Snarky Puppy released their Grammy-winning album Culcha Vulcha in April 2016 and then spent the better part of two years touring the world in support of that album. During that time, the band recorded approximately 64 of those shows and made them available to fans to purchase and I have listened to most of them. One of the unique aspects of Snarky Puppy is that no two shows are ever the same based on a rotating set list, and the ensemble -nature of the group with an ever changing lineup, plus a frequent surprise “special guest” on any given night.
In March 2019, the band released their latest album Immigrance and will put in over 100 dates around the world in support of the album — we’ll be reviewing many of these live recordings in subsequent posts.
However, this special review is for a very special set from July of 2018 when the band recorded at the North Sea Jazz Festival with the Metropole Orkest and Jules Buckley conducting. The NSJF is, in my opinion, the finest jazz festival in the world with amazing international artists from top to bottom. In 2018, Michael League, Snarky Puppy’s leader, was an artist-at-large and put together several special programs for the fest, with this being one of them. As Michael says during a break, one requirement was to put together at least three new arrangements and they could do a collaborative set with the Metropole Orkest (MO). Snarky Puppy fans know the MO as the group that co-recorded Sylva with the band, an album that won the Grammy immediately prior to Culcha Vulcha so it would be a special show. It was also, the last official recording of the Culcha Vulcha era and in my view an transition point to the following year’s new album and tour. Despite the large number of musicians on stage, you can hear every instrument whether during a solo, when the orchestra is playing the supporting lines, or they are playing together. The orchestra responses or reentry after a solo amplify the effect of each tune. It really is a spectacular sound, with exceptional timing and great spacing. The track list and lineup is shown below —
The track list reads like a “greatest hits” list with four Culcha Vulcha tunes and five earlier favorites. In a situation where a band of nine musicians records with a 40+ piece orchestra, there’s a possibility that the band’s sound could become diluted or washed out. Instead, the effect on this recording is a concentration of a massive sound with all of the favorite passages more intense than ever, making this probably my favorite live recording ever and a must have for collectors. You can purchase the recording here — Snarky Puppy with Metropole Orkest.
Here’s a track by track rundown with some of the special moments and highlights called out —
- Big Ugly — This song is a natural for big orchestration was played somewhat infrequently on the tour. I like the opening intro (in Dutch) to build the excitement with the audience for what was to come. It starts with normal lush opening augmented by full string and horn sections. Chris Bullock hits with a strong sax solo and the “chorus” by the MO comes back with equally strong impact. The synth solo to take us to the end is super spacey. This version takes the most “orchestral” tune from Culcha Vulcha and simply makes it bigger.
- Ready Wednesday – This is another big orchestral tune written by Bill Laurance, who usually opens with a near-classical intro on piano. In this version, the opener is more electronic and followed by a big entry with MO strings and horns. Mark Lettieri hits hard with a solo in the middle of this one and the strings are punctuating each aspect with short fills. Michael’s bass along with the strings in the slow break is something to be seen in the video capture below. The closeout is handled on keys beautifully by Justin Stanton.
3. Tarova – This arrangement starts with an atypical string (and percussion) intro before being joined by Shaun on keys and voice and then full band plus MO horns for a swirling adventurous romp. Shaun plays some extra funky lines here but one of the show’s highlights is the Nate Werth-Larnell Lewis duo toward the end of the tune.
4. GØ – Again, an atypical opening with a terrific percussion kickoff by Nate. The full string and horn entry following is quite dramatic and is followed by a great guitar line and then trombone solo by the MO. I’ve always loved the full and varied instrumentation of Snarky Puppy, but this recording, starting with this song makes me feel like the band could definitely use some “bottom” in its horn section with either a baritone horn, trombone, baritone clarinet or baritone sax as the MO brings it hard. The low end horns are used to great effect here as on the Sylva album. There’s another nice keys solo here and the the syncopated back beat by Larnell is funky as hell. The MO close out this tune in near classical style and the audience strongly appreciates it.
5. Semente — This tune also opens with a percussion start and is masked until the full band enters. Nate is terrific in bringing a range of sounds to build anticipation of what is to come. This tune is played somewhat traditionally but the MO support with strings is beautiful. Chris takes a nice solo on flute and the backing by MO is with its sweeping swirling sound. Maz takes a nice solo here as well and the sound is great.
6. Grown Folks — This is a fuller, bigger Grown Folks version than heard on most recordings, especially when the MO horns kick in to play rounds with the Snarky horns. Chris takes another turn at sax solo with a nice up and down tone. When the full band + MO come in, it’s just an intense and strong version with Chris’ sax soaring over the top before Michael’s now classic bass line hits. The MO line that they’re playing toward the end with Mark’s guitar solo sounds like something lifted from “Atchafalaya” on the Sylva album.
7. Thing of Gold — How about a symphonic opening for this Snarky “classic?” Chris comes into with the signature sax opening backed by beautiful string arrangements for MO. Then Shaun comes in with some beautiful harmonics on keys. There’s some excellent contrapuntal deep horn in the background as well. As usual, there’s a terrific trumpet solo mid -tune by Maz and of course the ethereal close out by Shaun. It’s really a perfect version of this all time favorite.
8. Lingus — Here we’re taken to church with the opening on keys (I think by Bobby), and then the well known “ba da ba ba dah” hits full force. When the head is played by the band + MO it’s wonderfully rich. Chris and Maz really shine again here trading licks back and forth. There’s another great Bobby Sparks keys solo with MO backing and then just with Larnell on drums as is typical for Lingus. It’s a organ-ic romp and by the time the band comes back in the audience is in a fully keyed up frenzy. The ending is just amazing!
9. Shofukan — This tune may be the band’s all-time most popular, and a fitting closing for this set. The sweeping strings that come in on the intro segue beautifully into Justin’s classic trumpet solo. When the band + MO plays the main lines, it’s majestic. Michael pounding the bass for that distinctive sound bleeds right into strings and another brilliant Justin trumpet solo. Again some deep horn sounds backing the guitar riff to full horn clarion call followed by the percussion-drum duo is amazing. What and ending to a fantastic show!