The Denton-born music collective Snarky Puppy is looking to garner a Grammy this weekend for the single “Something.” (Update, 6:13 p.m. Sunday: The group won the Grammy for Best R&B Performance, awarded during a pre-telecast.)
A couple members of Snarky Puppy worked with Lalah Hathaway before. And the group is literally all about improvising. But when it was time to gather onstage and record Hathaway’s song “Something” last March, they weren’t ready for what was about to happen.
- KERA Radio story:
Mike League, bassist and composer for Snarky Puppy, Dallas-based drummer Robert “Sput” Searight, and keyboardist Bill Laurance took the lead on reworking the 20-year-old song with Fort Worth-based guitarist Mark Lettieri.
“It was really uncertain how it was gonna go until the performance. Like it never really clicked in rehearsal and we just kind of said, ‘Well, nothing we can do now, so, let’s play it.’ And uh, it ended up being pretty special,” League said on the phone from Brooklyn.
“I knew she was incredible, but nobody knew she was gonna sing three notes at a time,” Lettieri said from his home studio in Fort Worth.
Hathaway has gained attention for being able to sing multiple notes at the same time.
“Bill and Sput kinda came up with that James Bond kind of chord progression thing,” Lettieri said. “And Mike and I kind of worked out this funk groove for the vamp. The whole thing just felt really good, you know, we probably could have played it for another 15 minutes, or something like that.”
Challenging instrumental music with a free spirit
Grooving long and loud – and live – is what Snarky Puppy was about well before this Grammy nomination for R&B performance. The group is known for challenging instrumental music with a free spirit – they often record live on stage instead of in a studio.
“Something” is on the album Family Dinner Volume 1. The project came together at the nonprofit, arts community haven Jefferson Center in Roanoke, Va. (To see the video of their performance with Hathaway, scroll down.) Snarky Puppy invited guests like Hathaway to join its tribe for the week, which Lettieri says is always ready to gig or record in a rotating cast.
“I think we’re probably about at least three deep on each instrument – it’s almost like a sports team. But it’s like: Everyone’s a first-stringer as far as quality’s concerned.”
Searight already has a Grammy for his work on God’s Property From Kirk Franklin’s Nu Nation.
League, who now lives in Brooklyn, founded the group in Denton while he was a studying at the University of North Texas’ world-famous jazz school. Snarky Puppy recorded its first album across the street from campus at a spot called Uncommon Ground.
“Well, it was a coffee shop that sounded like a bathroom. It sounded terrible, I mean it was like a cave,” League says.
“Going bananas on their instruments”
Ten years later, after the band’s manic international touring and sharing dynamic videos online, the fan base is growing. Lettieri says it’s that visceral element of live performance people miss in the age of auto-tune.
“What we’ve noticed over the last couple of years is that there is an underground that’s bigger than the mainstream of people that want to hear musicians composing really creative stuff and going bananas on their instruments. They wanna see humans pushing themselves.”
And that, League says, is what the far-flung members of Snarky Puppy will keep reuniting on stage to do – singers or no singers, trophy or no trophy. But if there is a Grammy?
“I don’t know where it’ll live. I have no idea,” League laughs. “You want it? You can have it. I don’t know.”
Here’s the video of Snarky Puppy with Lalah Hathaway:
Here’s the list of this year’s Grammy nominees for best R&B performance.
REVIEW: Snarky Puppy’s Family Dinner, Vol. 1
Tony Green has written for Vibe, Spin, Jazztimes and the Village Voice. He was a National Arts Journalism fellow at Columbia University, and he lives in Largo, Florida with his wife, Julia.
Texas-bred and Brooklyn-based Snarky Puppy’s release, Family Dinner, Volume 1 is good. Jeff Beck playing your Super Bowl barbecue good. Samuel Jackson introducing the couple at your cousin’s wedding reception good. Shoot, let’s get real. This album is 1998 good.
When I say 1998, I actually mean, “1998- somewhere in there.” “Around that time.” A shorthand way of referencing a particular stream of sounds, ideas and events that intertwine in ways complex enough to bring even the most patient audience to the point of riot. A freehand sketch rather than a snapshot. Why waste words when a date can make your listener fill in the blanks on his own? Say “1968” to some 50-somethings and they will instinctively flash on everything from the Summer of ‘67 to Altamont, Motown, and Woodstock. Or the middle third of Forrest Gump.
For those who were really paying attention, “1998 and around there” was a pretty cool time to be, music-wise. Various mainstream outliers that had been sniffing around each other for years – underground hip-hop, jazz, rock, soul, dub, funk, electronica – settled down and started kicking out the jams. An offhand conversation at NYC’s Fat Beats or Other Music might start with DJ Shadow and Medeski Martin and Wood and end with Tricky, P-Funk and Amel Larrieux.
With that in mind, Family Dinner – a heady soul/rock/funk/jazz cocktail – is practically a WOW Compilation of 1998-ness. The band’s come-join-the party ethos (the collective contains nearly 30 players, and has put as many as 15 players on stage at one time) coupled with their improv-oriented performance chops, gives SP more range than your average four- or five-piece outfit. On Family Dinner, the crew provides solid launch pads for the fairly heavy vocal guest stars, with stylistic choices (bluesy smokers like “Too Hot to Last” and “I’m Not the One” should stay in your head for a good week) that are diverse, yet unforced and fresh. R&B demi-goddess N’Dambi rides over the slightly Miles-ish “Deep,” Tony Scherr tops off the second-line freighted “Turned Away,” while Magda Gianni leads a breezy excursion into Afro-Brazilian (“Amor Te’s La”).
The high point, the Grammy-nominated “Something,” revisits familiar neo-soul territory only this time, it’s packing Lalah Hathaway. She tops off a bravura scat performance with an almost meta-human demonstration of vocal harmonics – completing a dinner that’s so good, you’ll want to say grace again when you’re done.