Denton’s Snarky Puppy did not have high hopes heading to this year’s Grammy ceremony in Los Angeles, where the band was nominated for best R&B performance, for the song Something, featuring vocalist Lalah Hathaway.
“I don’t think anyone was really expecting it … we were the only independent artist nominated,” says band leader Michael League. “My hopes were not up. [But] they announced it, and everybody went crazy.”
Boasting more than 40 musicians in rotation at any given time, the now Grammy-award winning group has gained a national reputation for performing live shows unmatched in energy, technique and sheer musical skill.
It will bring that singular sound back home to North Texas for a pair of shows this week: Tuesday at Dallas’ Prophet Bar and Wednesday at Hailey’s in Denton.
Formed in 2004, and comprised mainly of former University of North Texas students, Snarky Puppy’s roots lie in its mutual history within UNT’s internationally recognized jazz studies program.
The group was conceived and is held together by bassist/composer/arranger League, with about 18 core members including percussionsists Robert Searight and Nate Werth; guitarists Chris McQueen, Bob Lanzetti and Fort Worth’s Mark Lettieri; saxophonist Chris Bullock and trumpeters Mike Maher and Justin Stanton.
Starting off as a jazz and world music hybrid, Snarky Puppy’s dynamic changed when League was introduced to some Dallas musicians, like drummer TaRon Lockett and organist Shaun Martin, who had sonic ingredients of their own to offer.
“[Meeting the Dallas musicians] became this really good tool — [a] kind of a cultural, musical diffusion that happens,” League says. “We started experiencing the black, hip-hop, R&B, gospel [and] soul thing for the first time in an authentic and genuine way. These Dallas guys hadn’t really experienced what we were doing, which was more of this jazzy, modern thing. It was just like a really cool cultural exchange, I would say.”
Meeting these later additions to the band via a gospel church jam gave Snarky Puppy the sound and reputation it is now famous — and winning awards — for.
“It was a crazy set of circumstances that changed everything for the group,” League says.
To hear League tell it, to truly become a big name in instrumental jazz and funk, Snarky Puppy needed that Dallas flair.
It was “the most important, most pivotal moment for the band,” League says. “As soon as [the Dallas musicians] entered, it completely changed the whole sound, both sonically and scientifically.”
2008’s Bring Us the Bright, Snarky Puppy’s third studio album, was its first recording after melding with the Dallas music community (and the album was actually recorded in Dallas).
Snarky Puppy’s technique of recording albums has been in practice since its debut album on the Ropeadope label (2010’s Tell Your Friends).
The band often performs and records a CD/DVD combination in front of a studio audience, like the upcoming We Like It Here, captured live in the Netherlands and set for digital release Feb. 25.
While the full Snarky Puppy roster is often referred to as “The Fam,” not every musician performs during every show. Part of the reason is to cultivate understudies, as well as embodying the jazz tradition of “sitting in.”
However, “The Fam” does create a unique musical ecosystem, capable of working in great numbers and with tremendous talent.
That also means, from time to time, accolades are sure to come its way.
“I don’t think the band puts a lot of stock in awards, but in this case, it felt like that award [the Grammy] was earned over a decade,” League says. “The impact of winning awards like that are pretty undeniable. Now, we have much higher visibility and it’s going to affect us in a lot of positive ways.”