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The Graham Album Review #1855

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Snarky Puppy: Family Dinner Volume Two
by George Graham

(Universal Classics As broadcast on WVIA-FM 4/20/2016)

While most contemporary music albums tend to follow a familiar formula of the band going into the studio to record, with occasional special guests, there have long been some more ambitious projects that tend to bring together diverse artists in sometimes interesting, and sometimes not-so-artistically successful combinations. Those collaborations can sometimes sound forced or overly commercial with the artists settling on the lowest common denominator for their point of convergence. But there have been some projects that freely and creatively mix genres and musical personalities in ways that work surprisingly well. Among such projects we have noted recently on this series are the Playing for Change albums whose music was created by artists around the world, recorded in field recordings in their own environments and combined in the studio.

This week we have a fascinating project that is perhaps almost the opposite of the Playing for Change recordings, a bunch of very diverse musicians brought together for a week of rehearsals and composing and then recording live all together before an audience. It's the new album by the two-time Grammy Award winning fusion ensemble Snarky Puppy, called Family Dinner Volume Two.

Snarky Puppy is a large and rather amorphous jazz-rock fusion band that originally formed at the University of North Texas at Denton, and then moved its headquarters to Brooklyn, New York. The group was founded in 2004 and is led by bassist and composer Michael League. There have been as many as 40 musicians who have been part of Snarky Puppy, which can range from a kind of electric jazz-rock group to a full jazz big band. As large as the group is, one of the things they do is collaborate with other artists. Their first few albums were more or less self-contained as much as one can be with a constantly shifting cast of characters. For their fifth album in 2013, they began their collaborations, working with Burundian musician Bukuru Celestin. That same year they made Family Dinner Volume One. Snarky Puppy leader League said that the Family Dinner concept came out of their enjoyment in collaborating with vocalist/composers they admired when they did live shows and jam sessions in New York. That album won the group's first Grammy, for the Brenda Russell song Something with vocalist Lilah Hathaway. Interestingly, award came in the category of best R&B performance. They recorded that album in Roanoke, Virginia as a kind of fundraiser for an arts organization. Last year, they released an album called Sylva, in collaboration with the Metropole Orkest, from the Netherlands, with an orchestral-fusion mixture, and it also won a Grammy, this one for “Best Contemporary Instrumental Album.”

Now they are out with Family Dinner Volume Two, and they journeyed to New Orleans and again it's a fundraiser in this case for the Roots Music Foundation in the Crescent City. They brought in artists from all over the country and the world with appearances by Vasen from Sweden, Salif Keita from Mali, Peruvian vocalist Susana Baca, soul singer Chris Turner and interestingly, David Crosby or Crosby Stills and Hash fame. Band leader Michael League writes that it was the first time that they invited instrumental soloists to appear on one of their albums, and did some interesting pairings such as Appalachian-bred singer-songwriter Becca Stevens working with the Swedish group Vasen.

And like the previous ambitious projects by Snarky Puppy, it was all recorded live, in this case in a studio built in a converted church with a small studio audience spread out in the choir loft and fairly close in to the many musicians playing. League also pointed out that because there were no individual dressing rooms in the old church, that forced musicians who had never met to be in close proximity and there was soon a lot of collaborating going on. They took six days to make the album, with what League describes as 13-hour days of rehearsal and arranging before the ultimate recording which was done with the audience. The result is an intriguing mix. There are the expected influences including African, South American, funk and a the singer-songwriter aspect. Most of the eight tracks are lengthy and go through a musical evolution during the course of their run.

Opening is a piece called I Asked with vocalist Becca Stevens and the Vasen band. It's an immediately intriguing mix with the Swedish band with their nickelharpa instrument and a quirky rhythm that seems to turn on itself. <<>>

Peruvian vocalist Sasana Baca makes her appearance on a track called Molina Molero. <<>> She and the band are joined by guest guitarist Charlie Hunter who gets an extended solo as the piece turns toward funk. <<>>

Soul singer Chris Turner appears on a song called Liquid Love, which turns into a kind of big production funk tune with aspects of the New Orleans setting for the recording becoming apparent. <<>>

The track featuring Malian vocalist Salif Keita is called Soro (Afriki), which Keita wrote previously in the 1980s. While the rest of the album was recorded live, Michael League writes that Keita was ill on the recording dates, so the group recorded the track instrumentally. Then League and his colleagues journeyed to Bamako, Mali, to record Keita in his own studio there. It sounds rather seamless. <<>>

British vocalist Laura Mvula is the guest on the track called Sing to the Moon, which also features Michelle Lewis in the keyboards. <<>> The piece evolves into a kind of jazz-rock fusion ballad for Ms. Lewis' keyboard solo. <<>>

More like a contemporary jazz composition is Don't You Know with Jacob Collier on vocals and piano. It's the lengthiest piece on the album and provides room for some instrumental soloing. <<>>

An indie rock-funk duo called Knower are the guests on a piece called I Remember which heads off into the funky fusion territory. <<>> A lengthy sax solo is provided by Jeff Coffin, known for his work with Bela Fleck and the Flecktones and the Dave Matthews Band. <<>>

The album ends with something rather different from the large ensemble music on the rest of the record, a new song Somebody Home featuring David Crosby, in which is mainly solo with a little small-group backing by the ensemble. <<>>

Family Dinner Volume Two by the eclectic jazz-rock fusion group Snarky Puppy is one of those ambitious projects putting combining a bunch of very disparate musicians. Each track essentially has a guest vocalist and a guest instrumentalist. The Snarky Puppy band as such remains in the musical background providing the accompaniment along with the interesting arrangements. It all works very well, and the format of the collaboration was distinctive, with the various diverse players, most of whom had never met, and some of whom had not heard of each other, getting together for 6 days in a former church and working out a program of music to be performed live in real time before a studio audience. Doing it that way is rather ambitious and not without risks. Making it a more rewarding project is that the CD comes with a well-produced DVD with video from the performances and interviews with the guest artists. One can see the unusual way the sessions were recorded, with everyone squeezed together in the relatively small former church, with the studio audience surrounding them, and everybody in the audience listening on headphones to eliminate the coloration that amplification in the studio would cause.

So for a sound quality grade, I give the CD an “A.” As a recording engineer of a few decades experience, I know that recording the way this album was done is challenging, but the recorded sound is first rate, with a very good mix and a pleasing warm sound, and not too much volume compression to artificially jack up the loudness. And as an extra treat, the accompanying DVD is recorded in 5.1 surround sound. Sadly, recording and mix engineer Eric Hartman passed away suddenly shortly after the making of the album.

With this and their last albums Snarky Puppy, led by Michael League has become one of the most interesting instrumental ensembles on the scene. Family Dinner Volume Two has much to enjoy on its menu.

(c) Copyright 2016 George D. Graham. All rights reserved.
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This page last updated April 24, 2016