Internationally renowned jazz collective Snarky Puppy returned to its roots in more ways than one for its latest release, Empire Central. Recorded at Deep Ellum Art Company in the group’s hometown of Dallas, TX over the course of eight performances, the album pays tribute to both Dallas scene that helped birth the band—with its mix of jazz, funk, hip-hop, gospel, and more—as well as some of the towering figures who influenced the group in its early days, including keyboardist Bernard Wright, whose last recorded performance appears on the album.

Empire Central also marks Snarky Puppy’s return to the live in-studio format that helped the band go viral with its 2014 breakthrough album, We Like It Here. “I think compositionally, it’s dramatically different from albums like that,” bassist and bandleader Michael League told Live For Live Music. “It’s different of course, because we’re different. It’s nine years later. But it probably has a similar emotional character because of the way we recorded it.”

Among the album’s 16 tracks are songs written by 12 different members of the band, which has a total of 19 players, including three guitarists, four keyboardists, two brass, two reeds, a violinist, three percussionists, and three drummers. Despite the number of different composers, the album maintains a cohesive sound. “We know who we are now, and we know what our sound is. It’s not like it was in the early days where people would be writing songs that just sounded like the individual members, and it didn’t really feel like the band sound compositionally.”

Some of the songs were written collaboratively, and many underwent significant changes during the band’s two weeks of rehearsal. Before that, “We had never played any of the songs,” League said. “I mean, most of the songs weren’t even written until the rehearsals.”

After workshopping the tunes, Snarky Puppy recorded eight performances in the studio with an audience interspersed amongst the band. “I think that what’s so nice about this format is that the audience is right on top of you. I mean, you can smell their breath. And you play differently when you know that someone is right in your face than if they’re out in an audience. It feels more like a fishbowl in that sense, or like you’re playing in someone’s living room. I think you seek to connect a little more. And also you abandon the idea that everything you play has to be perfect because you know it won’t be. So the idea of precision and perfection goes completely out the window and you refocus all that energy towards emotion and communication.”

After recording, the band selected the best takes of each song with minimal post-session editing. “There was no stitching,” League said. “We probably played each song five times. So I would try to choose the take with the most mojo and work from there. But there was no stitching between nights or anything like that. It’s all just one take.”

With 19 musicians in the room (plus special guests), it is remarkable how uncluttered the record sounds, with each voice serving its purpose with intention. “Above all, what I think everyone in Snarky Puppy does incredibly well is know when to not play,” League said. “When you watch the video, the video is almost always showing people who are playing, so you have the impression that everyone’s playing all the time. But normally in most moments, only 70% of the band is playing. And some moments only 12% of the band is playing.”

Even so, League says the group has developed certain strategies to avoid a cluttered sound. For instance, “If multiple people are playing chords, they’ll all play the same voicing or one person will play kind of the bottom part of the voicing and another person will play the top part of the voicing or whatever, combining different sounds, these kinds of things. But above all, I think it’s a maturity thing about knowing when things sound good and not playing, not adding to that.”

Empire Central gets its name from a highway exit on the route to Dallas from Denton, where the band formed at the University of North Texas’s renowned jazz program. “I used to pass it all the time, and I always thought it was a really interesting name for an exit. It just felt kind of magical in a certain way. You see the skyline and I have so many positive memories associated with that city. And I started thinking, this is a seriously rich music scene and community that has given so many great artists to the world like Erykah Badu and Norah Jones and Roy Hargrove and Kirk Franklin, artist after artist from Dallas. So I really started thinking like, ‘Yeah, it is kind of like the Musical Empire what’s going on here in Dallas and in Texas at large.'”

The eclectic Dallas scene, situated at the confluence of hip-hop and jazz, defined the direction of Snarky Puppy as the group ventured from UNT into the city. “The band was a college band sounding like a college band for years,” League reflected. “I think that once people like [Robert] Sput [Searight] and Bobby Sparks and Bernard Wright and Shaun Martin, once they started playing with the band, they changed everything. It pushed us into this totally new direction. And it was incredible because it was like we were making news. Suddenly the people who were influencing our music were in our band. And that’s like a very special moment I think in the history of Snarky Puppy. The music got a lot funkier, it got a lot tighter, it got a lot more emotional also. It got a lot simpler, less brainy.

