The sound of the BIG “little” ensemble Snarky Puppy is dramatic and discrete from anything that you are likely to hear. And once more they have released an album – Empire Central – to show us why. Thiers is not simply sonically different music. The whole business of their collaborative conception is radically different from any other largish ensemble. To begin with the ensemble itself is organically different. This is an ensemble that features three guitarists, four keyboardists – some often playing more than one keyboard at the same time; even singing through the [vocoder] device as they play. There’s brass and woodwinds, and a violinist. There is the almighty wall of rhythm with composer and bassist Michael League leading [more than notionally] a proverbial wall of thunderous three masterful drum set players and a palette of three percussion colourists.
Try and imagine how this joyous, funky and rhapsodic music will affect the listener. It’s not difficult to do so: Snarky Puppy has built itself into the legend of the BIG “little” band that propels its sonic architecture with such momentum as could power a proverbial entire city. This, in turn, makes the title of this double album itself a prescient one. Indeed, Empire Central is like a musical gyroscope – its horizontal [melodic] whirligig propelled by rippling, combustible rhythms that sweeps everything in its path and then takes off in parabolic arcs that ascend like mighty harmonic fountains bursting upward with loud reports before cascading down to earth where the music meets the mind’s mind and the inner ear.
Over the years Michael League has done something unique with the band. Many – if not all – of Snarky Puppy studio recordings have been made in front of highly-appreciative “studio” guests. By adding this [audience] dimension to albums, Snarky Puppy music is both instantly workshopped and propelled into a higher realm by co-opting an engaging – and highly-appreciative audience to each of its compositions. You hear this across the entire musical palimpsest that is Empire Central. The metaphor of the BIG city and all its humanity is no longer a musical metaphor, but instantly a human reality as well. Suddenly a thought emerges: this audience is here, at this recording for much more than the music. Indeed it is a listening humanity, drawn together by a “oneness” that binds, rather than separates.
With all of these factors – both musical and sociological – enables the performance of music that has an epic Brucknerian [cue the album’s finale, Trinity] feel and this is entirely to every music in Snarky Puppy’s – and principally – to Michael League’s credit. Moreover, the melodic and harmonic conception – and execution – of this music is so beautifully ornate that it is almost as if the architecture of Empire Central is Modern-Baroque. Loud reports of brass and wheezing organ create vibrant frescoes in the apse and on the ceilings of the group’s cathedral-like sound-structures Pick any song – Cliroy from disc one or Honiara from disc two – and you are not only treated to musical edifices, vaunted on the melodic and harmonic inside but on the shimmering rhythm that shapes the entire work.
Michael League clearly inspires every member of the ensemble to “know the score” and all [collectively] wisely, though not fussily, focus on the intricate art of orchestral engagement. This makes for power and prominence in colour and texture from what ensues from the dancing rendezvous of instruments, which combine absolutely marvelously, to produce a bubbling harmonic volcano which adorns each melody, propelled by inexorable rhythmic invention that pays homage to the African roots of Snarky Puppy music.
Whatever your views on this kind of New Symphonic Funk the sound of [another] Michael League and Snarky Puppy [production] is superbly big and refined in detail and matching the grandeur of everything that the grandeur that furnishes a glorious Snarky Puppy acoustical bloom. Michael League, with calm control, has proved once again that he [with Snarky Puppy] is a master of symphonic structure and emotional trajectory. Bravo… and a well-earned Grammy Award [if awards is your poison] for the Best Instrumental Album of 2023.
Tracks – Disc One – 1: Keep It On Your Mind; 2: East Bay; 3: Bet; 4: Cliroy; 5: Take It! [feat. The late Bernard Wright]; 6: Portal; 7: Broken Arrow; 8: RL’s. Disc Two – 1: Mean Green; 2: Fuel City; 3: Free Fall; 4: Belmont; 5: Pineapple; 6: Honiara; 7: Coney Bear; 8: Trinity
Musicians – Bob Lanzetti: electric guitar; Mark Lettieri: electric and baritone electric guitars; Chris McQueen: electric guitar; Justin Stanton: Wurlitzer, Fender Rhodes, Yamaha CP70 electric piano, Minimoog Model D, Prophet 10 and trumpet; Bobby Sparks: Hammond B# organ, Hohner D6 Clavinet, ARP String Ensemble and Minimoog Model D; Bill Laurence: Fender Rhodes Mark 8, Yamaha CP70 electric piano, Minimoog Model D, Hohner D6 Clavinet, Prophet 10, Expressive Osmose and Mellotron; Shaun Martin: talkbox, Mellotron, vocoder, Moog Little Phatty, Minimoog Model D, Korg, Kronos and Fender Rhodes; Zach Brock: 4-strong and 6-string violins; Mike “Maz” Maher: trumpet and flugelhorn; Jay Jennings: trumpet and flugelhorn; Chris Bullock: tenor and soprano saxophones, bass clarinet, flute and piccolo flute; Bob Reynolds: tenor and soprano saxophones; Michael League: electric bass and Minimoog Model D bass; Nate Werth: percussion; Keita Ogawa: percussion; Marcelo Woloski: percussion; Jason “JT” Thomas: drum set; Larnell Lewis: drum set, Jamison Ross: drum set. Special Guest – Bernard Wright: Wurlitzer, Minimoog Model D and Prophet 10
Released – 2023
Label – GroundUP Music
Runtime – Disc One 49:37 Disc Two 45:06