Consisting of dozens of basically unassailable musicians in and out the door, Snarky Puppy is about as engaging as an instrumental ensemble can be. What the “big, funky, romping, muscular jazz band”—David Crosby’s words—lacks in emotional information, they make up for with slamming grooves, technical wizardry, and abundant ear candy. So what happens when they cut a live-in-the-studio record, heavy on the beats but with a drier aural palette? You win some, you lose some.
That’s what’s going on with Empire Central, their 16-track follow-up to 2019’s terrific Immigrance. The conceit is that it pays homage to the Dallas music scene; the band formed in Denton, 30 miles away. But aside from a vague feeling of metropolitan nightlife, you wouldn’t pick this up without reading the liner notes.
From opener “Keep It on Your Mind” to mid-album highlights like “Mean Green” to closer “Trinity,” will Empire Central maintain your interest? Absolutely: We’re dealing with masters here, most visible among them bassist/composer phenom Michael League. That the music is this rock-solid in such an unadorned context speaks volumes to how thrilling it’d be to behold it live.
Still, previous works benefited from their undeniable atmosphere; 2016’s Culcha Vulcha had an appealingly unpredictable kitchen-sink feeling, and Immigrance benefited from a vaguely swampy, oppressive energy that comported with its Trump-era milieu. Empire Central lacks a certain je ne sais quoi that might lead you back to other records instead.
No, Snarky hasn’t let us down thus far; they’re too canny to swing and completely miss. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t capable of minor additions to their catalog.