Catching up with Snarky Puppy’s leader, bassist Michael League, is not easy these days, especially during the European summer festival season. The challenge is a result of the group’s increasing popularity: Between June and the start of September their tour took them through a dozen countries, performing almost 30 shows. In just a few years, the Brooklyn-based ensemble has become a major headliner at festivals focusing on jazz, R&B, rock and other musical styles, supported by a growing reputation for delivering high-energy performances that bring the fun and funk, and draw generation-bridging crowds. At this career point, they are as busy as they want to be.
Coordinating a live Before & After with League-his first for JazzTimes-before a concert in Italy was complicated further by problems peculiar to this past summer: numerous travel troubles brought on by strikes and extreme weather, and tragic acts of terror that ultimately cancelled festivals in Nice and Istanbul. Nonetheless, on July 24 Snarky Puppy arrived midday in Locorotondo-a well-preserved, blindingly white hilltop town in Puglia, Italy (“the heel of the boot,” as they call it). They were there to perform as part of the Locus Festival, a day after the fest hosted a rousing show by DJ Premier and his group the Badder, featuring trumpeter Takuya Kuroda.
Despite a late-night set in Milan the prior evening, a delayed air connection and little sleep, League, 32, completed sound check and a short rehearsal with guest vocalist Laura Mvula before sitting down for this exercise in a small piazza, where he listened to and commented on 10 tracks for an audience of nearly 100 music fans.
1. Ben Williams
“Half Steppin'” (Coming of Age, Concord Jazz). Williams, electric bass; Marcus Strickland, tenor saxophone; Matthew Stevens, guitar; Masayuki Hirano, synthesizers; Christian Sands, electric piano; John Davis, drums; Etienne Charles, percussion. Recorded in 2014.
BEFORE: I have no idea. Off to a great start. [laughs] It’s obviously a great modern fretless bass player. Can you give me a hint? Is he normally an electric bass player, or does he play upright as well? Does he play with Pat Metheny? I think it’s Ben Williams. I feel like I’m on a game show.
AFTER: I think it’s a very hard thing for bass players to be leaders, because normally we play very low, very supportive things, and being melodic, stepping out from the normal bass player role, is a difficult thing to do. Hearing Ben do that, and the way he’s playing the melody, is really beautiful. That’s the thing that struck me first.
I know Ben, he’s a friend of mine, so I’m super embarrassed that I didn’t know it was him right away. He’s a beautiful musician and a great dude. It’s nice to hear him playing electric-I almost never hear him playing that way.
2. Paul Simon
“Wristband” (Stranger to Stranger, Concord). Simon, vocals, electric guitar in Nashville tuning; Alex Sopp, flute; CJ Camerieri, horns; Vincent Nguini, electric and acoustic guitars; Carlos Henriquez, bass; Jim Oblon, drums; Nino de los Reyes, flamenco dancing. Released in 2016.
BEFORE: Paul Simon, of course. The only bass player I know who plays with him consistently is Bakithi Kumalo, but I don’t know if he plays upright and that’s an upright bass player. Hmm … is that a jazz player? He has a humongous sound and is super percussive. I like this. Is this off the new Paul Simon record?
AFTER: Cool. Carlos is amazing. I didn’t know he was on that. I think playing pop music and playing jazz are very different things. A lot of the time jazz musicians assume that because they can play jazz they can easily play pop, and I think a lot of the time pop musicians are kind of scared of playing jazz. But I think they’re both very specific skills that you have to learn. It’s like making Italian food or making Greek food-it’s all Mediterranean, but they’re super different. You have to really learn those specific skills, so it’s cool when you hear a great jazz player playing very, very well on a pop record.
I think the biggest problem that jazz players have in pop contexts is not wanting to repeat themselves. We’re not accustomed to always playing the same things over and over again, and for pop music-or when you’re supporting a singer-it’s a really important thing to be able to groove and play it over and over again, and to be supportive. To me, that’s the main role of the bass: to support whatever is happening in front of you, whether it’s a trumpet or a saxophone or a singer.
