Swagism – Ghost-Note

SwagismTitle: Swagism

Artist: Ghost-Note

Label: Ropeadope

Release Date: April 20, 2018

Formats: CD, Digital


Ghost-Note is a project led by two Snarky Puppy members, Robert “Sput” Searight and Nate Werth, who perform with a rotating cast of top session players.  Their newest album, Swagism, is the group’s sprawling and definitive artistic statement, one that is funky, jazzy, and experimental all at once. The record combines grooves that hit hard on the one, progressive jazz gestures, and spoken voicemail interludes that advance the double album’s conceptual and musical narrative. Continue reading

Bokanté – Strange Circles

Strange Circles
Title: Strange Circles

Artist: Bokanté

Label: GroundUP

Format: CD, MP3

Release Date: June 9, 2017


The members of Snarky Puppy have attained quintessential listening status for many in jam band, jazz-fusion, and groove-rock circles. Members of this group and musicians closely associated with them tend to have a distinctive “sound,” one which draws heavily from jammy fusion and incorporates elements of world music. Strange Circles, the debut release from Snarky Puppy bassist Michael League’s new side project Bokanté  falls comfortably into the world music mold.

League swaps his bass for a baritone guitar on Strange Circles, and is joined by two Snarky Puppy band mates, Chris McQueen and Bob Lanzetti. The group also includes percussionists Jamey Haddad, André Ferrari, and steel guitarist Roosevelt Collier. Vocalist/songwriter Malika Tirolien rounds out the group, delivering original songs she and League co-wrote. Tirolien, a native of the Caribbean island Guadeloupe, sings a veritable chorus of thickly arranged multi-track vocals in Creole and French throughout the album.

YouTube Preview Image

Even though most of the album prep was completed remotely, this band’s playing is fluid.  This may be due to the musicians’ skill or the tight arrangements, but at any rate it is a testament to what real pros can do in collaboration. The percussionists create powerful layers of rhythm throughout the record and the guitar quartet complements this with complex harmonies, making guitar interplay a highlight of this album. Collier’s steel guitar playing is especially worth listening carefully to — he takes a number of compelling solos, on cuts like ¨Jou Ké Ouvé” and ¨O La,” where his pedal steel almost sounds like the many vocal layers that permeate the album. The other guitarists mostly stick to riffing, but the song “Vayan” features dueling guitar solos, on a cut that sounds like an Afrobeat reading of Led Zeppelin.

One thing that the careful listener quickly learns about with Strange Circles is that the band’s approach to creating musical interest depends on two things: scaffolding layers of vocals and instruments and Collier’s steel guitar entering at dramatic moments.  This is a winning formula, but it is systematic nonetheless — listeners will likely be quick to learn the build-breakdown-build approach that permeates most of the songs on this album. Collier ends up being the star of the show on most tracks, in part due to the timing of his entrances and in part due to his lyricism. It would be easy to draw comparisons between his fluidity on steel and blues/rock/world fusion guitarist Derek Trucks’s lyrical slide guitar. A few songs do break with the build-breakdown-build form, however: “Apathie Mortelle” burns slow, with excellent ambience playing by the guitarists, relying on chorus-drenched chords and controlled feedback to play off of the intricate layers of voice and percussion. The album’s closer, “Héritier,” is an acoustic and synth-driven ballad that stills the energy of some of the disc’s more frenetic moments.

I wish that English lyric translations were available for those listening to the digital versions of this album, particularly given the Creole dialect that many the lyrics on this album are composed in. As a monolingual English speaker reviewing the digital copy of this album, it was difficult for me to difficult to understand and thus comment on the poetry or lyrical themes. But that aside, Strange Circles is full of compelling music that is certainly worth a listen for fans of genre-bending grooves.