“Aside from just playing with those guys in a band, we were also playing in churches and in the Dallas scene which was a very different thing from my college scene. We were getting hit from all sides being very immersed in this diverse musical culture and that had a huge impact on the music.”

Bernard Wright, who League considers a musical Godfather of the band, is featured on the track “Take It!”. The legendary keyboardist tragically passed away in a car accident at age 58 shortly after the recording sessions, making it his last recorded performance. “I would say Bernard Wright is probably one of the most influential keyboard players that most people have never heard of. I mean, he had influence on Herbie [Hancock], on so many great artists because he grew up in that Jamaica Queens jazz and funk scene with Lenny White and Marcus Miller as his childhood running partners, and helped create this sound, and recorded and composed songs that became samples for huge hits for LL Cool J and Snoop Dogg and people like that. So it’s like, he’s had this very pervasive influence on the world of music.

“And for me, I played in church with Bernard three days a week for several years, and two or three or four other nights a week with him in clubs. So I mean, I was playing with him three to seven times a week. I was driving him to all the gigs. So he was sharing a lot of wisdom with me, musical wisdom, he was very generous with that. I took some lessons from him, but we were gigging together constantly. He even lived with me for a couple months. So I would say Bernard probably has had more of an impact on the ethos and the philosophy of the band than anyone.”

Even after compiling a 16-song tracklist, League said, “There are definitely bonus tracks” left over, adding that some “feature special guests. But they’re not coming out this month, they’re coming out later.”

Snarky Puppy will tour in support Empire Central next year. The band announced a host of tour dates in July, but League noted, “We haven’t announced the vast majority of them. I think we’re going to do most of Europe, U.S., Mexico, Canada, South America, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, and more. So yeah, we’re excited.”

League said he looks forward to experimenting with the new songs in a live setting. “People tend to keep it a little closer to the script in the studio to really try and capture the essence of the song because it’s the first time that it’s been documented. But then when we play live, once the song’s been documented, it’s kind of like all bets are off. It’s really loose live, but we earn the right to be loose by really knowing the songs. When you really know the song, the whole song, and all of the different parts that everyone’s playing, then you have the ability to really stretch the thing to its limits without losing the essence of the message of that piece of music.”

It is up to League to navigate group explorations as bandleader, a job he explained is often at odds with his role as bassist. “It’s definitely hard to play bass like a bass player and lead the band like a bandleader at the same time because they’re kind of contradictory mentalities. The role of the bass in Snarky Puppy is not the role of the bass in Primus. You know what I mean? I’m just playing a supporting role 99-and-a-half percent of the gig. It’s not a featured instrument. That comes with its own kind of energy. And band leading comes with a very, very different kind of energy, which is having a kind of objective view of what’s going on on stage, giving cues, talking to the audience, changing set lists on the fly, all this kind of stuff.”

“So it’s very easy that when you’re bandleading and playing bass, that you start playing bass like a bandleader, playing it too much, too loud, or whatever. I struggled with that for many years, how to separate my brain in that way to where I could totally just play back in the shadows, but lead like I’m in the front of the stage. And I still definitely don’t have it down a hundred percent, but it’s better now that it was.”

Beyond the upcoming touring, League said the band has a “very, very exciting plan for the next album that I guess I shouldn’t talk about yet because it’s not completely, fully formed. But yeah, we’re already starting to think about that.”

Empire Central is now available on all streaming platforms. Listen to the album via Spotify in the player below. For more information and tickets to Snarky Puppy’s upcoming tour dates, visit the band’s website.

Snarky Puppy – Empire Central

Snarky Puppy Personnel:

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 B3 organ, Hohner D6 Clavinet, ARP String Ensemble, and Minimoog Model D
Bill Laurance – Fender Rhodes Mark 8, Yamaha CP70 electric piano, Minimoog Model D, Hohner D6 Clavinet, Prophet 10, Osmose, and Mellotron
Shaun Martin – Talkbox, Mellotron, Vocoder, Moog Little Phatty, Minimoog Model D, Korg Kronos, and Fender Rhodes
Zach Brock – 4-string and 6-string violin
Mike “Maz” Maher – trumpet and flugelhorn
Jay Jennings – trumpet and flugelhorn
Chris Bullock – tenor sax, soprano sax, bass clarinet, flute, and piccolo flute
Bob Reynolds – tenor and soprano saxes
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

with special guest:

Bernard Wright – Wurlitzer, Minimoog Model D, and Prophet 10

View Album Credits