Snarky Puppy‘s latest album Immigrance drops on March 15, a full three years after their Culcha Vulcha album which won a Grammy for Best Contemporary Instrumental. This is an early pre-review of the album which I had a unique opportunity to compile based on hearing each of the 8 tunes on the album + 2 bonus tunes LIVE at the GroundUP Music Festival in Miami Beach, FL. That’s right, the band performed the full album + at the festival before the album was released and it was grand.
I’m going a little out on a limb here in writing this based on what was the first live performance of each song, because as you probably know, the songs sound different each time the band plays them. I did this by taking the set recordings of each live song, and reordering them from the festival into a compilation of how they appear on the album. (At a future date, I plan to put up the first live takes of these songs in sequence as a YouTube video to accompany this writeup.) Then I gave several track-by-track listens to develop the writeups below.
I also compared the live performances of Xavi and Bad Kids to the Back with album versions since they were released as singles in advance and could confirm that the first performances matched pretty well with the sound of the singles. So, on that basis, the takes on each cut below were developed. I’ll probably come back and revisit this review once I have a chance to fully listen to the studio recording and see how the versions differ.
Many fans of the band know that their songs take many turns along the way as Snarky Puppy tours the world. I think that the last couple of years were really about playing Culcha Vulcha + a few favorites at each show and seeing how many ways they can bend each song in a different direction. I expect that their upcoming world tour will be largely do the same spreading the Immigrance word and then sprinkle in some old favorites. I’m interested to see how each song evolves over time and will probably buy a bunch of the live shows like last time to see how they twist each one. And by the way, Immigrance sounds fantastic – I put it in early Grammy contention!
- Chonks: Great funk synth lead in (played by Bill Laurance song 1, set 1 at GroundUp Music Festival ’19) for this top of the lineup tune. It melds with a super spacey synth/vocoder segment (played by Shaun Martin) before being joined by the horn refrain. The bridge is a nice Bill-Shaun exchange before going back to horns and again back to dueling synths which are then joined by Justin (“Drop the Trumpet”) Stanton on a third synth. I do believe Shaun is mouthing “Chonks” about 2/3 way through. The tune detours to a horns-guitar/bass-horns closeout. Chonks is immediately catchy and has ample room to stretch out with solos during live shows.
- Bigly Strictness: This one opens with a spooky synth-guitar segment from Chris with a vibraphone sounding keys layer played by Bill before the horns kick in. The bridge is a another space trip synth from Justin with the bouncy accompaniment by the band. Next a trumpet with synth-sound solo from Mike “Maz” Maher before a near dead stop to a drum-trumpet-synth dirge procession leads to a dreamy synth sound (Shaun) with horns closing out the tune.
- Coven: This one is the “Gemini” of Immigrance, a slower tune written by Chris McQueen (performed as song 3, night 1). It starts with a sort of clarion call by the horns followed by a funereal drum beat and back to the muted horns. It has a beautiful and prolonged trumpet solo (Jay Jennings at GUMFest accompanied by Bill on keys). This is followed by a nice keys segment, Bill to Justin. It transitions to a Star Trekky synth section before closing out with a prolonged drum/percussion solo (JT Thomas at the fest). Another one that can go in many directions live.
- Bling Bling: This Chris Bullock tune starts kinda with a two-note “Bling-Bling” on keys from Justin followed by a nice sax to trumpet horn part. Not surprisingly, it’s one of the most horn-rich tunes on the album but also features some haunting keys (Justin-Shaun) to drum stuttering lines. Chris picks it up with a full horn line with himself on flute and then naturally a short Chris sax solo. McQueen and Michael have a short bridge before back to the horns. Not surprising for a Snarky Puppy tune, it takes a turn at the end with a bright closeout with Chris back on flute.