Reviewed by Matthew Alley

Snarky Puppy – Family Dinner Volume Two

snarky puppy_family diner volume 2

Title: Family Dinner Volume Two

Artist: Snarky Puppy

Label: Ground Up

Format: CD+DVD, LP+DVD, MP3

Release Date: February 12, 2016



The newest release from the consummately funky fusion outfit Snarky Puppy is as diverse as anything the group has ever released.  Family Dinner Volume Two carries on two of the group’s signature customs: the live in studio hybrid concert/recording session and building their repertoire around the contributions of guest artists.  Both installments in the Family Dinner series benefit non-profit arts organizations, with proceeds from this volume going to the New Orleans based music education group The Roots of Music Foundation. The vibrant musical life of New Orleans is shot through this record, while rarely taking any of the city’s signature sounds as a point of departure: Snarky Puppy’s rotating cast of regulars is joined by “Nola International,” a gang of Crescent City heavy-hitters, including Terence Blanchard and Jason Marsalis, household names for jazz fans.

What puts the “Family” in Family Dinner is the presence and pairing of guest artists that one may not readily think of jiving with Puppy’s signature jazz-fusion sound. In order to get this motley crew to make the album’s great music, all of the musicians involved in this project hung out together for 6 days at a church-turned-recording studio, collaborating on their ideas for the work, becoming a kind of family throughout the recording process. This album features many seemingly unusual pairings, from “I Asked,” which combines Appalachian singer songwriter Becca Stevens and Swedish folk(ish) group Väsen, on a song that gradually morphs from pretty ballad to trance-inducing vamp.  “Molino Molero,” my favorite number on the disc, combines Afro-Peruvian legend (and world music superstar) Susana Baca with the ever-innovative, immaculately tasteful jazz-fusion guitarist Charlie Hunter.

YouTube Preview Image

Similarly, on “Don’t You Know” keyboardist and vocalist Jacob Collier explores the possibilities of what can be done with a vocoder and acoustic piano while Big Ed Lee of the New Orleans-based Soul Rebels Brass Band lays down a funky fresh bassline. What Snarky Puppy does best on this release is acting as the world’s most precise backing band–the group creates delicate ambiance when necessary and rock-solid grooves when required, constantly digging deep into the songs that the featured artists bring to the table.  This is no more apparent than in the lush orchestration that the collective of instrumentalists provide on David Crosby’s “Somebody Home,” with gorgeous brass, synthesizer, and organ textures animating the understated song about finding depth in relationships.

In the combined video and audio packaging of Family Dinner Volume Two, the included DVD is really the star of the show.  While DVDs packaged with CDs or LP are usually vehicles to convey bonus features, in this case, the audio-only formats are more supplements to the DVD, which features video versions of each of the songs. These videos show Snarky Puppy’s trademark hybrid studio-live recording process, with audience members all wearing headphones and mics and cables galore, capturing every nuance of the band’s playing for posterity. The DVD also narrates the sessions’ creation, with individual artists talking about the recording process and their views on music as well as playing tunes not included in the official recording session. If we take the DVD at its word, Snarky Puppy’s Family Dinner Volume 2 must have been a joy to participate in–the collective’s collaborative sense shines through every cut that is included. With all of this in mind, it is perhaps more useful to think of the CD as the ‘bonus’ in this package, a slimmed-down more portable version of the sessions that you can pop in the car stereo.

Reviewed by Matthew Alley


Snarky Puppy & Metropole Orkest – Sylva

­­snarky puppy sylva._AA160_

Title: Sylva

Artist: Snarky Puppy & Metropole Orkest

Label: Impulse!

Formats: CD/DVD, Digital Download, Vinyl

Release date: May 26, 2015



Jazz has developed virtually since its inception through a close but often uneasy relationship between recorded media and live performance; think of the “classic” recordings that are celebrated as paragons of jazz artistry, but also of the common admonishment that any true experience of jazz is a live one, in which musicians and audience members commune with one another in a unique, never-to-be-repeated musical and social event. If recent trends are any indication, however, many jazz musicians do not view these modes of performance as irreconcilable. Two albums released this year—Sylva by Snarky Puppy & Metropole Orkest (Impulse! 2015) and Covered by the Robert Glasper Trio (Blue Note 2015)—are exemplars of the ingenuity with which jazz musicians are testing the boundaries between recorded and live music.

