Undoubtedly, one of the most exciting bands in jazz right now is SNARKY PUPPY, who are due to make their second appearance at Cheltenham’s Jazz Festival on Sunday 30th April.
Since 2003, this large, triple-Grammy-winning aggregation have been turning heads and turning-on ears with their unique mélange of jazz, soul, fusion, rock and funk flavours. They scored their first Grammy award in 2013 in tandem with singer Lalah Hathaway for their version of Brenda Russell’s ‘Something,’ one of the highlights from their album ‘Family Dinner Vol. 1.’ In 2016, ‘Sylva,’ their LP collaboration with Holland’s Metropole Orkest, scored another Grammy while their most recent album, last year’s ‘Culcha Vulcha’ picked up a Grammy award earlier in 2017 for Best Contemporary Instrumental Album.
Outside of Snarky Puppy, charter member, bassist/composer MICHAEL LEAGUE, has been busy in the studio as both a collaborator and producer (most recently he’s worked with song siren Becca Stevens) while keyboardists Cory Henry and Bill Laurance have impressed with their own solo projects for the group’s GroundUP Music imprint.
Ahead of Snarky Puppy’s eagerly-anticipated Cheltenham concert, Michael League talked at length about the group to SJF’s Charles Waring…
You are due to play with Snarky Puppy at the Cheltenham Jazz Festival later this month – what can your audience expect to hear from you in terms of your set? Will you bring any guest vocalists with you? Will you showcase any new material?
It will be a mixture of music from several different albums, including several songs from our most recent release, ‘Culcha Vulcha.’ We normally don’t travel with vocalists as those records are special charity projects. There may be some new unrecorded material, but I’m not sure.
You performed at Cheltenham before, in 2014… do you have any lingering memories of that particular concert?
I remember the show being a lot of fun, but even more, I remember the after-party. We all went over to a hotel down the street. Ambrose Akinmusire and Justin Brown were swinging their asses off at a jam session in the lobby. We all hung until 5 or 6 in the morning. I love nights like those.
Going right back to the beginning, can you describe when and how Snarky Puppy came into being?
I started the group with a bunch of friends from college after my first year at the University of North Texas. That was 2003, I believe. Most of the guys were jazz majors at the school. We played a show in the basement of a pizza parlor, and never really stopped.
You joined forces with singer Lalah Hathaway (pictured above with the group) for the album ‘Family Dinner Vol.1.’ What’s your estimation of Lalah as a vocalist and what was she like to collaborate with?
I think she’s one of the most gifted vocalists in her tradition. She has everything – tone, ears, musicality, improvisational fluidity, poise, grace, the ability to reach the listener… she’s unbelievable. And as far as working together, it couldn’t have been easier. She’s a super down-to-earth, kind, beautiful human being.
‘Something’ from that album won a Grammy – can you describe how that felt?
It was really, really surreal. I was sure we wouldn’t win. So when they called our name, we were shocked. The other two felt great, but the first was special. Kendrick Lamar, Tamar Braxton, Hiatus Kaiyote, and Miguel were in that category… we felt like the Bad News Bears or something – the underdogs.
What was the concept behind the Family Dinner albums?
The album series actually started as a weekly residency that we had at a club in New York City called Rockwood Music Hall. Every Friday night around 1:00 am, we’d back up three different composers/vocalists we loved. It became a really popular hang among musicians after their gigs and music lovers on a night out. And during the course of the series, we began to really develop relationships with the various artists. The next logical step was to make an album. We added a charity element as well – each album benefits a different youth music education organization.
Becca Stevens is another remarkable vocalist that you’ve worked with – how would you describe her talent?
Becca Stevens has such a unique voice as a writer, guitarist, and singer. You almost get the idea that she buried herself in a cave for years or something – she’s so connected to her musical identity. She really has her own thing. And beyond that, she’s like a sister to me.
What was it like working with her on her new solo album, Regina?
It was an interesting situation. I was co-producing under Troy Miller, but we were never even in the same country at the same time. So I was trying to give him interesting things to work later with rather than taking it from start to finish, as I do when I’m the primary producer. Because my role was different, my approach was different. Spending day after day with Becca in the studio was a blast. We really took our time with things.
In 2015 Snarky Puppy joined forces with Metropole Orkest for the album, ‘Sylva’ – what was that experience like?
There’s no orchestra in the world like that. Most symphonic ensembles look down on playing groove-based music, and ironically, don’t play it very well. The Metropole does it as well as anyone else, and they love it. To this day, they’re like extended family members to us. On our end, I was so happy with how the band adapted to playing with an orchestra. It can be a potentially dangerous situation… blending your sound with 52 other musicians is not an easy thing to do. You have to be sensitive and supportive at the same time. But the guys did it beautifully. And in the end, it really felt like one ensemble instead of two being crammed together.
What is keyboardist Cory Henry like to work with and what circumstances led him to join the band?