3. Dave Holland
“The Empty Chair (For Clare)” (Prism, Dare2/OKeh). Holland, bass; Kevin Eubanks, guitar; Craig Taborn, electric piano; Eric Harland, drums. Recorded in 2012.
BEFORE: I don’t know this one.
AFTER: Oh, really? Dave’s my biggest influence on double bass. I thought I had heard everything he’s done. This is [a recent album], right? Prism? I like Dave’s bass playing because he has a lot of groove and a lot of swing, a beautiful sound and he’s subtle. That’s the thing that really draws me to him.
I was just feeling like it’s not Dave Holland because I’ve heard most of his albums. When I went to college, Dave was the bass player I listened to most-Dave and Ray Brown. They were the two bass players I spent the most time checking out and transcribing.
4. Weldon Irvine
“Walk That Walk; Talk That Talk” (Cosmic Vortex – Justice Divine, RCA Victor). Irvine, keyboards; Everett “Blood” Hollins, Jimmy Owens, trumpets; Bill Barnwell, flute; Cornell Dupree, guitar; Gordon Edwards, bass; Jim Young, drums; Bud Johnson Jr., congas; Napoleon Revels, percussion. Recorded in 1974.
BEFORE: When it first came on it reminded me of the Meters, and that sounded like George [Porter Jr.], but it’s not the Meters. [listens more] The keyboard player sounds like the teacher of my teacher: My mentor was [keyboardist] Bernard Wright, from New York City, and his teacher was Weldon Irvine. I still don’t know exactly. But that must be Weldon-it’s his phrasing. So the thing that they all have in common-my teacher Bernard Wright and Weldon Irvine and others-is the way they phrase in their playing: sharp. And there’s the sound of the electric keyboard from that time. It’s so strong. And I love the sound of the bass player. I’m going to take a guess at one of the Jamaica, Queens, bassists and say that it’s Barry Johnson?
AFTER: Gordon Edwards from Stuff? Wow, I gotta do some homework. I think the approach Snarky Puppy takes is actually more based on this style of music than the electric fusion stuff people think of us as being associated with. The marriage of funk/R&B and jazz vocabulary is where our sound comes from originally.
“Lotus and the Jondy” (Apocalypse, Brainfeeder). Stephen Bruner (Thundercat), electric bass, vocals; Flying Lotus, electronics; Thomas Pridgen, drums. Recorded in 2013.
BEFORE: Wow. How recent is this? It has a lot of influences, from Radiohead and indie-rock stuff to other styles. It’s really raw, which is very cool and kind of reckless. I can’t hear the bass part very well through this speaker; it’s hard to hear, but it felt pretty dissonant and very low. Super low. It’s electric bass, but is it a jazz player or a pop player? What’s the lyric, “Lotus and the Jondy”? That must be about DJ Flying Lotus, from Brainfeeder in L.A., and so the bass player would probably be Thundercat. I think it’s cool how they’re taking a style that’s normally very rigid and there’s a lot of motion happening, which is not normal.
AFTER: There’s a scene that’s been developing in Los Angeles over the last few years, and Flying Lotus, Kendrick Lamar, Kamasi Washington and Thundercat are all very much a part of it. I think what they’re doing is very important, because they’re taking music that’s popular, like hip-hop, and connecting it with the tradition of jazz to keep it relevant for people today.
6. James Brown With the Louie Bellson Orchestra
“It’s a Man’s, Man’s, Man’s World” (Soul on Top, King). Brown, vocals; Bellson, drums; Al Aarons, John Audino, Chuck Finley, Tom Porello, trumpets; Jimmy Cleveland, Nick DiMaio, Kenny Shroyer, Bill Tole, trombones; Joe Romano, Ernie Watts, alto saxophones; Pete Christlieb, Buddy Collette, Maceo Parker Jr., tenor saxophones; Jim Mulidore, baritone saxophone; Bill Pitman, guitar; Frank Vincent, piano; Ray Brown, electric bass; Jack Arnold, percussion; Oliver Nelson, conductor, arranger. Recorded in 1969.
