Snarky Puppy’s EMPIRE CENTRAL is one of the most anticipated, absolutely amazing album to be produced in my lifetime! I was fortunate to be at the recording sessions (see link) and that was a life-changing experience! Now, just six months later, the ensemble’s latest masterstroke is released.
The two discs are total earcrack – you can’t get enough of it and listening leads to more listening. It’s a gumbo of styles with songs written by a dozen or so different people. The theme of the album was to be centered around Dallas, the area where group first formed. The titles reference difference places and people, a time traveling adventure of the band’s formation and growth.
Each song is a diamond with many facets – with each listen, my focus shifts to a different sound or section. Listening successive times elicits a diary of different feelings each time.
It’s hard to comprehend appreciate how beautifully complex and yet accessible this music is. There are moments when the instruments blend together horns with violin, synth with guitar, violin and trumpet such that it’s hard to discern one from another. There’s gonna be amazing moments during live shows when one instrument solo slides into the slot of another, like a skaters glide around the ice.
This is the Snarky Puppy sound. At the time of the recording I said it’s the best music I’ve ever heard and I made the bold statement to Michael League “this album will be nominated for and win a Grammy (or two).” Now that it’s out, I’ll double-down on that prediction.
Check out my track-by-track coverage and hear for yourself.
Keep It On Your Mind opens with a classic guitar plus clapping percussion theme with the horns syncing up for emphasis. There’s a huge bass drop naturally for this Michael League penned tune. It’s a mid tempo badass attitude funk foray. Mike “Maz” Maher takes the first trumpet solo with fuzz effects. There’s bangin’ bass in the background and the full 3 percussion + 3 drummer backbeat. The theme comes back with a full 19-member wall of sound that breaks down to a dreamy bridge sequence. There’s an interesting cross section with space synth overlaid to the bass-heavy melody right up to the synth-only pulsating end.
East Bay starts with a staccato clarion trumpet call and adds other horns and percussion quickly for an electronic, machine-like main theme. It’s recognizable as a Chris Bullock tune if you’re familiar with his solo work under the Boomtown moniker. One of the interesting aspects of the tune is that midway there’s a sweeping horn underlay and a transition to a groove oriented horn section as the B-section. A Chris McQueen guitar-solo bridge in that section yields back to the dramatic horns up to the close. Chris Bullock mentioned to me that the title is derived from the fact that he wrote it in a hotel room in Oakland, CA, the “East Bay.” This just happens to be the home of Tower of Power whose debut album was “East Bay Grease,” a coincidence but a tieback to one of the originators of horn-driven funk.
Bet, written by Michael League, was one of the three prerelease “singles” from the album. “Bet” is titled for the standard response from RC Williams (RC and the Gritz), a long time friend and cohort of the band.
The tune opens with a cool guitar and keys vamp. Mark Lettieri carries one of the main themes on guitar before the horns click in. There’s so much going on right off the bat, like many of the tunes, it’s hard to keep track. On this one, as on several other tracks, Chris Bullock shows remarkable versatility – he plays like 4 or five instruments on the album – and he kicks in with some flute that hits just right.
Bob Reynolds then has a sizzling tenor solo (check out Marcelo’s reaction shot in the video). I love how he can play sweet and sassy at the same time. The horn lines are exquisite on this tune with Chris playing some flute at the high end.
Midway the percussion and drums take over before the classic Snarky Puppy head resumes and then yields to the amazing Shaun Martin on Moog talkbox with a supersonic solo. This tune is a five-star groove and the band and the audience are ecstatic at the finish.
Cliroy is the first tune ever written for Snarky Puppy by Jay Jennings and it’s 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.
The intro is a gorgeous trumpet 4/4 bar from Jay joined by Chris Bullock on the mellifluous bass clarinet and the rest of the horns rounding out the main theme. After a bright percussion chime, the full band comes in with the sumptuous main theme. The song has a dreamlike feel up to the bridge comprised of a muted Jay Jennings trumpet synced with Chris McQueen guitar. The melody carries in the background under a funk dripped piano solo. The pronounced ‘bottom’ of the bass clarinet offsets the high end synths, guitars and horns right up to the chime signal at the end. The tune is a winner and looking forward to hearing stretched out versions at live shows.
Take It! I said it then and I’ll say it again – THIS IS THE FUNKIEST MUSIC I’VE EVER HEARD OR SEEN! Upon the first few album run-throughs, this is my favorite due to it’s funkaliciousness and the significance to the album. This take was from the third night, second session at Deep Ellum Art Co. During the early session, Michael announced that Bernard Wright would join on keys for this tune written by Bobby Sparks and appearing on his Paranoia album. 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 fckn door! What a blast and man everyone loved that one!
Between sets, I got to chat a little with Nard about the tune and funk overall, a cherished memory. Then, for the second set where this was recorded, I was seated under the neon Texas sign behind J.T. and the rest of the drummers.