‘Sput’ (Sparky Puppy’s drummer) invited Cory to one of our shows in New York City many years ago and urged me to bring him onstage. He sat in and sounded beautiful, and we eventually became friends. There were upcoming shows in which we were short a keyboardist, so I asked him to fill the spot. That was probably 5 or 6 years ago. Every member of the group brings something unique, their own personality, to the music. Cory has definitely left a mark on the band’s sound.
And your other keyboardist, Bill Laurance? How would you evaluate his talent?
Bill brings an almost opposite sound to the band. Whereas Cory’s playing is rooted in the black church, Bill’s comes from classical music and ragtime. There is a lot of common ground – jazz, funk, soul, electronic music – but it’s the differences between the players that I love to hear brought out. There’s room for everyone and their individual personalities, and we try to give Bill the space to express his.
With both Cory and Bill focused on their own solo projects now, is it harder to get them in the studio and on the road with the band?
This has not only been something that we all expected to happen, but it’s actually part of the whole point of the band. We’ve always tried to provide a platform for discovering other music, and people branching off to make their own albums is an integral part of the process. It’s not realistic to think that a musician will be content to spend their whole life playing in someone else’s band. Snarky Puppy is my baby, and everyone deserves to have their own as well. I really think it’s a good thing for everyone. We all have our outlets and bring our individual experiences back to the band.
Your latest album, ‘Culcha Vulcha,’ also recently won a Grammy award. What’s the story behind the writing and recording process of that particular record?
The songwriting process is different from what most people assume. I think that many people just assume that we write together, but we actually don’t. Whoever has a song writes it completely by themselves, and when they bring it into the band, it will change in terms of arrangement or production, but the composition is really only written by that one person. It’s the arranging process that makes all the songs sound like Snarky Puppy because everyone puts in their own individual flavour and personality.
Going back to your formative years, what drew you to the bass guitar as your primary instrument?
I was a guitarist as a teenager. I only started playing bass because my high school jazz band needed one. Looking back, I’m so glad I did. I fall more and more in love with the instrument each year that goes by.
Who have been your biggest musical influences – and why?
I grew up with rock and roll and soul music. Led Zeppelin, Stevie Wonder, The Beatles, James Brown, and CSNY were the artists of my childhood. Then I became immersed in jazz just before college. As far as folkloric music influences, I grew up with my brother very active in the Greek and Celtic music scenes. This is definitely a part of me. But as time went on, I became more interested in music from Latin America, specifically Cuba, Brazil, and Perú. Currently, I’m immersed in music from West Africa, especially Mali. And I love composers – Piazzolla, Stravinsky, Stevie Wonder… I guess the list never ends.
Has there been any one particular album or recording that changed your life?
I can give you five: XTC – Apple Venus, Volume One; Stevie Wonder – Songs In The Key of Life; Radiohead – OK Computer; Led Zeppelin – Houses of The Holy; Hank Mobley – Soul Station.
Could you tell us something about yourself that you’ve never told an interviewer before?
I just learned to swim last year.
Of all the people you’ve worked with, who taught you the most?
(Keyboard player) Bernard Wright. He was my mentor for about 2 years while I was living in Dallas. I think of him as a musical yoda – he was the primary influence for pretty much every keyboardist on the Dallas scene: Bobby Sparks (Marcus Miller, Roy Hargrove), Shaun Martin (Kirk Franklin), RC Williams (Badu/Snoop Dogg), Caleb McCampbell (Funky Knuckles), and more.
What’s been the biggest highlight of your career thus far?
Derek Smalls (bassist from Spinal Tap, aka Harry Shearer) is making his first solo album and we have duelling bass cadenzas at the beginning of one of the tracks. I think that may be it.
What unfulfilled musical ambitions do you have?
None, really. I get to play music I love with people I love almost every day. When it comes to music, I try not to be goal-oriented and just enjoy the journey.
Who’s at the top of your wish list as a future collaborator?
There are loads of artists I’d love to work with, but the circumstances have to be right. There has to be a concept that makes sense, and we both have to benefit equally from the collaboration.
What forthcoming projects are in the pipeline for both yourself and Snarky Puppy?
I started a new band called Bokante with 3 percussionists, 3 guitars, lap steel guitar, vocals, and bass. I’m producing records for a variety of artists including Buena Vista Social Club singer and guitarist Eliades Ochoa. I have a record label called GroundUP Music that we’ve just completely restructured. I’m super excited about the future of it and the artists who will be joining the community. Snarky Puppy will be making a new album at the beginning of 2018 that will be released alongside a documentary I’m making on the way that different cultures learn music. There’s quite a bit happening, but it’s all fun stuff.
Catch SNARKY PUPPY at the Cheltenham Jazz Festival on Sunday, April 30th.
The group’s latest album, ‘Culcha Vulcha,’ is out now.