Snarky Puppy, led by bassist and composer Michael League, originated in Denton, TX, comprising students of the renowned jazz program at The University of North Texas and musicians from the nearby Dallas scene. Now based in Brooklyn, they have toured the world extensively, introducing audiences to their exciting genre-b(l)ending style. They have also built a following through their unique recordings. Since 2010’s Tell Your Friends, they have collaborated on each project with director Andy LaViolette, creating a companion film that is released with the audio album. They also invite an audience into the recording session, which sits among the musicians and listens through headphones. In this way, Snarky Puppy cultivates the intimacy and energy of live performance, but also retains the advantages of an outfitted recording studio.

Sylva, the band’s debut for Impulse!, is their most ambitious such project to date. It finds the band in the Netherlands to work with the Metropole Orkest conducted by Jules Buckley. In addition to the CD/DVD combo, the audio album is available as a digital download or on vinyl, while the videos are currently available to stream on the band’s Vevo page. The DVD, which will be the basis for this review, includes some interesting bonus material, including a short “making of” featurette and a commentary track on the recording by League and LaViolette.

The theme of Sylva is the forest. The opener “Sintra” evokes the lushness and mystery of its namesake in Portugal, and the music is enhanced by the beautiful scenery constructed on the soundstage; real olive trees interspersed with metal sculptures of plants and animals create a kind of futuristic woodland, a visual counterpart to the organic–mechanical tension that League plays with in his compositions. “Flight,” referring to a journey from Portugal back to the U.S., features synthesizers, guitars, and flutes flitting over a quirky groove. Tenor saxophonist Chris Bullock takes the first solo of the album, using a digital octave effect that contrasts nicely with the woody warmth of the orchestral instruments. “Atchafalaya” is named for the swampland in Louisiana, and pays it homage with the buoyant rhythms of a New Orleans second line. The trombones are featured, and Metropole member Vincent Veneman takes a lively solo. Here, the advantages of the album film are especially appreciated; viewers watch the Snarky Puppy horn section and Veneman’s colleagues in Metropole responding enthusiastically to his playing, perhaps delighting in the small irony that it is a member of the orchestra and not of Snarky Puppy who is ripping through a great jazz solo.

YouTube Preview Image

The album’s high point is “The Curtain.” League reveals in the commentary that this tune was the most challenging for the band, with sections featuring odd meters, multiple key changes, and forms with an odd number of bars, but also the most familiar, recalling the kind of music they used to play together at UNT. The familiarity shows. Jay Jennings’ flugelhorn solo is outstanding, his lyrical playing bolstered by the tasteful interactivity of the rhythm section and some beautifully building orchestral background figures. A new hip-hop groove introduces League’s similarly impressive bass solo (well-deserved accolades for his roles as leader and composer mean he is sometimes overlooked as a stellar bassist) and a funky, virtuosic organ solo by Cory Henry. The musicians look on wistfully during Bill Laurance’s lovely, Chopin-esque piano cadenza, before joining him for a closing waltz.

League describes the inspiration for the last tune, “The Clearing,” as a forest of his childhood where teenagers hung out and sometimes got up to no good; fittingly, the tune captures a sense of melancholic nostalgia but also playful mischievousness. There is great composing and arranging from League and Buckley, but when the tune settles into a funky groove, Snarky Puppy is really in its wheelhouse. (“Our favorite thing in the world to do is to find a groove and play and not change anything,” League tells us in the commentary.) Strong solos by guitarist Mike Lettieri and trumpeter Mike “Maz” Maher are buttressed by the relentless groove of drummer Robert “Sput” Searight, percussionist Nate Werth, and the Metropole percussionists. Coming at the album’s end, one wishes there had been a few more opportunities to stretch like this one; fortunately, fans can return to their previous work or go and see them in concert.

Listen on Spotify here.

Reviewed by Dean S. Reynolds