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Snarky Puppy makes 19 musicians sound like a single unit

Pictured here at the 2019 GroundUP Music Festival, Snarky Puppy are back on the road in 2023
Stella K.
Band website
Pictured here at the 2019 GroundUP Music Festival, Snarky Puppy are back on the road in 2023

A new year brings new releases, and KNKX's The New Cool will keep you connected to the latest in modern jazz in 2023. A new calendar is also a great reminder to check out albums from 2022 that you might have missed, or just spend quality time with the latest favorites in your collection.

The iconic modern jazz ensemble Snarky Puppy released their latest album Empire Central last fall. The band kicks off their world tour next month but it won't bring them to the West Coast in the first half of the year. Until those inevitable dates are announced, let's dig into the new album.

Empire Central fills two CDs and a triple-LP vinyl edition. The first disc opens with the warped funk of "Keep It On Your Mind," a slow burn song with Bob Lanzetti's guitar crying out passionately. An odd sequencing choice that sounds more like a finale, this song hints at the wide variety of Snarky Puppy styles to come.

The 19-piece band is rich with keyboard talent. Bobby Sparks, Shaun Martin, Bill Laurance and Justin Stanton fill the background and foreground of each song with numerous synthesizer washes, chords, riffs, melodies and harmonies. They never sound like too much, though. It's as if Snarky Puppy has employed an eight-armed keys wizard.

Arrangements are key, as the horns are mostly heard together in the melody and harmony of saxophonist Chris Bullock's "East Bay." A rhythmic phrase repeated by the horns and Zach Brock's violin support keyboard and guitar solos.

Bassist and bandleader Michael League's world beat group Bokanté comes to mind in the rhythms of his song "Bet," a great feature for saxophone undergirded by Snarky Puppy's interweaving three-player percussion section.

The pace slows with trumpeter Jay Jennings' lovely composition "Cliroy," ending with a slick segue into the tight funk of Sparks' tune "Take It!" with rubbery electric keyboards trading with trumpet and ensemble horns launching an explosive drum solo.

Bernard Wright, a funk keyboard legend the band acknowledges as a key inspiration, guests as a fifth keyboardist on "Take It!" The bright horn theme introduces a soulful solo from Jennings, then Wright leans into the keys with a solo that turns jagged with dirty distortion. Tragically, Wright died in an accident last May leaving a rich legacy of recordings that have found new life sampled by hip hop stars Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg, among others.

The roar of the crowd reminds listeners that Snarky Puppy's recordings always feature an audience, going back to their first sessions that required earphones for each listener. The sound of Snarky Puppy has always been the sound of a live band creating music in the moment, this time at Deep Ellum Art Company in their hometown of Dallas, Texas.

The album continues with Chick Corea-inspired jazz fusion, film score influenced soundscapes, rocking guitar and drum powered themes and plenty of the intricate funk jazz that's made Snarky Puppy a favorite of music lovers who aren't distracted by genre boundaries.

Listen for "Mean Green" on KNKX's The New Cool this Friday, written by percussionist Nate Werth. A locked-in rhythm section sets the funky scene punctuated by jabbing riffs from the horn section. Werth is joined by Keita Ogawa and Marcelo Woloski on percussion with Larnell Lewis, JT Thomas and Jamison Ross all playing drums.

Those six drumming musicians are matched by three guitarists and four keyboard players. Again, Snarky Puppy manages to make 19 musicians sound like a single unit.

Empire Central has been nominated for Best Contemporary Instrumental Album at this year's Grammy Awards, with Snarky Puppy hoping to collect their fifth Golden Gramophone Feb. 5. Awards aside, this double album offers a world of thrilling music for modern times.

The New Cool airs Fridays at 9 p.m., hosted by Abe Beeson and produced by KNKX Public Radio in Seattle, Washington. LISTEN ON DEMAND

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Abe grew up in Western Washington, a third generation Seattle/Tacoma kid. It was as a student at Pacific Lutheran University that Abe landed his first job at KNKX, editing and producing audio for news stories. It was a Christmas Day shift no one else wanted that gave Abe his first on-air experience which led to overnights, then Saturday afternoons, and started hosting Evening Jazz in 1998.