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Permanent waves: How Snarky Puppy became the hub of a new movement in music

We keep looking for new movements in music. It’s in our nature to do so, if we’re the curious type, the sort of music lover not content to simply relive high school once a week by blasting the same records we were listening to back then while drinking too much lite beer. (I still listen to many of the albums that were my favorites in high school, but like you, most likely, that’s far from all I listen to.)

The desire to know what’s coming, or what has arrived elsewhere, is a natural one, for, as Pete Townshend said all those years ago, “The music must change.” And hey, who wants to be caught listening to Bob Seger’s ’70s collection when the pretty young things are moving upward and onward? Change in music is good. Change suggests life, because it mirrors life. Stasis is comforting, but it’s also artificial.

That said, what are the movements these days? Can we even locate one, pin one to the board long enough to name its species and genus, locate its position and interpret its reflection on the zeitgeist? Easier said than done, of late.

Most of the movements are over-the-shoulder glances toward the past, cellphone snapshots of what already was, dressed up in trendy sartorial splendor, and resold as if they are actually something new. Thus, contemporary alternative rock and pop is ’80s redux; the new prog movement is, broadly speaking, the old prog movement, with less brilliant songs, excluding Steven Wilson’s work; mainstream hip-hop, with some notable exceptions, seems to have lost the plot, and lost the funk as well. The best country music is the stuff that sounds the most like the old country music from the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s.

The main movement not mired in the past is an underground one that is spreading through the ceaseless activities of the members of one band – Snarky Puppy, the ever-fluid ensemble that won a Grammy in 2014, but still remains an entity operating away from (and often against) the mainstream.

Snarky Puppy is led by bassist and composer Michael League, and is composed of musicians who represent a thoroughly modern phenomenon – the ability to make genuinely worthwhile musical statements in just about any subgenre you can imagine, from jazz to R&B, neo-classical to pop, alternative to funk. Beholden to no one, and seemingly open to all ideas, Snarky Puppy has been pointing the way forward for several years now, and suggesting that what lies ahead is a rethinking of the tired idea that an artist must be loyal to one genre in a clique-like fashion, to the exclusion of all others.

The present-day musician needs to know a little bit of everything, to be schooled in, and endlessly curious about, musical conceptions bonded only by their quality, the depth of their contribution to the ongoing dialogue.

Snarky Puppy is more movement than mere band, simply because falling beneath the group’s sway places a whole world of music at the listener’s fingertips. There’s the albums released beneath the band’s own imprimatur which number 10 by this point, and touch upon nearly as many musical flavors as one can name. (The latest, “Family Dinner Vol. 2,” features a host of guest singers and musicians, including Susana Baca, Charlie Hunter, David Crosby, Salif Keita, Laura Mvula, Ivan Neville, Jacob Collier and Terence Blanchard.

But that’s just the beginning, for in Snarky’s world, the band is the mothership, but all involved are free to leave and recombine in various solo guises or small-combo subdivisions.

Witness the recent release of keyboardist Bill Laurance’s “Aftersun,” a moving collection of genre-jumping cosmic American songs featuring fellow Snarky Puppy members League and drummer Robert “Sput” Searight. This is an album that struts with the confident swagger of Herbie Hancock’s “headhunters” in spots, then moves with the studied precision-funk of uber-geeks Vulfpeck at another, though at its core is a majestic and sweeping strain of mood music bolstered by strong harmonic movement – a soundtrack to a film that plays only in the theater of the imagination. It sounds like tomorrow’s music, as does everything Cory Henry does with his side project, the Funk Apostle, whose recent set at NAMM in Anaheim I was lucky enough to catch, and who has made it to Buffalo twice for packed shows at the Iron Works in the past 18 months.

Not to be outdone by their bandmates, drummer Searight and percussionist Nate Werth work a dizzying array of African and urban American polyrhythms into their music as Ghost-Note, and guitarist Mark Lettieri fronts his own trio, balancing his compositions against audaciously reimagined soul and pop covers.

It seems that everyone involved with Snarky Puppy is exploding with creativity that can’t be contained within one singular project. What’s amazing about all of this isn’t the fact that there’s so much of it, but rather, that all of it is so inspired, so worthwhile, so good.

When you catch Snarky Puppy in concert – which you’ll be able to do at the Town Ballroom on May 7 – you’ll catch a wave, more than merely hearing a band. And you’ll take inspiration from the fact that this band is reaching a primarily young audience, one full of eager musicians eager to pay it all forward.


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