By Andy Argyrakis
For the last 15 years, jazz circles have steadily embraced Snarky Puppy thanks to a prodigious melting pot of globally influenced musicianship, experimental rhythms, explosive recordings, and unpredictable yet engaging live performances. The word “fusion” frequently gets thrown into the mix of critical descriptions, and ever-changing setlists have attracted the eyes of the jam band scene—despite the group shying away from both labels—while their Grammy Awards for Best R&B Performance in 2014, along with Best Contemporary Instrumental Album honors in 2016 and 2017 suggest the casting of an even wider net.
“Nothing changed within the band, but people started looking at us differently, respecting us more,” suggests multi-instrumentalist and bandleader Michael League of those accolades along the steady road to recognition. “More than anything else, it’s allowed us to take chances and continue doing what we love, knowing that people will give it a fair chance. To have an open-minded audience is the best thing an artist can ask for.
“We’ve never thought of ourselves as a fusion band, but I understand why people associate us with the genre. As time goes on, though, the sound of the group is moving toward something else. I’m not sure exactly what to call it, but I feel like we all know what it is.”
In other words, fans and curious onlookers alike are best off simply gauging the ever-evolving direction for themselves when Texas-born/New York–based Snarky Puppy makes its Ravinia debut on July 2. League promises a combination of selections from the troupe’s instrumental albums and assurance that they never repeat the same show twice, much of which will be determined upon “the atmosphere, the vibe, the sound, and everything else that is shaping the moment.” And even if it marks the first time the group, which features up to 25 members in regular rotation, has performed at America’s oldest outdoor music festival, longtime Snarky saxophonist Bob Reynolds came up through Ravinia’s Steans Music Institute jazz program during its first year (2000), plus Snarky Puppy is no stranger to Chicago audiences.
“I know Ravinia by reputation,” says League. “The diversity of its programming is incredible and inspiring. We’re honored to be a part of the lineup this year. We’ve been playing Chicago for about 12 years now. I think the first show was in the basement of the Serbian Cultural Center with a great band called Eastern Blok. I think we’ve played every venue in the city by now! Our audience there has always been receptive to our evolution throughout the years, and always very encouraging. We’re grateful for that.”
In addition to featuring Snarky Puppy, the July 2 date also boasts a stellar bill including classical to jazz, hip-hop, and pop–inspired violinist Damien Escobar—formerly half of Nuttin’ But Stringz, with two Emmys to his name—and multi-genre instrumental wiz Jacob Collier, also a double Grammy-winning viral sensation. “Jacob and I have been friends for six or seven years now since a friend of mine in France sent me some of his videos,” shares League. “Three years ago, we invited him to be a special guest on our album Family Dinner, Vol. 2, alongside artists like Laura Mvula, David Crosby, Susana Baca, Becca Stevens, Knower, Chris Turner, Salif Keita, and more. He’s a really special musician.”
League is also eager to “get some mileage” out of some fresh compositions at Ravinia prior to recording sessions slated to start in August. In the meantime, Snarky Puppy is still reaping the rewards of acclaim for its latest long-player Culcha Vulcha while making the ear-pleasing arrangements leap to life every night on stage. “It was nice to just make a normal record again, to be honest,” he asserts. “The live-in-studio format has treated us really well, but it limits you in many respects. It’s also stressful at times. But with Culcha Vulcha, we had the time to get everything right—the sounds, the performances, interesting overdubs. It was a blast. The only challenge was marketing it and spreading the word without as much visual media. But sometimes you just have to trust that people will listen. And fortunately for us, they did.”
There are truly no gimmicks here as Snarky Puppy keeps building its base the good, old-fashioned way, letting the music do the talking and the buzz spreading naturally among appreciators. In fact, the members collectively and individually—whether it be side projects or collaborations with Snoop Dogg, Kendrick Lamar, Erykah Badu, Kirk Franklin, and countless others—have no grand plans or specific strategies, other than to follow their muse and embrace an organic course of events.
“The only goal is to keep evolving, learning, and growing,” League says. “We’re not concerned with selling more tickets, playing bigger venues, making viral videos, or anything like that. We finally have an audience around the world that is listening, and it’s our responsibility to give them the best music we’re capable of making. That’s the goal. My wish is that each of the individual members’ solo projects, of which there are almost two dozen, become fruitful. Everyone in the band is active in so many different projects outside of Snarky Puppy that we’re constantly learning new things in different corners of the music world. As a result, everyone is bringing that growth and those new things into Snarky Puppy. I think the composition growth is a natural one without trying to force anything or come up with some ingenious new concept, and that the music is naturally going to progress in a positive way.” ▪
Andy Argyrakis is a Chicago-based writer/photographer whose credits include the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun-Times, Daily Herald, Daily Journal, Illinois Entertainer, Hear/Say Now, Concert Livewire, Chicago Now, Redeye, Metromix, Paste, Down Beat, Spin.com, MTV.com, Fuse TV, UP TV, Pollstar, and Celebrity Access. He also is the founder and content curator for ChicagoConcertReviews.com.