BEFORE: [immediately] James Brown-“It’s a Man’s World,” one of my favorite songs but a different arrangement from any I’ve ever heard. The two bass players that I’m most familiar with, who were in James’ band, are Charles Sherrell and Bootsy Collins. But this is not either. The bass player is moving around like a jazz bass player and playing electric bass! It sounds great. Hint?
You actually mentioned him already.
AFTER: [looks at image onscreen of Ray Brown holding Fender bass] Oh, my God, is that Ray Brown? Holy shit. Ray Brown did a record with James Brown? Amazing. I’m buying that one. You gotta give me a list of all these songs so I can go buy them.
I think playing acoustic and electric bass are very, very different things. The main thing is the sound. Of course I knew that Ray Brown had recorded some things on electric, but I didn’t know anything about this record. It’s so cool to hear what a great sound he had on electric, and a great feel, too-his swing is just so strong.
Ray Brown was known for accompanying vocalists, as is Snarky Puppy, with the Family Dinner albums and tours that you’ve done, and tonight Laura Mvula is sitting in. You must enjoy playing with singers.
My favorite jazz record of all time is Ella and Louis-Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong, and of course the rhythm section on that one is Buddy Rich, Ray Brown and Oscar Peterson [and guitarist Herb Ellis]. To me that album is a bible of how to play with singers. Then, listening to Ray play with vocalists [on other recordings], he was so supportive. I know it gives the singer so much confidence to have such a beautiful, warm bass underneath them. When I was at college [at the University of North Texas], Ray Brown visited the school. I remember I could hear him playing down the hallway in another room with the door closed, his sound was so big.
7. Mark Guiliana
“Flaw & Order” (Beat Music: The Los Angeles Improvisations). Guiliana, drums; Jeff Babko, keyboards; Tim Lefebvre, electric bass; Troy Zeigler, drums, percussion. Recorded in 2014.
BEFORE: It has a ’70s feel, but the snare sounds too recent. Wow. That’s an incredible groove. The bass player I’m pretty sure is one of my favorite modern-day players. It’s Tim Lefebvre.
AFTER: Tim is like the evolution of bass playing. He knows all the jazz stuff and is also very familiar with the world of electronic music. He also plays beautiful upright bass, and now he’s the bass player in the [blues-rock group] Tedeschi Trucks Band. He’s open to all styles and puts it all into this beautiful package.
Tim was in a band called Rudder that only made two records, and they did two tours with Snarky Puppy. During that time I tried to learn as much as I could from Tim. He’s been kind of like a big brother to me and he’s one of my favorite bass players. He’s actually one of the guys who convinced me to move to New York City. I think he saw how frustrated I was that Snarky Puppy wasn’t making any progress when we were in Texas. He convinced me that if I moved to New York it would be much more likely that my band would have some kind of success. So he and a great keyboard player named Henry Hey got me a job playing with a wedding band that did high-profile celebrity and Jewish weddings, and that’s how I was able to survive for my first two years in New York.
8. Miles Davis
“Fat Time” (The Man With the Horn, Columbia). Davis, trumpet; Bill Evans, soprano saxophone; Mike Stern, electric guitar; Marcus Miller, electric bass; Al Foster, drums; Sammy Figueroa, percussion. Recorded in 1981.
BEFORE: [immediately] That’s Miles Davis, The Man With the Horn. But let this play some more. [listens] This is stressful. I’m not sure which bassist played on this one-Foley or Darryl Jones. I’m going to go with Foley.
His initials are M.M.
