Jazz-funk collective Snarky Puppy has produced some of the greatest modern jazz music since the days of Stevie Wonder, Jaco Pastorius and Weather Report. Its newest album, “Immigrance,” is no exception. Using unique sound palettes, groove-based songwriting and innovative arranging techniques, the constantly evolving group of musicians — headed by bassist and arranger Michael League — has once again released a musical collection that will trailblaze the modern jazz-funk movement.
“Immigrance” opens with “Chonks,” a grungy, hard-hitting funk piece that pulls inspiration from the musical tradition of the Caribbean. Drummer Larnell Lewis brings the track in with a swung pickup played on congas that quickly transitions into a ’90s-esque drum beat. The soundscape the trio created is layered with a grunge-style guitar line and synthesizer lead evocative of a Cory Henry solo and perfectly introduces the main melody of the track, played on trumpets and saxophones. The standout moment of “Chonks” is the extended electric guitar solo performed by long-standing group member Mark Lettieri. With a style not unlike Jimi Hendrix’s earlier music, Lettieri’s solo is an example of why Snarky Puppy continues to attract a strong fanbase.
The group slows its tempo with the third track on the record, “Coven.” Opening with a soft and clean harmonic motion played on marimba and a big-band brass section made up of trumpets, saxophones and trombones, “Coven” demonstrates Snarky Puppy’s ability to write and perform in a range of musical styles. The melody, doubled by electric guitarist Chris McQueen and keyboardist Shaun Martin, is simple and elegant. However, the magic of the piece is found not in the melody or solos, but in the harmonic underscoring built on strings and layered synthesizers. The flowing harmonies and smooth drum beat provide an undercurrent for the melody to float on top of, giving the entire piece a reflective and easy-listening vibe.
Snarky Puppy once again takes influence from non-Western music with “Xavi.” Built around Moroccan Chaabi music, “Xavi” has a strong North-African element heard in all aspects of its production. In addition to the usage of Moroccan rhythm instruments such as the darbuka and bendir, the song’s harmonies are based on musical scales used in Eastern music and not often found in the European tradition. Another Eastern touch found on the track is the inclusion of a flute as a melody instrument. Generally excluded from jazz music, the use of a flute gives the song a unique character that differentiates “Xavi” from the rest of the album.
“Immigrance” harkens back to the traditional ’80s funk sound with “While We’re Young.” Built on a simple drum beat, bass line and electric guitar lead reminiscent of the music of funk icons like The Funk Apostles and Herbie Hancock, the song displays the gospel-inspired side of Snarky Puppy’s songwriting. Along with the funk base, “While We’re Young” extensively features the gospel trademark Hammond B3 organ, played by Bobby Sparks. The track is the shortest and most simply orchestrated on the record, but the three minutes it occupies are packed with rich, harmonic textures and gospel-style grooves.
Snarky Puppy returns to the likes of “Chonks” with “Bad Kids to the Back.” It’s like the sound of Stevie Wonder — dirty and funky. Larnell Lewis’ drumming shines as the dominant element of the track. Like “Chonks,” a drum and electric guitar intro sets up an ’80s, Wonder-esque melody played on trumpets and saxophones. Throughout the track, Lewis’s drumming creates a groove that propels the song forward and complements the melody. The apex of the song is Lewis’ extended solo — a testament to his prowess and experience as a drummer. It’s highly complex, but still gives “Bad Kids to the Back” a classic funk groove.
The group closes the album with “Even Us.” Sticking with the album’s world music influences, the track is heavily inspired by Turkish musical tradition. Both the harmonic structure and orchestration are derived from West Asian music — the use of a musical scale that gives songs a sound popularly stereotyped as Egyptian is the predominant example of this. To strengthen the connection to the Turkish tradition even further, native Turkish instruments such as the riq and bendir are played alongside Snarky Puppy’s usual instrumentation. The entire track is not so much a song as it is an exploration and demonstration of the sound palettes found outside of Western music, with different parts of the track featuring different West Asian hallmarks.
With its twelfth full studio album, Snarky Puppy has once again demonstrated its masterful ability to produce some of the best modern jazz and funk music being released right now. Perhaps more importantly, the group took an opportunity to send a powerful message to its listeners. The album’s use of musical influences from around the world — in conjunction with its title, “Immigrance” — demonstrates the beauty and power that comes from cultural inclusivity. The group’s membership exemplifies this ideal — Snarky Puppy has musicians from many cultures who all come together to make music. Each culture represented on the record brings something different, creating a cohesive work of art when combined.
Contact Jake Conley at email@example.com. For more on the culture, arts and lifestyle of the JMU and Harrisonburg communities, follow the culture desk on Twitter @Breeze_Culture