Inside the Recording of EMPIRE CENTRAL From Snarky Puppy!

I just had a magical experience attending six recording sessions of Empire Central, Snarky Puppy’s next album likely due out in late 2022. For those unaware, Snarky Puppy is a 4-time Grammy-winning instrumental ‘band’ playing jazz, funk, world, fusion or any genre music that was formed at the University of North Texas in the 2000s.

Snarky Puppy built a following recording its albums with accompanying DVDs live in front of a small studio audience starting with their Tell Your Friends album (2010). They continued this for four subsequent albums with the most recent being Family Dinner, Vol. 2 recorded in 2015 and released on 2016. The videos are notable for the spontaneous ecstatic responses of band members and the audience in hearing fantastic music for the very first time.

All the video recordings have been posted on YouTube with the dramatic effect of increasing Snarky Puppy’s worldwide exposure and generating other worldly fan response.  The most watched, most popular video Lingus from the We Like It Here album (2014) has nearly 30 million views at the time of this writing!

As for the current recording, here’s a recap of my experience (I’ll save writing about any of the music for the album release). I attended the Family Dinner, Vol. 2 recording sessions in New Orleans so I had high expectations…but this experience took it to a level in another galaxy.

Day 1 - Friday, March 4th

I flew out of Atlanta on Friday morning to attend two sessions each night Friday, Saturday and Sunday. After arriving and checking into my hotel, I walked over to Deep Ellum, a very cool entertainment area of Dallas and hooked up with Zak and Kyle, brothers and fans from Toronto.  We filled up at Terry Black’s BBQ and due to my quirky fanaticism jumped on line at the venue Deep Ellum Art Co. at 5 pm, a full 1 1/2 hours before doors at 6:30.  Naturally we were first in line and it was worth it because we could hear some snippets of the music being rehearsed while we waited.  And of course this being Snarky Puppy, more fans started arriving shortly afterward.

Of course one of the many things that makes Snarky Puppy so endearing is that their members are extraordinary people as well as some of the world’s greatest musicians.  After being hunkered down for two years during the pandemic, it was great to see the guys in the flesh as they came out one-by-one for dinner before the kickoff set.

Photos: B-Freed Photography

Being led inside set my heart racing and I took a seat behind the keyboards (this became my seat for the first 5 sets fortunately).  The inside belies the outside as it looked spectacular absolutely crammed to the max with instruments, mics, pedals, and stands just for the band and a meager 65 audience positions including a bunch in the middle.  I’ve never sat in the center – I hear it’s fantastic but for me, I like to take in the whole scene – replete with all 19 synchronous musicians and the amazing crowd reactions.

SPOILER ALERTS – I WILL DIVULGE SOME OF THE SONG TITLES AND COMPOSERS (WHICH HAVE ALREADY BEEN CIRCULATING) AS WELL AS SOME OF THE BACKSTORIES ON EACH SONG. I WILL NOT DESCRIBE THE ACTUAL MUSIC UNTIL THE ALBUM RELEASE.

Note that I’ve tried to piece together the set list below from memory and with help from friends but it may not be precise.  

Early

Late

Justin Stanton was the first band member I saw and it felt so good so chat with him as I was getting seated and to see the room as he would see it. After the customary formalities and intros from Michael, the opening song was Broken Arrow from Justin! Within the first few seconds, it was like a giant wave washed over me.  The power from hearing the full nineteen band members pump out some of the most glorious tunage ever made the wait sooooo worth it. It was hard to absorb everything that was going on on the first pass but the song felt simultaneously unique and forward looking and yet familiar and comfortable at the same time.  This was to become a repeating feeling that I had as each song rolled out. I asked Larnell the next day if this made any sense and he felt it did – a connectivity to past music and feelings that made it feel so warm.

The second song was Portal from Marcelo and it was about nature and Uruguay, where his brother lives. When you hear the song after the backstory, you can immediately feel the connection.  Marcelo writes so beautifully and I mentioned to him later that I could just feel that the song was him, through and through, full of warmth and love.  He is such a wonderful human!

Coney Bear from Bob Lanzetti had a title derived from someone mishearing him say Bon Iver as Con-Eye-Bear and as Michael explained to everyone.  Michael informed everyone that is called a mondegreen, which I had to look up because I never heard that term.  It was another amazing tune of course with magnificent arranging.

Next up was Cliroy from Jay – his first tune ever written for Snarky Puppy and such a kickass one at that.  The title comes from a contraction of two of Jay’s trumpet idols Clifford Brown and Roy Haynes. If you know any of Jay’s YAYenning’s solo work (Scott Ave), you can immediately hear his fingerprint on this one, another gem.

At this point, I think I started to realize that we had three songs, three writers, a departure from other albums where Michael does most of the composition.  Sure enough, Michael soon mentions that they have potentially up to 22 or 24 songs to be recorded and sifted through for the best of the best and that everyone contributed.  He also mentioned that unlike other times when band members submitted full songs, there was collaboration between members to polish up many of he tunes. 

