Snarky Puppy is ever shifting. A revolving collective with as many as 25 members in a constant rotation, the New York–based ensemble makes skirting the lines a full-time job. Stepping confidently through jazz, funk, R&B, fusion, jam-band, and pop circles, the band has created a sound as shifting as their lineup.
Consider their Grammy Award wins: In 2014, they earned an award for Best R&B Performance, and in 2016 and ’17, they took home trophies for Best Contemporary Instrumental Album. Their albums live on multiple Billboard jazz charts, and their various members have contributed to work by a who’s-who of contemporary artists, including Kendrick Lamar, Justin Timberlake, Snoop Dogg, Erykah Badu, David Crosby, Kirk Franklin, and many more. “We’ve spent almost 15 years together, exploring and trying new things and failing, trying new things and succeeding,” de facto leader Michael League told bopspots.com about the band’s experimental and multi-pronged approach.
League formed Snarky Puppy in Denton, Texas, in 2003, recruiting many players from the University of North Texas’ Jazz Studies program. From there, he immersed himself in the gospel and R&B scenes of nearby Dallas. As more collaborators began filtering in and out of the group, including drummer Robert “Sput” Searight and keyboardists Shaun Martin and Bobby Sparks, their sound became progressively funkier, incorporating loose grooves into textured, densely layered compositions. In 2005, Snarky Puppy self-released their debut album, Live at Uncommon Ground, and began amassing a dedicated fan base, continuing to issue their own albums while consistently putting in long stretches of time on the road. All the while, members like the B3-playing organist Cory Henry, saxophonist Bob Reynolds, and percussionist Nate Werth made names for themselves on an individual basis.
Even as they’ve grown, self-sufficiency remains crucial to their identity. In 2016, they released Culcha Vulcha through a joint partnership between their GroundUP label and Universal Music. Unlike previous albums, which more or less represented the band’s in-studio sound, the latest LP was recorded at Sonic Ranch Studios in Tornillo, Texas, situated in the middle of a pecan orchard just a few minutes away from the Mexican border. The resulting record is a percussive, Latin-tinged exploration of mood and groove. On songs like the synth-laced “Beep Box” and shuffling “Jefe,” Snarky Puppy tries new motifs on for size and inhabits them with a surprising grace.
Fifteen years into their history, Snarky Puppy shows no signs of growing artistically stagnant. To risk a groan-inducing metaphor, this dog relishes learning new tricks.