Snarky Puppy- A Great Band You Should Know

The band Snarky Puppy, with David Crosby, third from the left. Credit Rebecca Smeyne for The New York Times
 “I know you’re all wondering why I called you together,” David Crosby said to peals of laughter as he sat down. Mr. Crosby, the crinkly folk-rock eminence, had come to Lil’ Frankie’s in the East Village for dinner with a half-dozen members of the group he once hailed on Twitter as “quite possibly the most advanced band in the world … certainly the best I’ve heard/seen.”

That would be Snarky Puppy, a barnstorming, groove-centric instrumental act with a rabid fan base and a blithely unplaceable style. And if the name doesn’t ring a bell, it’s probably just a matter of time.

Snarky Puppy, which won a recent Grammy and is up for another one this month, has carved out an improbably strong niche with its brand of revved-up jazz fusion. The group’s style, a convergence of high precision and whimsy, makes it a quintessential live band — even most of its studio albums were made with an audience in the room. The sessions are filmed, for release on DVD and YouTube, which is how the band’s audience ratcheted up to global scale. A D.I.Y. juggernaut, it has a new label — GroundUp, with international distribution through Universal Music Classics — that will release “Family Dinner Volume Two,” the group’s 10th album, on Friday, Feb. 12.

The band had convened before a screening of the film that accompanies the record, and fittingly, there was room at the table for Mr. Crosby and a few other artists who appear on the LP: the guitarist Charlie Hunter and the singer-songwriters Becca Stevens and Chris Turner. The album’s guest roster also includes the Malian Afro-pop singer Salif Keita, the Afro-Peruvian folk singer Susana Baca and the neotraditional Swedish band Vasen.

That eclectic coalition, which intermingles throughout the album, feels true to the spirit of Snarky Puppy, a band rooted first and foremost in gut-level cohesion. “There’s a humility in their approach to music, which is special in today’s climate,” said Lalah Hathaway, who shared a Grammy for best R&B performance with the band in 2014. (Snarky Puppy is nominated this year for best contemporary instrumental album, for “Sylva.”)

“One of their strengths is that they listen to each other constantly, and they make room for each other,” said Mr. Crosby, who became a fan by watching the band’s YouTube videos. “They’re funky, and they swing, and they affect you emotionally. It’s not an intellectual exercise for them.”

For anyone familiar with the peak years of fusion, when Weather Report and the Mahavishnu Orchestra were playing to fervent young arena crowds, Snarky Puppy can seem like a reclamation and a throwback. It’s not alone: Within the last several years, since clawing its way out of obscurity, Snarky Puppy has become the most visible of a crop of young bands building on a foundation of funk, rock, hip-hop and electronic music, typically with streamlined internal combustion and an overlay of vaulting, anthemic melody.

Recent examples extend from the trumpeter Christian Scott’s arresting album “Stretch Music” (Ropeadope) to “Man Made Object” (Blue Note), a stylish but vaporous new effort by the British trio GoGo Penguin, which has been booked to play Coachella. What Snarky Puppy brings to the equation, more than any original musical ideas, is vigorous proficiency, a firm collective identity and an air of generous accessibility fueled by a killer work ethic.

Michael League, the band’s bassist and leader, is a tousle-headed former military brat with the chipper self-possession of a summer-camp counselor. “If you asked me what genre we’re in,” he said over tea, “I would say ‘instrumental pop.’ But that makes it sound like we’re opening for Kenny G.”

Mr. League formed Snarky Puppy after his freshman year at the University of North Texas (in Denton), which has one of the oldest jazz programs in the country. “Because I was so bad,” he recalled, “I didn’t place into any of the school ensembles. So Snarky Puppy was my way of getting to play.” The band released its debut album on Ropeadope in 2006, when all of its members were still students.

About a year later, Mr. League was hired for a church gig outside Dallas. There he met musicians including the keyboardist Bernard Wright, a former session ace turned crossover R&B solo artist, who became his mentor. Before long, Mr. League and a few of his band mates were playing five church services a week.

“So that’s where the music went from white jazz-school stuff to something groovier, funkier, more communicative with the audience,” he said. “Less nerdy.” Most members of the band have sideman careers; the drummer Robert Searight, known as Sput, has worked with Erykah Badu, Justin Timberlake and Kendrick Lamar.

These days, it’s not unusual for the band to perform for a few thousand people, most of whom are prepared to scat the wriggling melody of a tune like “Lingus.” (Consult a Buenos Aires show from Nov. 15, which is available for download or as part of a new 32-CD boxed set, “World Tour 2015.”) The raucous enthusiasm of the crowds, paired with the fan-service business model, would seem to place Snarky Puppy in the lineage of proggish, post-Phish jam bands like Umphrey’s McGee.

“But I feel even less like a part of the jam-band thing than the jazz thing,” Mr. League said. Pressed to elaborate, he fell quiet for 10 seconds. “Because,” he finally said, “the band plays best and feels best when our music is being absorbed in a certain way that’s not really typical of the jam-band scene. When we have an audience that’s silent and listening, we’re able to play dynamically and really explore things musically that we can’t when we have a crowd that’s partying.”

The footage from “Family Dinner Volume Two,” which was made in New Orleans during Mardi Gras last year, underscores the point. Audience members sit interspersed with the band, wearing headphones. The atmosphere in Esplanade Studios, a converted church, falls somewhere between a concert taping and an open rehearsal. The two constants are a high level of musicianship and an equivalent spirit of camaraderie.

“To all of us that joined in on it,” Mr. Crosby said, “it felt like one of the best musical experiences of our lives.” As a token of his continuing faith in Mr. League, they are working together on an album of Mr. Crosby’s new songs, performed in a sparse acoustic style.

Snarky Puppy has carried its good will forward in other ways, mobilizing GroundUp as a platform. This year, the label, run by Mr. League and Andy Hurwitz, the founder of Ropeadope, will release new albums by Mr. Hunter; the singer-songwriter Michelle Willis; and the Funky Knuckles, a fusion band from Dallas. There will also be at least one album apiece by the Snarky Puppy keyboardists Cory Henry and Bill Laurance.

And the 11th Snarky Puppy album, “Culcha Vulcha,” is due out in June. Recorded in a studio in El Paso, with no audience or guests, it features a congress of musicians from the band’s extended roster, known as the Fam. Mr. League described the sound of the album as patient and restrained, by Snarky Puppy standards: “Darker, less fireworks, much more rich and warm and distorted.”

The band has lately been veering away from fusion, he said, though it’s unclear where exactly that road leads, for the band or for its fans, who represent a sort of continuum.

“Sometimes it’s ‘Oh, my dad told me about you,’ and sometimes it’s ‘Oh, my son told me about you,’” he said. “It’s funny. And you know, jazz, jam band, fusion: I don’t know where we are. But because the band has such a rapport — from 12 years of touring, over 1,200 concerts, 11 albums — our mix of styles doesn’t sound disparate. It just sounds like Snarky Puppy.”

3 Responses so far.

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  2. Richard says:

    It hadn’t occurred to me to listen to any D Crosby music lately, guess I should give a listen to Snarky Puppy.