Snarky Puppy, the genre-defying super-band, is a lot like Dallas, city of its birth. On Empire Central the eclectic 19-piece electric ensemble is big and bold, chill and laid back, rooted in its native culture while reaching outward, forward-bound. With 16 new compositions including the song “Take It!” -- regrettably, the last recorded performance of ‘80s funk star Bernard Wright, who Snarky ringleader Michael League identifies as a Godfather-like figure – the group looks fondly at where it’s come from, confident in the polished power from which its members continue to build the unique Snarky Puppy sound.
That sound now rises like a skyscraper from a 21st century orchestra comprising three guitarists, at least four keyboardists, two brass, two reeds, a violinist, multiple percussionists and drummers and the accomplished yet modest League keeping it all together with his bass. That lineup was unimaginable when ten friends enrolled in the jazz program of University of North Texas (aka North Texas State) in Denton, 30 miles from Dallas, first convened in 2004. But as Snarky Puppy’s core members moved to the city and were embraced by the region’s Black churches and stalwarts of that community’s music, they matured.
“Our soundscape has expanded dramatically over the years,” says League.
“When the band started we were jazzier, brainy and world-music oriented. Moving into the Dallas scene we became groovier, more emotional, deeper in a sense. We focused more on communicating a clear message, understandable to a listener without dumbing things down.” Having issued 13 albums in 18 years (garnering four Grammy Awards), attracting international fandom and establishing their own GroundUP Music label, Snarky Puppy has proved that listeners will follow them into ever-more confident and detailed arrangements of anthemic motifs, fetching melodies, texturally layered harmonies, exciting solos, ear-candy synth effects and propulsive beats.
Empire Central doubles down on Snarky Puppy’s distinctly Southwestern influences, like the blues, hard rock, classic soul, modern gospel, percolating funk, new tech, ever-misunderstood “fusion” and jazz, without sounding derivative. Rather, it conjures from them music that’s fresh and original. League asked his confreres to compose in homage to the town they consider their common ground, and artists from it who’ve changed music history, “especially Black music history,” he asserts (that honor roll includes Erykah Badu, Kirk Franklin, Roy Hargrove, also touching on St. Vincent, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Buddy Miles). Eleven of the bandmates, as well as Michael himself, contributed tunes which were developed and refined over two weeks of rehearsals.
“Snarky Puppy has always been a band that prioritizes the sound of the music,” he says. “On this record there was some collaboration in the writing process but when a song goes to the band and the players start making suggestions or changing things our collective feeling really comes through. The songs ended up being a lot more direct and funkier than those on our previous records. I think it reflects the many moods of the city’s scene.”
For instance, League says he penned “Keep It On Your Mind,” the opening track of Empire Central, “thinking slow, funky, laid back, grooving; and intense.” He calls “Belmont,” named for the Dallas street where he lived, mellow, as is “Cliroy,” a slow-jam ballad composed by brass specialist Jay Jennings as an homage to the late jazz trumpeters Clifford Brown and Roy Hargrove, whose hip-hop-inflected RH Factor is a touchstone. In contrast, “Pineapple” by Mike “Maz” Maher and Michael League is an upbeat dance track referring to house rhythms and new jack swing.
Furthering the “homage to Dallas” theme, founding percussionist Nate Werth’s party-down piece “Mean Green” is titled for the mascot of the band’s alma mater; “Fuel City” by keyboardist Bill Laurance is a brooding dedication to a local gas station where the band often congregated for the great tacos it serves; League’s “Bet” is inspired by Dallas bandleader-music director R.C. Williams; Justin Stanton’s “Broken Arrow” infuses the tones of CSNY, Al Green and Edu Lobo, and “Trinity,” by guitarist Mark Lettieri, is named for the river that snakes through tributaries and forks to connect Dallas, Fort Worth, and Denton.
Globe-trotting Snarky Puppy, which typically mounts two-month tours, of course sustains its interest in the larger world and beyond. Multi-instrumentalist Chris Bullock’s “East Bay” evokes Oakland, California. Percussionist Marcelo Woloski’s “Portal” tags elements of Uruguayan Candombe. Violinist Zach Brock’s “Honiara” nods to traditional folk arts of Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands, and guitarist Bob Lanzetti identifies his work “Coney Bear” to be in the vein of the Parliament-Funkadelic Mothership and cosmic prophet Sun Ra.
But Empire Central is, ultimately, about Snarky Puppy’s spiritual base. “RL’s” by League is a Texas shuffle in the fashion heard at the Dallas blues shack “RL’s Blues Palace II.” Stanton’s “Free Fall” casts a glance back to Jamaica, Queens in the 1980s where Bernard Wright, who took so many of the band’s members under his wing, originated from. Having relocated and a resident of Dallas for decades, Wright essays an irresistibly slinky synth improv on “Take It!,” written by keyboardist Bobby Sparks, one of the first hometown Dallas musicians to join the band.
That Wright died in a car accident at age 58 (less than three months after sitting in throughout the eight nights of live recording and videotaping for Empire Central at Deep Ellum Art Company), is a tragedy weighing heavily on Snarky Puppy, and adding meaning to this, its latest work. “He was our collective’s mentor,” League says. Wright encouraged the band when it was deemed too rock for jazz festivals and too jazzy for rock clubs.
“Many instrumental bands now have a similar setup to Snarky Puppy, with lots of electric instruments, different textures, combining jazz and funk and rock, but it wasn’t like that in the early 2000s,” Michael League remembers. “We’ve kept at it, playing together for 18 years, so we know who we are, and also where we want to be going as we integrate new ideas into the music.
“Our rule is that it can’t sound like it sounded before,” he continues. “The music has to feel like it’s moving somewhere.” Not out of Dallas – although Michael lives in Spain now, his ties to his former home are permanent and at least four members of Snarky Puppy still call the DFW metroplex home. Since 2004, Dallas has developed dramatically, expanding its Arts District, adding some 1.2 million residents, becoming the fastest growing population center in the U.S., embracing its accomplished, ambitious, culture-bridging ensemble as favorite sons.
What will Dallas do next? Where will Snarky Puppy go next? Farther – in the direction of Empire Central.