Take It! starts with a little curveball with a some softer synth and drum roll but breaks off with some super synth funk and then a straight ahead horn line. The groove hits full stride with Bobby Sparks bouncing along on synth accompanied by Nard. Jay Jennings does the honors with a funked up trumpet solo that teases Miles Davis’ tune Jean Pierre.
The horn theme serves as a intermezzo to Nard just slayin a bouncy funk magnum opus with him looking upwards to the heaven. This one would tuck in perfectly with the P-Funk playbook. Yea, We Want The Funk! It’s near impossible to listen to this tune and this section sitting down. Every person in the room, musician, GroundUp team and fans were grinning ear to ear and bobbing all along.
The synth sequence from the opening then segues into a massive three-way drum off between J.T., Jamison and Larnell! I remember sitting there and catching Larnell as he flips to a little behind the back sleight of stick. Amazing.
The whole audience stood for a standing for that which was the next to last of the night and it was incredible. Alas, Nard tragically died just two months later but so glad to witness this grand part of funk history.
Portal is one of those tunes is a perfect expression of the musicality and personality of its composer, Marcelo Woloski. Marcelo mentioned that the title is a reference to Uruguay where his brother lives. The bright, cinematic opening makes you feel like you’re passing through a portal to paradise. Of course, it’s laden with peppery Latin percussion, spritely guitar and piano. The layered horns carry the melody and yield to the punchy piano with lush trumpet, flute and bass rhythm. Chris Bullock has a high-end soprano solo here showing off his multi-reed chops as he did throughout the sessions. It’s a facet not heard on many prior Snarky Puppy cuts (only on the bonus track Bardis from the Immigrance album), a welcome addition. It wouldn’t be a Marcelo tune without some overall great percussion fills. Zach Brock takes a nice turn with the theme on violin with guitars accentuation. The final bars of piano only theme to an quick ending can only make you smile.
Broken Arrow from the mind of Justin Stanton, is another personal favorite, partly because it was the very first song at the first session and close to the last one I heard live, on top of being a monster groove. I’m not sure of the title origin, maybe Broken Arrow, OK not too far from Dallas, or the spiritual indigenous vibe you get listening to it?
After a quick drum hit, the main melody with guitar and clap rolls along with a seemingly simply but beautiful rolling horn theme. The soft guitar theme is echoed by the horns and some swirling keys kick up some tumbleweeds.
Bill Laurance has the piano solo midway and as always it’s got his signature timing, and touch to make it to the album highlight reel. The transition back to the head comes with gusto as the full orchestration hits stride. There’s a heavy slide guitar lead from Chris McQueen with that Texas twang up to a crescendo ending and fade out.
RL’s is Michael League brainchild of a Texas shuffle named for R L’s Blues Palace, apparently a popular hangout for the band during their college years. It kicks off with a nasty blues guitar before JT Thomas, a badass shuffler according to Michael comes in with the snare-cymbal combo. The horns ride high in this one playing the repeated main swinging theme. Bob Lanzetti plays the first bluesy guitar interlude and continues with a cross between blues and metal phase that will please even hard core metalheads. The second guitar solo from Mark Lettieri gets darker and darker before a head on shuffle storm. The final Bobby Sparks scratchy clavinet with whammy solo with the swirling keys hits like a Texas tornado crashing to the end.
Mean Green from Nate Werth, was one tune that I didn’t witness during the live recording sessions but I heard it was red hot! It’s named for the North Texas State Mean Green football machine (also the alma mater of “Mean Joe” Greene).
Since Nate is one of the coleaders of Ghost-Note, it’s naturally funky – starting with a keys and drums pairing with the some extra greasy synth on the side. It’s got one of the more catchy horn lines on the album synced up with those synths and some shoop, shoop vocals from Shaun on vocoder. It’s got that go-go percussion feel throughout and a bass synth bridge giving way back to some extra go-go. Bobby Sparks clavinet parts are extra spicy with some master shreds. I totally dig the clip-clap left to right rhythm in my ears. Looking forward to seeing this one on the video and live, hopefully.
Fuel City is another classic from Bill Laurance, a composing and keyboard genius. whose tunes are always among 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.
Fuel City starts with a dramatic piano opener then joined by Shaun on talkbox and Chris Bullock again on bass clarinet. The horns come in with a repeat piano followed by the guitar windup and then bam! The low end with bass, bass clarinet, kick drums and percussion lay down a hard driving rhythm and the synth comes in with some spicy funk. The secondary keys have a vocalesque quality seemingly chanting “ooooh” as the underlayment. The bridge gives way to the main theme but heavier this time with Shaun growling through the talkbox and the band deep in the pocket. The last section breaks off into a synth heavy, horn punctuated sound, ending this hot tune.
Free Fall is another stellar Justin Stanton creation. During the recording session, Michael League mentioned that Justin always brings tunes that are most closely laid out to the finished cut — this is a great tune from a great talent. From the opening theme it immediately grabs you – I can definitely see Shaun encouraging audience singalongs to this tune at live shows.
