Snarky Puppy: 5 Albums That Changed My Life
Snarky Puppy is not a band. It’s a living, breathing, mutating musical amoeba.
Formed in Denton, Texas a decade ago, and now based in Brooklyn, New York, the loose collective includes over 40 members, known as “The Fam,” democratically led by bassist and composer Michael League. Call it jazz, rock, progressive, experimental, or just call it music.
The amorphous group has collaborated or performed with jazz talents like Marcus Miller, classical orchestras like the Dutch Metropole Orchestra and mainstream artists that include Erykah Badu, Justin Timberlake, Kirk Franklin and Snoop Dogg.
They’re also brilliantly prolific, having released 11 albums over the past 10 years, seven of them in the last five. Following last year’s massively-hailed Sylva (one of Kamasi Washington’s 5 favorite albums of 2015) and February’s collaborative Family Dinner – Volume Two, their brand new album, Culcha Vulcha, is Snarky Puppy in their essence, which is a complex chemical formula that includes Zeppelin scale rock, Southern gospel, South Asian percussion, Brazilian melodies, New Orleans jazz and Motown soul.
We asked ringleader Michael League to talk about five albums that changed his life.
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XTC: Apple Venus, Volume One
The common theme for all of these albums is that each of them was given to me by my older brother while I was in high school, at the very beginning of my life as a musician. I remember laying down on the floor of our basement and hearing Apple Venus for the first time. From the first few notes, which sound like drops of water in a pot, I was surrounded by sounds I had never heard before. The inclusion of an orchestra on an acoustic pop album was so fresh to me, especially given the nature of the arrangements, which were firmly entrenched in the songs themselves rather than being a kind of “icing” on the cake. New textures, clever lyrics, contoured arrangements. It flipped me on my head.
Radiohead: OK Computer
I was in the passenger seat of my brother’s Suburu Legacy station wagon, rummaging through cassette tapes, when I first saw the name Radiohead. I popped it in and didn’t let him stop the car until it was done. For a young teenager, this was the perfect album. It rocked, but was sonically ambitious. And most of all, it had a unified sound from beginning to end. I think this was the first time I really thought about albums as stories, and producers as storytellers. Ever since, Nigel [Godrich] has been one of my favorites.
My brother is a folkloric musician, and this was the first “world music” (as silly as that term is) album that really reached me. This Scandinavian neo-trad group takes the tradition of Swedish folk music and steers it in another direction, especially compositionally. The instrumentation itself inspired me: a medieval Swedish instrument called nyckelharpa, viola, acoustic guitar, and an unconventional percussion setup. But more than that, it was the soulfulness of the melodies, which felt both old and new at the same time, and the richness of the harmony and rhythm beneath them that opened compositional possibilities in my own mind.
At the time my brother showed me this record, it was the holy grail. Funky, jazzy, textural… it had everything I was interested in. I actually modeled Snarky Puppy after this band conceptually: funky grooves with colorful harmony, rich textures, and simple (but creative) melodies on top. It’s still the M.O. for my band, though the direction continues to evolve. Specifically, I love the work of Bobby Read (bass clarinet, flute and sax) and John D’earth (trumpet) on this album. They get so many colors out of their instruments! And finally, I love that this record is so short – around 30 minutes – with almost no solos! It’s unheard of for this style, but it made a real impact on me. There are so many things you can do inside of a tune without just defaulting to solos, and these guys took that idea and ran with it.
Oscar Peterson Trio: We Get Requests
This was the first “real” jazz record my brother ever gave me. He was playing a weekly trio gig at a restaurant in Manassas, Virginia, and I would go occasionally. I think he saw my interest in jazz developing, so he gave me this album. To me, no trio on earth swings like these guys. It’s a joyful, jumping swing. To this day, Oscar is my favorite jazz pianist and Ray Brown is my favorite jazz bassist. It instilled in me the idea that jazz should swing, jazz should groove, and it should be felt more than thought about. I still feel the same way.
[Main Image by Stella K.]
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