Snarky Puppy - Immigrance
Immigrance, the new GroundUP Music release from the genre-defying collective Snarky Puppy, is all about movement. “The idea here is that everything is fluid, that everything is always moving and that we’re all in a constant state of immigration,” explains the bassist and composer Michael League, who founded Snarky Puppy in 2003 and has helmed it into one of the most popular, virtuosic and influential bands of the current jazz and instrumental-music renaissance. “Obviously the album’s title is not without political undertones.”
But Immigrance—which follows up 2016’s Culcha Vulcha, winner of the Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Instrumental Album—doesn’t aim to scold or condescend; rather, its mission is one of uplift, a testament to what humanity can achieve when cultures are able to come together without fear. As ever, that globally minded synthesis, tapping into a far-reaching spectrum of musical styles and approaches, is front and center throughout Immigrance. “Like Culcha Vulcha,” League says, “this record is largely informed by our travels, and we’re always trying to pass specific ideas through our filter and into our idiom without being disrespectful to the tradition at hand.”
A multicultural perspective isn’t the only way in which Immigrance leans into themes of cooperation and equality, however. Its writing credits extend beyond League to include contributions from the group’s vast, ever-shifting lineup, and the album’s rhythmic component is rooted in a groundbreaking strategy: Drummers Jamison Ross, Jason “JT” Thomas and Larnell Lewis share sections of each composition—without overlapping. “Whenever you feel a big change in the section of a song,” League explains, “just know that it’s another drummer playing: verse to chorus, different drummer; chorus to solo section, different drummer; solo section to bridge, different drummer. But they do it so seamlessly and beautifully that you just notice, ‘Oh, that snare feels a little different,’ or ‘That rhythm has a different energy.’ It really brings new life into each section.”
Like Culcha Vulcha, Immigrance is a studio project, and it features most of the same musicians. And though it shares that project’s ace musicianship and dynamic, kinetic spirit, it is also rawer and moodier than its predecessor. Several of the compositions put a newfound emphasis on delivering simpler, streamlined impact, and League, as producer, left in the tiny flubs and unvarnished textures that accompany great organic performances.
That m.o. is at the fore on “Chonks,” a heavy, gritty slice of funk that League wrote during a sound check on Bobby Sparks II’s clavinet; the keys master is featured on the tune with a combustible clav solo that, with its otherworldly tremolo effect, could be mistaken for a guitar lead. The second cut, League’s “Bigly Strictness,” carries on that hard-grooving directness before the composer borrows a rhythm from one of his most crucial influences of late, the Turkish darbuka master Mısırlı Ahmet. Guitarist Chris McQueen’s gorgeously slow and sensual “Coven” follows, with an implicit message of how these tech-saturated times are destroying the human empathy that can only be achieved through face-to-face communication. “Bling Bling,” by saxophonist, flutist and clarinetist Chris Bullock, isn’t shy about its composer’s deeply felt passion for hip-hop.
Last year, League’s long-running interest in North African sounds was reignited by a special collaborative concert featuring Snarky Puppy and the Moroccan master musician Hamid El Kasri, at the Gnaoua World Music Festival in Essaouira, Morocco. The bassist’s new investigations resulted in “Xavi,” whose richly propulsive rhythms are variations on a folkloric chaabi groove from Morocco. Toward the track’s end, fusillades of near-psychedelic flute playing emulate a vocal pattern that is a customary coda to many Moroccan folksongs. “While We’re Young,” written by trumpeter Mike “Maz” Maher, is a patient, late-Miles-ian interlude that functions within the album’s program as a palate-cleanser, or “like a piece of ginger between two different pieces of sushi,” as League puts it, chuckling. Trumpeter and keyboardist Justin Stanton’s “Bad Kids to the Back” is classic Snarky Puppy, equally funky and challenging, with a heroic tenor sax solo by Bob Reynolds and a master class of a trading section featuring the three drummers. With a laugh, League describes the album closer, “Even Us,” as a median between the nuevo tango of Astor Piazzolla and the music he studied during a six-week sojourn in Turkey in 2018. He began toying with its melody in Istanbul, on the oud, but really dug into it on a flight between Dallas and El Paso; the tune took about 20 minutes to get down. But you wouldn’t know it: Among the most heartrending moments on the record, you could easily imagine it as the score to a refugee’s journey or an immigrant’s trek. (It’s also no coincidence that the project’s brilliant artwork is culled from the portfolio of the Turkish visual artist Zeycan Alkış, whose nation has been no stranger to the demonization of folks in dire need of a new homeland.)
Throughout its 15-year history, Snarky Puppy has smartly utilized technology to promote its music and build its following; over several albums, the band built up its base by expertly documenting its concert-like recording sessions and releasing the footage on YouTube and DVD. Immigrance takes the filmic component even further. An online video series, inspired in part by the acclaimed storytelling project Humans of New York, will document immigrant musicians reflecting on both the big-picture ideas and winsome details of their lives. Participants thus far include some of the New York scene’s most remarkable musicians, like the Mexican-born drummer Antonio Sanchez, the Swiss-born harmonica player Grégoire Maret and the German-born guitarist-singer Leni Stern. “With people who feel very anti-immigration,” League begins, “the thing that’s missing is that they don’t look at the immigrant in the same way they look at themselves. They don’t look at them as a person who loves their mother’s cooking, a person who experiences the same joys and struggles.”
Joys and struggles have certainly been a part of the Snarky Puppy saga. League established his band as an undergrad, in need of a creative outlet after he failed to place into any of the jazz ensembles at the venerated University of North Texas. So he looked toward the fellow student musicians he also counted as friends, as well as the gospel and R&B pros they’d been playing with regularly near Dallas. Over the following decade and a half, through the ingenuity of their ideas and the sheer fortitude of their work ethic, League and Snarky Puppy would become one of the most significant crossover successes in recent jazz and instrumental-music history—playing to packed-out theaters and earning mainstage sets at major music festivals, and garnering coverage in high-profile outlets. “Snarky Puppy, the jumbo-size brainchild of bassist-composer Michael League, is one of the more versatile groups on the planet right now,” Rolling Stone said in 2016. “[T]he Grammy-winning orchestra plays a virtuosic, high-energy blend of jazz, funk, hip-hop and more.” A few years ago, Snarky Puppy established a label, GroundUP Music, to release its own recordings as well as the work of friends and collaborators like David Crosby, who first worked with the group on volume two of its vocal project Family Dinner. In 2017, League and GroundUP launched the intimate annual GroundUP Music Festival in Miami Beach, showcasing a panoramic range of contemporary sounds and lifting up emergent artists.
In recent years, after so much elbow grease, awards have been plentiful, and include three Grammys and numerous poll placings. In 2017 alone, Snarky Puppy captured the “Jazz Group of the Year” title in the DownBeat Readers’ Poll and “Best Contemporary Group” in the JazzTimes Readers’ Poll. Not surprisingly, the collective has become an incubator for game-changing talent. Nearly every member of Snarky Puppy is a bandleader or solo artist, releasing albums and touring regularly.
Throughout its countless gigs and dozen previous albums, Snarky Puppy’s not-so-secret weapon has been diversity. After all, what better way to make all-embracing music than to utilize musicians from every corner of the U.S. in addition to Argentina, Japan, Canada, the U.K. and elsewhere? So with Immigrance, Snarky Puppy is essentially practicing what it’s preached all along. “The band itself is a representation of what we’re trying to express musically,” League explains. “That people from different places can bring their various strengths and experiences, and how that can be beautiful and cohesive.”