EMPIRE CENTRAL From Snarky Puppy – Album of the Year

Back when EMPIRE CENTRAL was released, I wrote a full review and declared that “this album will be nominated for and win Grammy (or two).” In fact, it has now made it to the second round as “Best Contemporary Instrumental Album” nomination and has also been released in Dolby Atmos format on all streaming platforms.

The full review covers track-by-track and each tells its own story. Here, I took on the impossible task of highlighting some of the highlight moments and solos from some of the songs. It’s absolutely an album that should be in your rotation. I’d love to hear everyone’s favorite tunes, or key moments in comments or emails. Enjoy, and Happy New Year!

Snarky Puppy’s EMPIRE CENTRAL is 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. 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.  This is the Snarky Puppy sound. Check out the album’s highlights compiled by myself and my running partner for jams, StankyMuffin, for this Album of the Year Article. For each of the highlights, you can click on the hot link to go directly to the section.

All Around Smoothest Ride – Bet

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.  This tune has an incredible main theme hook.  There’s a break in the middle with a build up to the most exhilirating resumption (02:56) of the main theme that hit’s super hard. Michael League mentioned in an interview that he didn’t originally think that this would be a good Snarky Puppy tune but once he brought it in the band really fleshed it out. He also mentioned the bridge in the song was an unexpected highlight.

This tune also has a sizzling Bob Reynolds sax solo (01:11-02:10). I love how he can play sweet and sassy at the same time (check out Marcelo’s reaction shot in the video). And finally, it has Shaun Martin’s best talkbox solo (03:33)

Most Beautiful and Complex – Honiara

Honiara is a beautiful Zach Brock penned tune named for the capital of the Solomon Islands (NE of Australia). It’s the personal favorite of my coauthor StankyMuffin. I’ve heard a couple of the band members during interviews say it’s one of the toughest to play. A highlights is Jay Jennings trumpet solo (02:30). Of course, it’s got what is probably the best Zach Brock violin solo as well (03:11). Chris McQueen has a beautiful, brief poignant solo (4:53) near the end as well.

Most Valuable Instrument – Chris Bullock, Bass Clarinet

The incorporation of Chris’ bass clarinet  into the songs Cliroy (00:12), Fuel City (01:17), and Trinity (00:22) adds a new facet to the album not heard since Clay Pritchard played one on 2007’s The World is Getting Smaller.  It gives the songs such a buttery bottom that it is stunning to both new listeners and long-time Snarky Puppy fans like myself.  I can remember hearing it during the live sessions on Cliroy (third song in the first set I think) and literally getting chills.

Funkiest Snarky Puppy Tune – Take It!

Take It! I said it then and I’ll say it again – THIS IS THE FUNKIEST MUSIC I’VE EVER HEARD OR SEEN!  During recording 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!

The horn theme serves as a intermezzo to Nard just slayin a bouncy funk magnum opus (02:40) 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 whole audience stood for a standing ovation!. Nard tragically died just two months later but so glad to witness this grand part of funk history.

Heaviest Snaky Puppy Kickass Metal – RL’s

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. Yes, it’s all that but it also has a tail end that kicks tail sounding like a full metal storm and highlighted by the guitar solo from Mark Lettieri that gets darker and darker before a head on shuffle storm. The final Bobby Sparks scratchy clavinet with whammy solo (05:53) with the swirling keys hits like a Texas tornado crashing to the end.

Most Cinematic and Other Worldly – Portal

Portal is one of those tunes is a perfect expression of the musicality and personality of its composer. The bright, cinematic opening makes you feel like you’re passing through a portal to paradise. 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. The main melody gives a sensation of flying over treetops (02:02). It also features a rare Chris Bullock soprano sax solo (02:38) enhancing that flighty effect.

Most Primal Personal Feeling – Broken Arrow

For me, Broken Arrow from the mind of Justin Stanton, hits me right in the solar plexus 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? This has another Bill Laurance solo ((03:07) and as always it’s got his signature timing, and touch to make it to the album highlight reel. Chris McQueen’ makes the highlights with a heavy slide guitar lead with that Texas twang up to a crescendo ending and fade out.

Nastiest One, Two Punch – Mean Green to Fuel City

These two songs can be on any funk album and be hits. Mean Green from Nate Werthhas 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.  I totally dig the clip-clap left to right rhythm in my ears.

Fuel City is another classic from Bill Laurance, a composing and keyboard genius. whose tunes are always among my favorites. 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. 

Most Uplifting Song – Free Fall

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!

Writer/Subject Embodiment – Cliroy

When Cliroy was being described at the recording session as written by Jay Jennings to pay homage to his heros, Clifford Brown and Roy Haynes, I got a certain classic feeling. If you know any of Jay’s YAYenning’s solo work you can immediately hear his fingerprint on this one, another gem.  Another highlight is one of Bill Laurance’s best piano solo (02:59) accentuating the ‘classic’ feeling perfectly.

Most Adrenaline Pumping – Pineapple

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.

Classic Snarky  Puppy Jam – Back Half of Trinity

Another submission from StankyMuffin, the back half of Trinity, including the extended ending is just a feel good jam that Jamison eggs Michael on to continue and everyone has a blast.

Hippist Horn Theme – East Bay

East Bay is a horn heavy tune as it should be coming from Chris Bullock.  The main theme is mostly a short note repeat pattern but near the midpoint the horns sweep off with a fantastic smooth melody and it’s one of my favorite on the album.

Highlight Zach Brock Violin Solo – Belmont

Zach is always good for great solos during live shows and here he delivers one midway through Belmont. When it ends, it beautifully transitions back to the main theme.