The last two years have brought dramatic changes for Snarky Puppy. After a decade of relentless touring and recording in all but complete obscurity, the Texas-bred/New York-based quasi-collective suddenly found itself held up by the press and public as one of the major figures in the jazz world. But as the category names for both of the band’s Grammy awards would indicate (Best R&B Performance in 2014 and Best Contemporary Instrumental Album in 2016), Snarky Puppy isn’t exactly a jazz band. It’s not a fusion band, and it’s definitely not a jam band. It’s probably best to take Nate Chinen of the New York Times’ advice, as stated in an online discussion about the group, to “take them for what they are, rather than judge them for what they’re not.”
Snarky Puppy is a collective of sorts with as many as 25 members in regular rotation. They each maintain busy schedules as sidemen (with such artists as Erykah Badu, Snoop Dogg, Kendrick Lamar, and D’Angelo), producers (for Kirk Franklin, David Crosby, and Salif Keïta), and solo artists (many of whom are on the band’s indy label, GroundUP Music). At its core, the band represents the convergence of both black and white American music culture with various accents from around the world. Japan, Argentina, Canada, the United Kingdom, and Puerto Rico all have representation in the group’s membership. But more than the cultural diversity of the individual players, the defining characteristic of Snarky Puppy’s music is the joy of performing together in the perpetual push to grow creatively.
The band was formed by bassist and primary composer Michael League in 2003, starting inconspicuously enough as a group of college friends at the University of North Texas’ Jazz Studies program. Three years later, a serendipitous intersection with the Dallas gospel and R&B community in Dallas transformed the music into something funkier, more direct, and more visceral. It was at this time that the group absorbed musicians like Robert “Sput” Searight (drums), Shaun Martin (keyboards), and Bobby Sparks (keyboards), and were heavily influenced by legendary keyboardist Bernard Wright (Miles Davis, Chaka Khan, Marcus Miller).
Independent since their inception almost 13 years ago, Snarky Puppy’s grass-roots approach to the changing music industry has met major critical and commercial success, as well as two Grammy awards in three years. The first was with Lalah Hathaway on Family Dinner – Volume One for “Best R&B Performance” in 2014, and the second in 2016 for “Best Contemporary Instrumental Album” with the Metropole Orkest on Sylva, a 60-minute suite of music written by League specifically for the 64-piece ensemble. They have been on the cover of both Jazz Times and Downbeat magazines, the feature story in the Sunday Arts section of the New York Times, voted “Best Jazz Group” in the 2015 Downbeat Reader’s Poll, voted “Best New Artist” and “Best Electric/Jazz-Rock/Contemporary Group/Artist” in the 2014 Jazz Times Reader’s Poll, and called “one of the most versatile groups on the planet” by Rolling Stone. They have performed over 1,200 times on six continents.
Snarky Puppy is a three-headed animal. First and foremost, it’s a creative music ensemble dedicated to original instrumental music. Secondly, it’s a session band that engages in collaboration with outside artists for special projects, as it has with ensembles like the Metropole Orkest and individuals such as Lalah Hathaway, Laura Mvula, Salif Keïta, David Crosby, N’Dambi, Becca Stevens, and Jacob Collier, to name a few. And lastly, it’s a group of musicians wholeheartedly committed to music education and outreach. They have given clinics and masterclasses at over 200 schools around the world, are active as guest speakers in international music business panels, and work regularly with non-profit organizations in an effort to better serve the community at large through the arts. Beginning in 2017, Snarky Puppy will launch a new online video lessons initiative with specialized tutorials from each individual member of the group.
Seeking to capitalize on the music-hungry, audiophile fanbase that developed around Snarky Puppy, Michael launched the imprint GroundUP Music under the umbrella of independent parent company Ropeadope Records in 2011. With the growth of the label, GroundUP went fully independent in 2016 and accumulated a roster of both well-known and upcoming acts in an ambitious year of over a dozen releases (including Charlie Hunter and David Crosby among many others). Michael brokered a unique partnership with Universal Music in which GroundUP and its artists retain complete creative independence while working with the distribution giant to do what it does best- promote and make music easily available to both new and existing fans worldwide.
Fresh off of the heels of its tenth album, Family Dinner – Volume Two, the band returned to its roots as an instrumental ensemble with a brand new collection of nine original songs entitled Culcha Vulcha. A departure from its signature live-from-the-studio film and audio style, the band spent a week in the middle of a pecan orchard at the remote Sonic Ranch Studios in Tornillo, Texas, just a five minute walk from the Mexican border. With no cameras, no audience, and the opportunity to overdub, they have crafted an album much darker and moodier than any before it. The typical flash and bombastic moments that Snarky Puppy is known for have been replaced by a more patient, restrained, and sonically creative approach to both composition and performance. The melodies are intricate, the counterpoint is fluid, and groove reigns supreme in mixes that are bass and percussion-heavy.