For the Record: Snarky Puppy Family Dinner Vol. 1

By Devin McGrath-Conwell

In the mind of bandleader Michael League, Snarky Puppy was born out of a passion for jazz. League studied the form and started the band of like-minded musicians at the University of North Texas. The band later transplanted to a base of operations in Brooklyn, N. Y., and has grown in both members and musical dynamism since its debut album in 2006. Lovingly known as “the Fam” to their fans as well as to one another, the rotating 24 plus member group consistently charts unprecedented pathways through funk, with welcome detours into jazz, soul and every turn of music they can handle.

Recorded live, as most of their albums are, in New Orleans, Family Dinner Vol. 2 is a direct descendant of the group’s 2013 album Family Dinner Vol. 1. Assembling a flock of virtuosic musicians and performers, League and company deliver a genre-defying set of music that incorporates both original pieces written by “the Fam” and their guests, as well as inventive takes on already recorded music brought to the table by the visiting performers. Family Dinner is an apt name for the album, for it has the feel of a meal prepared by many hands that somehow manages to hit each distinct flavor of music without spoiling your appetite for the next course.

The album begins with “I Asked,” which features American folk and jazz singer Becca Stevens, as well as members of the Swedish folk band Väsen. It begins as a chiefly acoustic track that features Stevens’ voice, but after four minutes it evolves into an atmospheric bit of prog rock, with a sparse electronic and percussive instrumentation overlaid with vocals that border on chants. It is arguably the weakest installment on the album, but if nothing else it reinforces the risk-taking tendencies of a group that is willing to do anything, as long as they have never done it before.

Latin rock and salsa infused “Molino Molero” follows this up, and with guest turns by legendary singer-songwriter Susana Baca and guitarist Charlie Hunter, the song is infectiously good-natured. Baca’s voice is perfectly backed by the instrumentalists, and when she cedes the floor to Hunter the arrangement puts his playing on full display. Hunter dances through a nearly two-minute solo that feels right out of any of Carlos Santana’s best work, which crescendos to bring back Baca and the rest of the band for the end of the song. It works as an ideal segway into the upbeat tone of the majority of the album.

With another 180-degree twist, “Liquid Love” is an overhauling of guest singer Chris Turner’s soulful rocker. “The Fam” gives center stage to Turner and his back-up singers, but also serves as a proper introduction to the stellar horns sections Snarky Puppy is blessed with. Turner turns in a vocal performance that is dripping with sultry tone, and even though the song goes on a bit too long when all is said and done, the song builds well on the energy and fun of “Molino Molero.”

Not content to settle into soul and stay there, “Soro (Afriki)” provides a dramatic shift in tone from the closing notes of “Liquid Love.” It features guest vocals from Salif Keita, a singer-songwriter from Mali known as “the Golden Voice of Africa,” as well as solos from South American musicians Bernardo Aguiar on drums, and Carlos Malta on flute. Snarky Puppy delves further into the world music genre. It opens with Malta’s solo, and gives way to Keita and a contingent of back-up singers who blend traditional African music with the jazz provided by “the Fam.” The piece as a whole possesses a highly cinematic quality. It moves through different tones and modes in a narrative fashion, presenting distinct segments of sound that would not be out of place backing a Quentin Tarantino movie.

“Sing to the Moon” harkens back to the soul of “Liquid Love,” but while Turner focused on a sexy soul, Laura Mvula, who here provides a powerhouse vocal on a reinterpretation of her song, settles into a slow build performance that is haunting in its beauty. As the song progresses, it builds from minimal instrumentation that evokes the quiet moonlit that Mvula sings of, and bursts forth into a passionate crescendo with all hands on deck. It is easily a highlight of the album that shows how much can be done with so little when a song is in the hands of master craft musicians.

The last three songs of the album, “Don’t You Know,” “I Remember” and “Somebody Home” are a trio of pieces that bring the musical works full circle. “Don’t You Know” features English prodigy Jacob Collier on a piano part that ebbs back and forth equal parts Duke Ellington and Maurice Ravel. “I Remember” sees American electronic duo KNOWER channeling their inner Michael Jackson with saxophonist Jeff Coffin bringing out the best in the horns section with his animated playing. After these two pieces centered on crackling performances of pure musical energy and camaraderie, “Somebody Home” revisits the folk introduced on the first track, but this time in a much quieter fashion celebrating a man who has been in the business for decades: David Crosby.

“Somebody Home” is Crosby’s, and he takes a minute to introduce the song, joking with the audience and talking with the band. What follows is the most reserved performance on the album. Much of the song is solely Crosby on acoustic guitar. When Snarky Puppy does join, they do so with a tenderness that showcases their ability to go from bombastic to gentle seamlessly. While many bands may be tempted to send an album out on an energetic piece, “the Fam” sees an opportunity to slow down and enjoy a performance with another legend.

As a whole piece of art, Family Dinner Vol. 2 displays a group that celebrates musicians of the past and future that all bring a distinct and celebratory tone of creation to a group devoted to the exploration of the craft. The sprawling instrumental sections may not be the most accessible music on the market, but for those who will take the time to sink into it, there are many rewarding moments.