“So this is the record. It’s going to be live”: Review of Snarky Puppy & Metropole Orkest’s Sylva and Robert Glasper’s Covered

Jazz has developed virtually since its inception through a close but often uneasy relationship between recorded media and live performance. Think of the “classic” recordings that are celebrated as paragons of jazz artistry, but also of the common admonishment that any true experience of jazz is a live one, in which musicians and audience members commune with one another in a unique, never-to-be-repeated musical and social event. If recent trends are any indication, however, many jazz musicians do not view these modes of performance as irreconcilable. Two albums released this year—Sylva by Snarky Puppy & Metropole Orkest (Impulse! 2015) and Covered by the Robert Glasper Trio (Blue Note 2015)—are exemplars of the ingenuity with which jazz musicians are testing the boundaries between recorded and live music.

Snarky Puppy, led by bassist and composer Michael League, originated in Denton, TX, comprising students of the renowned jazz program at the University of North Texas and musicians from the nearby Dallas scene. Now based in Brooklyn, they tour the world extensively, introducing audiences to their exciting genre-b(l)ending style. They have also built a following through their unique recordings. Since 2010’s Tell Your Friends, they have collaborated with director Andy LaViolette to create a film of each recording sessions that is released along with the audio album. They also invite an audience into the recording session, which sits among the musicians and listens through headphones. In this way, Snarky Puppy cultivates the intimacy and energy of live performance, but also retains the advantages of an outfitted recording studio.

Sylva, the band’s debut for Impulse!, is their most ambitious such project to date. It finds the band in the Netherlands to work with the Metropole Orkest conducted by Jules Buckley. In addition to the CD/DVD combo, the audio album is available as a digital download or on vinyl, while the videos are currently available to stream on the band’s Vevo page. The DVD, which will be the basis for this review, includes bonus material, including a short “making of” featurette and a commentary track on the film by League and LaViolette. This extra material is entertaining; the featurette, for instance, shows the band in rehearsals, working through the music, discussing arrangements and production, and joking around. But it is also helpful because it highlights the fundamentally cooperative effort that produced the music. League stresses that he conceived of the collaboration as constituting one combined ensemble rather than two distinct entities, one accompanying the other. Indeed, in the featurette, we see Buckley contributing arrangements of League’s compositions during rehearsals, and in the commentary, League notes that the band does not play live versions of the music without the full orchestra. Note also the subtle but crucial difference between “Snarky Puppy & Metropole Orkest” and, say, “Snarky Puppy featuring Metropole Orkest.”

The theme of Sylva is the forest. The opener “Sintra” evokes the lushness and mystery of its namesake in Portugal, and the music is enhanced by the beautiful scenery constructed on the soundstage; real olive trees interspersed with metal sculptures of plants and animals create a kind of futuristic woodland, a visual counterpart to the organic–mechanical tension that League plays with in his compositions. “Flight,” referring to a journey from Portugal back to the U.S., features synthesizers, guitars, and flutes flitting over a quirky groove. Tenor saxophonist Chris Bullock takes the first solo of the album, using a digital octave effect that contrasts nicely with the woody warmth of the orchestral instruments. “Atchafalaya” is named for the swampland in Louisiana and pays it homage with the buoyant rhythms of a New Orleans second line. The trombones are featured, and Metropole member Vincent Veneman takes a lively solo. Here, the advantages of the album film are especially appreciated; viewers watch the Snarky Puppy horn section and Veneman’s colleagues in the Metropole responding enthusiastically to his playing, perhaps delighting in the small irony that it is a member of the orchestra and not of Snarky Puppy who is ripping through a great jazz solo.

The album’s high point is “The Curtain.” League reveals in the commentary that this tune was the most challenging for the band, with sections featuring odd meters, multiple key changes, and forms with an odd number of bars, but also the most familiar, recalling the kind of music they used to play together at UNT. The familiarity shows. Jay Jennings' flugelhorn solo is outstanding, his lyrical playing bolstered by the tasteful interactivity of the rhythm section and some beautifully building orchestral background figures. A new groove introduces League’s similarly impressive bass solo (well-deserved accolades for his roles as leader and composer mean he is sometimes overlooked as a stellar bassist) and a funky, virtuosic organ solo by Cory Henry. The musicians look on wistfully during Bill Laurance’s lovely, Chopin-esque piano cadenza, before joining him for a closing waltz.

League describes the inspiration for the last tune, “The Clearing,” as a forest of his childhood where teenagers hung out and sometimes got up to no good; fittingly, the tune captures a sense of melancholic nostalgia but also playful mischievousness. There is more great composing and arranging from League and Buckley, but when the tune settles into a funky groove, Snarky Puppy is really in its wheelhouse. (“Our favorite thing in the world to do is to find a groove and play and not change anything,” League tells us in the commentary.) Strong solos by guitarist Mike Lettieri and trumpeter Mike “Maz” Maher are buttressed by the relentless groove of drummer Robert “Sput” Searight, percussionist Nate Werth, and the Metropole percussionists. Coming at the album’s end, one wishes there had been a few more opportunities to stretch like this one; fortunately, fans can return to their previous work or go and see them in concert.

It must be acknowledged that the seemingly monumental task of audio engineering the project was accomplished masterfully by Eric Hartman, who can be seen setting up microphones and discussing recording techniques with League during the featurette. Hartman passed away unexpectedly earlier this year. The band has been outspoken about the essential role that he has played in their music. He was the chief engineer of all of their albums, the impeccable sound of which reveals the depth of their relationship. The group recently helped organize a benefit concert for Hartman’s young family, featuring many musicians from the Dallas scene.

