The great sound quality and evident delight of the punters have withstood hundreds of plays in my ears over the years! For a start just enjoy the audience’s soul clapping on second track The Ghetto. James Brown, Bill Withers, Joni Mitchell, Taj Mahal, Luther Vandross, Chaka Khan have also produced live albums that I play repeatedly.
Spirit and direction
Secondly the music here is diverse, inclusive and heterogeneous. Even if their collective flowering came from a jazz-rap-funk root their growth shows a desire to relate to all the music and people they have met and played with whilst touring.
The idea for these Family Dinner albums originated in the weekly sessions that SP used to host in a Brooklyn club where they encouraged any and all guests to step up and do their thing. In particular these were female vocalists such as Malika Tirolien, Magda Giannikou and Shayna Steele helping to redress the gender and vocal imbalance of the band when it customarily performs without either. Vol.1 only had guest vocalists. This time guest vocalists are augmented by guest instrumentalists.
The DVD opens with the irresistible playing of Brazilians Bernardo Aguiar on tambourine and flautist Carlos Malta. They return later accompanying Salif Keita. Aguiar is so deft that he can evoke a whole percussion section on a single tambourine complete with a disarmingly boyish grin.
This is followed by the first full tune from Appalachian Becca Stevens’ crystal clear vocals alongside members of a traditional Swedish band Vasen. The second tune features veteran Peruvian singer Susana Baca performing her song Molino Morlero with Californian guitar virtuoso Charlie Hunter in the band. Next up is USA soul vocalist Chris Turner performing his earnest plea Liquid Love. Birmingham's Laura Mvula then joins Canadian vocalist Michelle Willis on one of Laura’s songs Sing To The Moon.
London’s virtuoso teen prodigy Jacob Collier then leads the band in one of his multi-voiced power ballads Don’t You Know. Meanwhile he was also recording his debut solo album, which has been overseen by no less a producer than Quincy Jones to be released summer 2016.
The duo Knower – drummer Louis Cole and singer Genevieve Artaudi – lead the band in a stunning soul romp I Remember. There are four keyboard players, Cole augmented by band regular Sput Seawright on drums, blistering tenor playing and joyful backing vocals. This is my favourite track.
Seventy-five year-old folk-rock survivor David Crosby takes the sound levels down with a simple song dedicated to all women – Somebody Home. And Michael League, Michelle Willis, Becca Stevens and Carlos Malta are also filmed performing off-stage solos.
The point here is that the underlying spirit and direction of the music, irrespective of its local historical development, is more significant than some over-determined, pre-packaged, sterile, repetitious genre borderline.
A temporary utopia
Another notable feature of this release is its social and educational commitment.
Family Dinner: Vol.1 had been recorded in Roanoke, Virginia at the Jefferson Centre for the Performing Arts. Tens of thousands of dollars were generated by that album for its Media Lab outreach programme for young local people, especially musicians.
This second volume was recorded in New Orleans to raise funds for The Roots of Music Foundation, which 'empowers the youth of the city through music education, academic support and mentorship while preserving and promoting the unique cultural and musical heritage of jazz’s birthplace.'
Sadly the private sector and charitable foundations have to be relied on much more in the USA than Europe to provide such opportunities for young people. No doubt the young people of New Orleans could do with every touring and recording band making over some proceeds for their education. But SP are doing their bit.
Michael League recounts that the venue for this particular recording
'…became a kind of temporary Utopia where we lived, conversed, ate, drank, laughed and made music. I can honestly say that witnessing so much diversity in the same place – be it racial, cultural, generational, musical – coexisting not just peacefully, but openly and joyfully, had a lasting impact on everyone in the band.'
In memory of the participating artists League adds in the same liner notes that,
'I’ve never seen a group of people so genuinely in love with the music and humanity that the concept of self was almost non-existent. And in an industry that makes it easy for the artist to feed their ego into obesity, I think we all recognized this gathering as something very rare.'
SP is not unique in its espousal of a collective, deeply humanist approach to contemporary music production that rubs against the grain of dominant pop cultural mores. There is also, for example, the nexus of childhood friends - now professional musicians - from the Inglewood district of Los Angeles, that are setting the bar so high in work by rapper Kendrick Lamarr, bassist extraordinaire Thundercat, producer Flying Lotus and saxophonist Kamasi Washington.
It is sometimes puzzling how SP and in particular its engine-driver Michael League maintain their touring and recording schedule without apparently pausing for recuperation or even relaxation. Like professional sportsmen they may well take a dip in stamina and innovation in their late thirties, but for now they deserve everyone’s attention.
David Crosby has been around long enough to know modern music inside out. When asked recently on Twitter to name the three greatest bands of his lifetime he quickly responded with 'The Beatles, Steely Dan and Snarky Puppy.' The first is unsurprising. The second is admittedly not to everyone’s taste. The third deserve to become as ubiquitous as the first.
As a socialist I believe that music, like all the arts, is inevitably linked to political questions – but it does not have to deal with them explicitly to be valuable. Above all, the arts express and address our common humanity, and there is no better example of this deeply humanist and socialist approach to music-making than Snarky Puppy. Check them out, preferably live. But at least get on their Facebook page and certainly watch Family Dinner: Vol 2. You won’t regret it!
The DVD/CD Family Dinner: Volume Two by Snarky Puppy is released 14 February 2016 on Ground Up Records.