Justin was the first one to get a second tune in with Free Fall – I don’t remember a specific derivation of the name but it was definitely a highlight of the recording sessions. Chris Bullock came up big with East Bay, written for the great city of Oakland, California and the funk vibe there.  While he didn’t mention it explicitly, I immediately thought of my other favorite band Tower of Power, their fantastic horn section and debut album, East Bay Grease. Not surprisingly, it was some horn driven power licks. Chris deserves special mention because he played soprano sax, tenor sax, flute, and bass clarinet (did I miss one?) during the sets.  In particular there’s one bottom blast he played on one tune (I can’t remember which) that made me twitch when he hit it – I’ll remember when I hear the album(s).

The closer was RL’s by Michael (he didn’t announce the composer in his typical humble fashion) and it was named for R L’s Blues Palace, a popular hangout apparently for the band during their college years. When the session ended, it felt like it went by so fast and was so exhilarating, I couldn’t imaging the music getting any better and it was hard to believe that the guys had only played those tunes a few times in rehearsals.  I immediately felt like this was the best Snarky Puppy music ever! And that was just the first night first set!

For the ‘break’ between sessions, we congregated in the yard at DEAC and ate, drank and mostly chatted about how fantastic an experience it was and will be.  We were able to chat a bit with some of the band and crew and it seemed like old times after such a long hiatus. Before long we were back inside and I again sat behind the keys – a creature of habit.  Many or most people who attended more than one set moved around a bit to get different vantage points.  For me, I wanted to have the strongest memory possible from one point of view so I gravitated back to the same spot behind the keys for the second set.  I’ll refrain from describing the music itself because it must be heard to be appreciated and I can’t remember enough detail to nearly due it justice.

 Fuel City from Bill Laurance was another classic from this writing and keys genius.  Bill’s tunes are always some of my favorites. This one was written about the tacos (best in Texas according to their website) that the band consumed en masse from a local gas station chain while coming up through the ranks.

Honiara from Zach is titled for the capital of the Solomon Islands where he visited a while ago.  It’s interesting that during the sets, he is positioned between the horns and the guitars as his voice can be with either but to me most typically is on the horn line.

A trio of Michael songs came up next starting with Keep It On Your Mind – I’m not sure of the origin of this one. Belmont from Michael was written about a street where he grew up I believe. Bet was the standard response from RC Williams to any question – RC is from the band RC and the Gritz. This band often has members of Snarky Puppy sit on on sets.

Trinity from Mark was about the Trinity river connecting Dallas-Forth Worth and Denton.   Maz and Michael tunes rounded out the set. It was actually astonishing to hear the growth and the range of the music.  The impact of hearing NINETEEN fantastic musicians play together was beyond my wildest dreams — and in such a tight, intimate setting to top it off.

Day 2 - Saturday, March 5th

Slept in Saturday…I knew it would be the big one for me with some extra partying late night. It was a beautiful day in Deep Ellum  and I decided to walk up Main Street to find some grub.  Natch I bumped into the smart, talented, beautiful Jamie Margulies who had just grabbed some coffee and was on her way to DEAC for the start of the day at 2 pm.  Jamie , as label manager, coordinated the entire recording session and is a superstar in the Ground Up world.  Then, I meandered over to Revolver Tacos which I’d love to compare to Fuel City someday.

By late afternoon, I hooked up with two Snarky fanmily, Ananth from Philly, and Ken from Atlanta.  We got online an hour before doors and natch were first again.  After chatting with other early birds we opted for the same seats behind the keys and the three of us sat with the lovely and talented, Gisela Joāo, a great singer and better half of Justin Stanton. Needless to say, we all had great joy in seeing Justin’s playing during the set.

Early

Late

Of course the music was fantastic again and with each set I became more and more familiar with the melodies and the ‘personalities’ of each song.  The Early show had all songs that I had heard on the first night. I can’t remember all the variations but I’m sure that Michael picked different soloists several times to get a feel with what would work best for the final recording.

Before the first set, my buddy Ken and I got to pay a short visit with Larnell Lewis, one of the nicest, coolest cats you’ll ever meet. We chatted him up about this famous video where he plays Metallica’s Enter Sandman after hearing it for the first time. The video went viral and has nearly 10,000,000 views at the time of this writing.  Since my wife is a metalhead and we watched the video together, I asked Larnell to send her a personal video message which you can see here too.  By the way, Larnell is offering his “I’ll Take More Volume” merch here.  I just ordered mine :). 

In between or after the sets, I got a chance to chat with Mike ‘Maz’ Maher, Bob Lanzetti and Bob’s lovely girlfriend, Natalia.  It was great to catch up after such a long hiatus and especially to hear such wonderful music.

The new one for the night was Bix, which Michael mentioned was written for New Orleans.  He also mentioned NOLA as the site of the recording of Family Dinner, Vol. 2 and I think I recall as the birthplace of all American music.  Of course, his previous homage to NOLA is Quarter Master, a horn-heavy party song and a personal favorite. He didn’t mention (when I was there), but I assume that the title is for Bix  Beiderbecke, considered to be one of the founding fathers of jazz.  Bix is sure to be another Snarky Puppy classic.

