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Snarky Puppy brings its Grammy Award-winning instrumental sound to Ithaca Sunday night

Snarky Puppy
Francois Bisi
Snarky Puppy

Snarky Puppy, the acclaimed music collective that synthesizes everything from jazz and funk to rock and R&B, will make its Ithaca debut at Cornell University’s Bailey Hall Sunday night.

The band’s latest release, “Empire Central,” won the 2023 Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Instrumental Album, following wins in the same category in 2021, 2020, 2017, and 2016. It was recorded in March 2022 in front of a live in-studio audience at Deep Ellum Art Company in Dallas, where the band got its start after meeting at the University of North Texas.

Michael League of Snarky Puppy
Brian Friedman
Michael League of Snarky Puppy

“The concept was reconnecting with our roots and the musical legacy of Texas, which is alive and well today, I would say now more than ever,” said Michael League, Snarky Puppy’s bassist and founder. “When you think about people like Roy Hargrove, Robert Glasper, Jason Moran, Eric Harland, and Kendrick Scott, not to mention Norah Jones and Beyoncé – all these people are changing music the face of music. So it was this idea of paying respect to where we come from before we go off and do some other crazy things.”

With as many as 18 players at one time — three guitarists, four keyboardists, two brass, two reeds, a violinist, multiple percussionists and drummers, and League on bass — the band’s sound could easily become cluttered or scattered.

“That's at the forefront of all of our minds when we're making music: how do we communicate an idea clearly and simply, in a way that can be understood by everybody in the room, even if we are mixing six genres together,” League said. “It's not like just some excuse for us to show off that we know things about different kinds of music, you know – the idea is to communicate something succinct, actually.”

“Empire Central” features the last recorded performance of ’80s funk pioneer Bernard Wright, who died at age 58 shortly after the “Empire Central” recording sessions; he was hit by a car while crossing the street. Wright had served as a father figure to the members of Snarky Puppy since the band’s formation in 2004.

“I met Bernard when we were playing at the same church because in Texas most musicians pay their rent with church gigs,” League said. “He took me under his wing and introduced me to the Dallas scene. He brought me to this jam session that RC Williams, who’s Erykah Badu’s music director, was hosting every Wednesday night in a place called The Walrus, a hole-in-the-wall bar that was a ‘who's who’ of the black music scene in Dallas at the time because of RC's status. That’s where Bernard introduced me to a huge number of members of my band.”

Wright continued to serve as a mentor to League, talking about music while they drove from gig to gig around Dallas

“He was a troubled guy in a lot of ways – he dealt with addiction and mental health problems,” League said of Wright. “And he went through cycles where he was better than other times. But he was always very generous with his knowledge, and he always believed in the band a lot.”

Wright occasionally played with Snarky Puppy at its Dallas shows, though he wouldn’t tour with the band.

“But even when he wasn't around, his influence and his concept and mentality towards music – the band just adopted those things,” League said. “I would say that we're disciples of him in the way that the band works the mix of groove and jazz and the way in which people improvise – in terms of vocabulary, most of it’s coming from Bernard.”

League said that Snarky Puppy has enjoyed taking the “Empire Central” songs on the road, where they continue to evolve.

“We have the recorded versions, which were tracked the week that we learned them, and that's kind of like the songs in their purest form,” League said. “From there, every night we make little changes to them. And we don't really discuss it – I mean, some things we plan, but some things will happen one night, and they feel good so they become a part of the new arrangement.

“And then there's a lot of things that just happen one night and we enjoy that moment, and then we recognize that the next night it'll be completely different,” he continued. “Everybody in the group has a very strong desire to constantly be changing things and creating a unique experience both for us and the audience each evening.”

Nate Wood fOUR will open the show; it’s a one-person electronic project in which Wood plays everything at the same time using all four limbs.

If you go

Who: Snarky Puppy, with opener Nate Wood fOUR

When: 7:30 p.m. Sunday

Where: Bailey Hall, Cornell University

Cost: Tickets are $30-$59 and are available online here

Event Info

Jim Catalano covers the Finger Lakes music scene for WITH (90.1 FM in Ithaca, WITHradio.org) and its affiliates.