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Snarky Puppy Play SF Jazz Festival 

Wednesday, Jun 10 2015

As a child growing up in Southern California, Michael League would often travel with his family to visit the redwood forests that hug the coast of Northern California. Now 31 and the leader of the celebrated instrumental jazz fusion group Snarky Puppy, League's composed a new record that takes listeners on the same trip: Sylva.

The jazz chart-topping album, a collaboration with Netherlands-based jazz and pop orchestra Metropole Orkest, came out on Impulse! Records, which many refer to as "the house John Coltrane built," because so much of its early success can be attributed to the signing of the legendary saxophone player. Appropriately, Snarky Puppy celebrates its new album with a tour that hits the 33rd annual San Francisco Jazz Festival June 10-13.

"There's a common sound with everything we do — a spirit of adventurousness, right on the edge of really making something risky and potentially terrible [laughs], but we love the challenge and jump at the opportunity to do so," League, says of composing the new hourlong piece for a symphony orchestra (something he'd never done before) on a time crunch.

Snarky Puppy is Brooklyn-based but Texas-bred — formed in 2004 at the University of North Texas in Denton. The group (of students and local, nonstudent musicians) adopted a hardworking DIY ethic, spending seven years touring the world in a white 15-passenger van, sleeping on floors for weeks only to come home with lots of memories, but $500 less in the band box. Now a bona fide success story with a band box containing a Grammy for Best R&B Performance, the group presents Sylva as its first release on a major label.

It would seem, by all accounts, that Snarky Puppy has grown into its status as an award-winning jazz show dog.

After the critical acclaim gathered by the band's previous album, League was rushed to write Sylva in only six months on a little 32-key mini controller and a laptop in hotels, green rooms, buses, and planes — all while on tour, playing nearly 200 gigs a year.

But you won't hear any degradation in the quality of writing. Sylva sends listeners on a tour of the five forests that inspired the album's five movements. Whether it's inspired by the redwoods that League visited as a child (and then again as an adult with the band), or the Atchafalaya Swamp near New Orleans that the group has driven through multiple times, each movement of Sylva has an exciting and varied terrain, with hills of strings, clearings of synth, and a torrential downpour of percussion. Listen close and you'll hear elements of songwriting dating back to the '70s funk and fusion of Snarky Puppy's first album The Only Constant, but also the birth of a new, more patient style for the normally bombastic group.

It's the group's fifth live recorded album, but the first time it has invited guests to sit between members of a symphony while it performed. It also imported real trees for the (audio and video) recording, creating a forest populated with songbirds (both trained and untrained), making each listen to Sylva much like a trek through a lively rainforest trail — you know the way but you're bound to discover something new each time.

"It's changed a lot because I used to be the manager, booking agent, promoter, and graphic designer, you know?" League says with a laugh. "But my admin work now is as heavy as it ever was just doing a smaller number of jobs, because people actually kind of care about us now — where I used to send 100 emails for each response."

League tells me that his new, more hands-off role — although necessary — is difficult for him to settle into.

"I literally sent an email 10 minutes ago, telling one of the guys who's running our Facebook page, 'Please don't do this, don't ask fans what their favorite songs on our record is, because that's not how we do social media,'" League says. "It is a little weird and I'm a control freak, but if I maintained all my previous roles in these times I wouldn't be able to write or play any music."

Getting used to the additional help wasn't the only challenge League faced. With the eyes of the jazz world focused in, Sylva would be the first time he's ever orchestrated with another person.

"A week before the recording I went to Berlin and met with the conductor, and we went through all the arrangements and put them on the page. I had never orchestrated with another person before, so that was really interesting but Jules [Buckley], the conductor, was the ideal human being to work with for a band like ours: he's young and incredibly in touch with what's happening in the world of modern music," League says. "My music is his music, he just happens to also be incredibly talented and educated on classical music, but we listen to the same stuff in our free time, so that was cool."

As a unit, Snarky Puppy has a passion for music education — which isn't too surprising considering the group was formed in a higher education institution. The group makes several stops on tour to teach master classes, and has educational residencies at universities across the country.

"Everybody in the band owes a significant part of their success in the music world to teachers," League says, noting that although not all of Puppy's members attended a music school, they were all taught at some level. "And I think we really feel an obligation and a sense of duty to try to share what we can with people who want to hear it. And I feel with the state of the music industry being so inconsistent and treacherous, constantly changing and shifting with what works and doesn't work, that musicians communicating transparently to future professional musicians, the reality of what goes on out there is important. We need a line of communication open of, 'Guys, this is what it's like right now. Your teachers started teaching before the music industry changed and we're in it right now.' That's essential."


About The Author

Matt Saincome

Matt Saincome

Matt Saincome is SF Weekly's former music editor.


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