We capped off the night with a walk over to The Free Man Cajun Cafe & Lounge that seems to have music playing round the clock.  We got some grub and ultimately stayed till closing while listening to two different bands in different sections of the joint. I heard that the Snarky Puppy (Shaun of course!), Funky Knuckles crew plus, plus was there in force late night towards the end of the recording sessions.

Day 3 - Sunday, March 6th

Waking up on Sunday, my final day, I hit up Ananth who let me know there was a brunch with music at The Free Man so I headed back there to pregame.  No sooner had I sat down than the band, Matt Banks Music, started playing a klezmer tune for the New Orleans brunch – I captured a little bit of it below.  For background, one of Bill Laurance’s classic songs, 34 Klezma, was written in this style of Eastern European music.

After lunch we hooked up with guys from Nick from Denver, John from Vancouver and the Dan from UK to hang out and discuss Snarky and other music-related topics at Trinity Cider appropriately named. It was a great way to spend the afternoon as the weather started getting cooler throughout the day. Again for the third and final time with my OCD, Ananth and I headed over to DEAC early to get a choice of seats.

 

Photos: B-Freed Photography

At all of the shows Friday and Saturday, Bernard Wright was in attendance and introduced by Michael as a good friend and collaborator with the band. I had a chance to meet him briefly and say hello on Saturday night but he was the first person I saw on entering the yard on Sunday. We greeted each other and I chatted him up about the funk a bit and we snapped a pic. Little did I know what was gonna happen in less that one hour (more to come on that).

I managed to get back to the riser behind the keys again ans sat with La Lucha band. It’s always amazing to see the high percentage of musicians in the audience at every Snarky Puppy live show, and I was probably in the minority (or close) at these sessions as a non-musician. These guys were clearly bubbling with excitement.  It was also nice to meet Jay’s wife Elizabeth, who was sitting on the lower seats of the riser of course with a head-on view of Jay.

Early

Late

Of course, each hearing of the songs enhanced my memories and built the unwieldy anticipation of the album’s upcoming greatness. But one song and all-time great episode highlighted that first Sunday set. Michael announced that Bernard Wright would join on keys playing a tune Bobby Sparks wrote and recorded called Take It. Not gonna lie, that was probably the funkiest, baddest-assed song I’ve ever seen or heard. It was capped off at the end by an all-time great moment when Bernard walked from behind the keys to a standing ovation, over to the bar…and then right out the mother fn door! What a blast and man everyone loved that one!

Finally, it was time for may last set, the Sunday late show.  This time I took a different view from behind the drums which was very cool.  From the front of the room, I could see the drums and percussion but not to the level of detail from the back and it was a treat.  The interplay between the Jamison, JT and Larnell on drums and Marcelo, Nate and Keita on percussion was fantastic.  You can see in the pic (from Brian Friedman) the amazing array of equipment that was used to generate an unbelievable ‘engine’ for all of the music.  During one song I kept hearing a ‘ching-ching’ sound that I located as something that I thought was a bottle being played by Keita which he later confirmed as in fact a Topo Chico hard seltzer bottle! What imagination these guys have!

Of course the last set was equally fantastic as I heard and saw the music from a different perspective.  Being totally honest when Broken Arrow was performed the combination of the powerful energy, extreme beauty, and the knowledge that my run was coming to an end brought tears to my eyes. The cycle of starting with this song and hearing it near the end was overwhelming.  But the show wasn’t over – it rolled right into another version of Take It and it was just as incredible as the first take. Alas, all good things come to an end, and Michael announced the closing song would be RL’s – a Texas shuffle to be handled by the best player for a shuffle – Jason “JT” Thomas and holy shit, I was lucky to be sitting directly behind him to close out my run. Simply spectacular!

Photos: B-Freed Photography

Speaking of spectacular, I can’t say enough good things about the whole team that put this on including the DEAC staff who were such great hosts and the video team who really looked out for me. Special shout outs go to Jamie Margulies who put it together, Eric Lense who was everywhere and so kind throughout, Rosanna Freedman – another super nice, hard-working boss,  Cassidy Nalbone who I got to meet for the first time, Mason Davis – my homie who was the very first one to greet me, Michael Harrison who’s just an all around great guy, Brian Friedman an amazing photographer who took pictures of the events all week long (and many of them here) and my birthday brother and hardest-working, nicest-human Matt Recchia.

Finally, the most special shout out to the main man with a plan, musical genius and hero of mine, Michael League.  The way he plays the way he feels and the way he coordinates and signals the band to work together is one of the most incredible experiences to be a part of and something I’ll never forget and never take for granted. We will all be blessed to hear this album when it’s released – it’s the best music I’ve ever heard.  I may be (slightly) biased but as I was walking out and got a chance to say goodbye to Michael, I went on record to say – THIS ALBUM WILL BE NOMINATED FOR AND WIN A GRAMMY (OR TWO)