The opening with Chris B on flute is so clean and uplifting. In some of the high end lines, I get a little Asian flavor, perhaps unintended but I dig it. The tune is very lush with tremendous layering, making full use all nineteen players.
Midway, there’s a stripped down bridge with bass and drums that sets up a big return of the main melody with some powerful horn work accentuated by the guitar and rhythm sections. It’s an exceptional groove!
Belmont is another Michael League tune, named for a street where he grew up I believe, and is the third and final prerelease single. It starts with a soft sync intro from Justin and then a light touch Bill Laurance theme as only he can do. What’s amazing here to me is the precision of the playing giving the tempo and spacing. This tune is rainforest lush with a full band sound. Chris Bullock is on flute again, always a great variation for me.
Belmont, is another tune that could have been on the Sylva album based on its very ethereal feel. Zach Brock gets a violin solo and of course Michael plays off him subtly. Zach is an amazing talent on violin as goes into orbit at the end of the solo before the group comes back to the theme and then a soft landing closeout with Bill on piano.
Pineapple was written by Mike “Maz” Maher and Michael League although during the live recordings it was just referred to as Maz’s tune. This one swings right from the start with perhaps the most distinctive horn line on the album. The B section repeats the main theme and Bob Reynolds has another jazzy swinging tenor solo early on. The second solo is on piano bouncing along with the pounding rhythm section. The suspended ending with the big horn sound reminds me of how Tower of Power consistently ended some of their early studio jams.
Honiara is a beautiful Zach Brock penned tune named for the capital of the Solomon Islands (NE of Australia). It is perhaps the most democratically spread song with a violin section, naturally and a terrific flugelhorn solo from Jay Jennings. One aspect of the tune I’ve come to focus on (especially with headphones) is Michael’s bassline throughout. There’s a very hot Santana-esque violin solo from Zach synced with guitar from Bob Lanzetti. That’s why I can envision the violin theme carried by synth or horns or guitar and reversing the specific roles live. Chris McQueen has an excellent poignant guitar solo towards the end. The horns come back in with an uplifting orchestral bit and the main theme rides out.
Coney Bear from Bob Lanzetti is titled for an instance from someone mishearing Bob say Bon Iver as Con-Eye-Bear. At the first recording session, Michael informed everyone that is called a mondegreen, which I had to look up because I never heard that term.
The tune has some magnificent arranging. It starts of course with some intricate guitar joined pretty quickly with the rest of the rhythm section. After the intro, it’s echoing guitar carrying the theme forward. I love the break dropping off to just guitar and then some well-timed funky synth. The next solo is a muted trumpet with effects from Maz.
There’s a false ending that segues into what I call the “havoc” ending with some space radio synth, super syncopation and a “missing” end note a la Shofukan.
Trinity written by Mark Lettieri, is the title for the river that connects Fort Worth, where Mark is from, to Dallas, to Denton where most of the band met at University of North Texas. It was the first single off the album as a short and extended version, which I cover here.
It starts with a hauntingly beautiful guitar intro from Mark and then is distinguished immediately by Chris playing bass clarinet. So much to digest here from the mute trumpets to seeing Marcelo blow into some hissing object. When Chris hit some of those deep notes during the break it gave me chills. Then there’s some sort of lighting strike guitar from Mark followed by some twang guitar from Mark. The horn chorus is so punchy. Shaun on talkbox with Chris on bass clari is stellar. Then Bullock switches over to tenor for a dynamic solo. Honestly, watching the video when the band is rollicking along is likely to increase your pulse.
Midway through Justin has a short synth solo and for me, it instantly sounds a bit like “Jump” from Van Halen. I’ve gotta ask Mark if it’s an homage to one of his favorite bands or if I’ve imagined it. It then hits such a memorably funky theme and the whole band is bouncing, literally! Bill Laurance has a short key solo to close out — but wait, no one wants the song to end — so they just hit it again! This time it’s taken to another level and that main theme just embeds in your brain. Mark absolutely rips a final solo over the top of the theme. Everyone in the room is amazed and what an incredible way to close out the album! Shaun hits the exclamation point with a scream!
Michael League, Bass
Jason “JT” Thomas, Drums
Larnell Lewis, Drums
Jamison Ross, Drums
Marcelo Woloski, Percussion
Keita Ogawa, Percussion
Nate Werth, Percussion
Shaun Martin, Keyboards
Bobby Sparks, Keyboards
Bill Laurance, Keyboards
Justin Stanton, Keyboards, Trumpet
Mark Lettieri, Guitar
Chris McQueen, Guitar
Bob Lanzetti, Guitar
Bob Reynolds, Saxophone
Mike “Maz” Maher, Trumpet, Flugelhorn
Jay Jennings, Trumpet, Flugelhorn
Chris Bullock, soprano and tenor sax, bass clarinet, flute and piccolo
Zach Brock, Violin
Special Guest, Bernard Wright (Take It!)