AFTER: Marcus Miller! There it is [laughs]. One of the greatest bass players ever, and I got it wrong. For some reason I was thinking that Tutu  was the first album they did together, but this was the first one that they did together? It was The Man With the Horn, Miles’ first album after he came back.
I think in the late ’70s and ’80s there was this movement of musicians who were as versed in jazz as they were in R&B and groove music. I feel like what’s happening in the world of jazz today is a similar thing, but it’s hip-hop and electronic music that is flooding into the jazz world. If the genre is to survive, I think it’s important that these kinds of crossovers happen.
Do you see Snarky Puppy as part of that development?
I think with Snarky Puppy we try to take our favorite things from every genre that we love and put them together. But the strongest influence for sure comes from the R&B and gospel world.
9. Marcus Strickland’s Twi-Life
“Sissoko’s Voyage” (Nihil Novi, Blue Note/Revive). Strickland, tenor saxophone; Keyon Harrold, trumpet; Chris Bruce, guitar; Mitch Henry, organ; Meshell Ndegeocello, electric bass, production; Charles Haynes, drums. Recorded in 2015.
BEFORE: It sounds vaguely African/Afrobeat. Is the bass player African or American? Sounds pretty recent. The sound these guys have is beautiful-really round and fat. Great groove, great feel, great swing. Who’s the bassist? Come on-is he the bandleader?
She’s not, but she is the producer.
I would guess … Tal Wilkenfeld. Wait, no. Meshell Ndegeocello?
AFTER: Meshell is one of those bass players that I love because she’s a complete musician who happens to play bass. She’s a wonderful singer, a wonderful producer, an unbelievable bass player. Those are my favorite kinds of players, the ones who don’t just play bass virtuosically but who are holistic in their concept. My favorite stuff of hers is her solo music where she’s playing bass and singing at the same time. And I love her songwriting.
With Snarky Puppy, our approach is always to be heavier on the compositional side than on the improvisational side, because when you start with a structure and clear compositional elements, it’s very easy to loosen that up into an improvisational thing. It’s much more difficult for me to be spontaneously compositional in an improvised context. Most of the guys in the band are jazz musicians, so I try to give them very specific things to play, knowing that they’re not going to ever play it that specifically [laughs]. And then we have a nice balance of both, right in the middle.
10. Carmen McRae
“I’m Gonna Lock My Heart (And Throw Away the Key)” (Carmen McRae Sings Lover Man and Other Billie Holiday Classics, Columbia). McRae, vocals; Nat Adderley, cornet; Mundell Lowe, guitar; Norman Simmons, piano; Bob Cranshaw, bass; Walter Perkins, drums. Recorded in 1961.
BEFORE: It’s Carmen McRae, right? [listens more] When I first went to college, and my teacher asked me to walk a bassline I was playing [sings a skipping bassline], he told me, “That’s not how you swing-this is how you swing,” and he just started playing [sings even line]. Straight quarter notes!
It really changed my whole perspective on playing bass in a jazz context. That’s what I’m hearing this guy doing with Carmen. It made me realize that the simpler you play, the more you hear the space in between the notes, and if you’re feeling that space in a swinging way, those fewer notes that you play will swing that much harder.
You really feel that this track is about Carmen and the bass player. The bass player is so solid and so confident. It’s going to be a complete guess. [listens more, looks perplexed, shrugs shoulders]
AFTER: Bob Cranshaw! I didn’t see that one coming. I needed a hint. I’ve never really dug into his playing that much outside of the Sonny Rollins albums, and Lee Morgan and The Sidewinder. But I’ve never really gone in and checked out his thing extensively.
These were some deep cuts, for sure. I’m going to go back and revisit them all. Thank you for this!
Special thanks to the organizers of Locus-Bass Culture SRL, along with art directors Gianni Buttiglione and Ninni Laterza-for making this event possible, and to Antonio Martino, who runs the Pugliese jazz label A.MA for his live translation.
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