Tuesday, October 11, 2022

Snarky Puppy Push Musical Boundaries On ‘Empire Central’

Eclectic, genre-bending jazz fusion collective Snarky Puppy have come a long way since their humble beginnings in the University of North Texas jazz studies programme. 

Their latest album ‘Empire Central’, their biggest release since 2016’s ‘Family Dinner Vol. 2’, expands on the already groundbreaking sound that has become their signature. 

‘Empire Central’ is a love letter to the musical culture of Dallas, their hometown, and pushes Snarky Puppy into new musical territory with a heavier funk influence and a blend of genres as diverse as the band’s current 19 members

The creation of the album was a daunting task—it features 16 new original compositions and was recorded in front of a live Dallas audience over 8 nights. However, the band rises to the challenge on the record, proving their strength as an ensemble as they explore the worlds of contemporary jazz, funk, prog-rock, blues, and soul. 

Each member is given their moment to shine on the record, and a variety of solos showcase the impressive musicality of every member. The constantly rotating lineup usually features three guitarists, four keyboardists, two brass, two reeds, a violinist, and several percussionists, led by bassist and bandleader Michael League. The album also features the final performance by legendary Dallas funk keyboardist Bernard Wright, recorded shortly before his passing. 

The horn section soars, flying through complex section solis with ease, laying down catchy melodies, and giving the record its distinctive jazz feel. Meanwhile, several guitar features give the album a hint of heavier prog-rock flavour on tracks such as ‘Keep It On Your Mind’. The percussion section lends itself particularly well to some of the more atmospheric tunes, handling shifting time signatures and complex rhythms with ease on ‘Belmont’ and ‘Portal’. 

The album showcases the band’s versatility as they tackle a variety of genres and moods. As their sound expands, so does their musical ability. ‘Keep It On Your Mind’ and ‘RL’s’ take them into heavier territory with a darker sound than we’re used to hearing from them, and they sink effortlessly into this vibe. ‘East Bay’ and ‘Bet’ give us their more classic laid-back, horn-driven sound while also throwing in some surprises with synthesized solos and groove changes. A new addition to their sound is the sultry, cool, almost R&B vibe of ‘Cliroy’ and ‘Free Fall’. The rhythm section shines on these tracks, laying down a heavy, sexy groove.

Of course, the album wouldn’t be complete without some pure funk fun. ‘Take It’‘Fuel City’‘Pineapple’, and ‘Coney Bear’ are uninhibited, funky romps that the band obviously had a blast recording. But of all the moods and styles the album explores, the most stunning tracks are the more contemplative, mellow ones. Packed with lush orchestration, instrumental surprises, ethereal melodies, and quirky rhythms, ‘Portal’, ‘Broken Arrow’‘Belmont’, and ‘Trinity’ steal the show.

Speaking to The Herald, bandleader League says, “I think the thing that makes it work and not sound too scattered or disparate is the ability of the band to run whatever it is we’re doing through our own filter and our own sound. That way we don’t sound like chameleons, or sound identity-less”.

Despite their ever-changing lineup of musicians and wide range of genres, Snarky Puppy create a sound that is cohesive and unique, pioneering a new era of instrumental music. ‘Empire Central’ is a stunning, expansive, funky tribute to the musical legacy that precedes them as they push forward into unexplored musical territory.


Bella DeSouza-Cook


Image: ‘Empire Central’ Official Single Cover

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