- Xavi: This is the first “single” from the album and at the festival it was dedicated to the Gnawi Moroccan musicians in Innov Gnawa. It starts with a great horn-drumroll intro/refrain and just feels like cruisin’ down the highway right from the start. The horns then come in with what is bound to be a familiar sounding James Bond-like theme and the guitar segue by Mark Lettieri just reinforces that. This one feels like the Tio Macaco or Semente of the album but less “Brazilian”. Zach Brock gets a chance here to stretch a long awaited violin solo and he always brings so much to the band with his unique sound. At the fest, Bill took the synth solo midway through the song in a very spacey direction. After the chorus, Chris takes a nice but short flute solo and then Bill takes a more piano sounding solo. Finally, the closeout featured Mark on guitar trading with Chris on flute, then Zach on violin for a very unique Snarky Puppy finish.
- While We’re Young: This Maz-penned tune starts with big bass line and a 70s Quincy Jones/Sanford and Son sounding synth from Bill and has Chris McQueen hit with more note bending guitar work. Bob Reynolds took the first sax solo and he is just butta on until joined by the full Snarky horns and the rest of the band kicks in. McQueen again trades barbs with the horns as a nice churchy synth-bass backline layer supports right up to the end.
- Bad Kids to the Back: Of course, this tune penned by Justin Stantion, was released as an animated-live video which went viral a couple of weeks ago and it’s really fan-tastic. The band also released the sheet music so that fan bands could learn and interpret the music before it was even released. The kickoff is a great staccato keyboard to horn riff. Bop-bop-bop into an instantly catchy chorus and some great soaring horn lines. Super funky guitar and bass line will definitely open up some good solos – at the fest it was Chris Bullock with a nice flowing jazzy segment. Love the funky guitar work by Mark towards the end of the tune and the bass line following reminds me actually of Miles Davis. Perhaps the most talked about part of the video was the trio of drummers (JT-Jamison-Larnell) each taking a turn on a solo. At the festival it was all Larnell and of course he killed it! Always love the short stop Snarky endings.
- Even Us: This one is definitely an ode to Eastern European music like Klezmer and shows the influence of bands like the NY Gypsy Allstars who performed at GUMFest and are definitely recommended to check out. It starts out with a beautiful guitar solo (from Mark at the fest) that could be straight out of a Sergio Leone spaghetti Western and then he’s joined by Zach for as lush a Snarky opening as Ready Wednesday. It’s definitely got that way old school feel and could fit on a movie soundtrack or two. It’s the most acoustic feeling song of the group. About halfway through the mood takes an ominoos turn with some low end work by Michael and Mark. At the fest, Nicholas Payton was brought in for a sustained extended trumpet solo which brought us back to the closeout refrain.
- Embossed: This Bill Laurance tune opens with a nice percussion solo and a truly exceptional guitar solo that will definitely fool you into thinking it’s Zach Brock on violin when it’s really Chris McQueen on guitar, sliding up and down the neck. Who knows, maybe it’s Zach on the recording but sheesh Chris took it to another level here. This one definitely has a Middle Eastern or Indian vibe to it. It’s great to see Maz and Jay on trumpet, Chris Bullock on flute and Bob Reynolds on sax for the transition in this song. This is potentially the “Big Ugly” of this collection but didn’t make it onto the Immigrance album. Chris takes another crack at guitar shredding with effects and that dude can tear it UP! Probably one of the solo highlights of the whole festival. FORQ tour attendees are gonna have a blast with this dude. When the horns join in this becomes one awesomely powerful live number. The whole band shows their chops big time on this.
- Chrysalis: This is a “Bob Reynolds” tune that starts with a march-like drum beat but funky of course and then a nice Middle-Eastern sounding guitar riff from Mark and some great triple synth work from Justin-Bill-Shaun accompanied by the horns. Natch Bob takes a sax solo here, smooth as ever, with those dulcet tones. The horns drop into a beautiful, slow interlude before the band gets their ‘freak’ on with a bass, guitar, synth closeout. Just super!