Robert Glasper’s Covered is a less ambitious project, but it also trades on a creative combination of live and recorded modes. There has been a satisfying symmetry to Glasper’s catalog since his debut for Blue Note in 2005; his 2009 Double Booked—a double album featuring both his acoustic trio and his electric quartet The Experiment—is a fitting pivot point from his first two albums to his groundbreaking Black Radio releases. This sixth album sees him reuniting with his original trio, featuring Vicente Archer on bass and Damion Reid on drums, but the repertoire and approach foreground the style and aesthetic he has cultivated through his more recent work. Covered was recorded in front of a live audience at Capitol Studios in Hollywood. It was released on CD, as a digital download, and on vinyl, and several companion videos have been released, one every two weeks, beginning shortly before the album dropped. Unlike Sylva, the videos do not seem to have been produced as a full-length film; instead, they can be viewed on Glasper’s Vevo page, YouTube, or on Blue Note’s website.

The album is called Covered for a reason. Glasper states in the introductory track (after delivering the line quoted in the title of this piece) that he wanted the trio to interpret “things that are on my iPod,” and the eclectic set features tunes by the likes of Radiohead, Musiq Soulchild, Joni Mitchell, and Kendrick Lamar, as well as a couple of his own compositions, a standard (“Stella by Starlight”), and a spoken-word performance by Harry Belafonte. For fans of contemporary jazz, it is actually a pleasantly predictable collection of material. An affinity for Radiohead and Joni Mitchell among many jazz musicians is well known, as is the relationship between jazz and Philadelphia neo-soul. Glasper himself is probably best known for his new take on the blend of jazz and hip-hop, so the inclusion of the Lamar track as well as a new interpretation of his own “I Don’t Even Care”—which originally featured rapper Jean Grae—are not at all surprising.

This latter tune is a strong start to the album, featuring a compelling solo by Glasper that begins with a leisurely melody and gradually builds into frenetic, two-handed unison lines. Other highlights include “So Beautiful,” which tastefully incorporates a voicemail recording of Musiq Soulchild thanking Glasper for choosing the tune and explaining the message he hoped to convey with it, and Jhené Aiko’s “The Worst,” which works well as a single.[1] Glasper sounds at home on the soul tunes “Good Morning” and “Levels,” and knowing that several of these tunes were written by dear friends—Glasper and Bilal began as classmates at The New School, for instance—makes listening to them especially affecting.

“In Case You Forgot” is a sharp departure from the rest of the album in terms of both length and style. The performance shows off Glasper’s prodigious technique and depthless inspiration, and provides one of the few times that Archer and Reid have opportunities to shine as soloists. It also provides some great moments of humor, as when he interjects snippets of Cyndi Lauper’s “Time after Time”—yet another pop tune familiar to jazz audiences—and Bonnie Raitt’s “I Can’t Make You Love Me.” This concept works very well live because it usually elicits knowing laughter from the audience; I also saw him employ it in call-and-response with Jason Moran at New York’s Town Hall in January 2014 to similar effect. On this particular album, it might even be read as a sly commentary on the very concept of the jazz cover, which are indeed sometimes played for the amusement of an audience.

There are some unusual choices in the mixing of the album, moments where the interplay of the “live” and the “recorded” sound a bit more awkward than intriguing. “Reckoner” has an oddly placed fade in the middle of Glasper’s solo, fading back in again after a cut to later on in the tune. Other tracks also end with fades, which elide the presence of the studio audience. Many albums recorded live seek to reproduce the experience of the original performance as faithfully as possible for home listeners, helping them imagine that they were there. This is not one of those albums. The value of recording live in this case is largely that it helped to cultivate a particular kind of energy in the music, privileging the spontaneous, unpredictable interactions between musicians and audience members, and reveling in the feeling of risk that comes from the knowledge that the first take is probably the take.

Covered may be most memorable, however, for its powerful commentary on and contributions to the current movement against racial injustice. The album is dedicated “to the victims and the families of those who were wrongfully killed by the police,” and its closing pair of performances insists on the urgency of ending state violence against people and communities of color. “Got Over,” invoking the gospel classic, features Harry Belafonte reciting a brief, poetic version of his life story. “I’m Dying of Thirst” incorporates recordings of children reciting the names of recent victims of police brutality.[2] The juxtaposition of the voice of an aging Civil Rights icon recounting his perseverance and those of children reading the names of young people whose lives were taken is brilliant and deeply moving.

Sylva and Covered are bold experiments in the complex relationship between live and recorded music, and both feature strong compositions, exceptional musicianship, and powerful messages. It is especially exciting that, for both ensembles, the majority of their music has yet to be played.

Notes

This review is a longer, combined version of two reviews that originally appeared on Black Grooves. They can be read here and here.

[1] The video for “The Worst” was released first and in advance of the album, savvy moves possibly intended to attract new, young listeners, considering the original song by Aiko has amassed over 60 million views on YouTube since its release in November 2013.

[2] Glasper’s labelmate Ambrose Akinmusire had already used this technique to powerful effect on “Rollcall for Those Absent” from his acclaimed The Imagined Savior Is Far Easier to Paint (Blue Note 2014).


Dean S. Reynolds is a doctoral candidate in ethnomusicology at the CUNY Graduate Center, where he has pursued his interests in black music of the Americas, with a focus on the Caribbean and the United States. He has worked extensively on the music of Jamaica, and he is currently writing his dissertation on the ways that jazz musicians and listeners in New York are using recording and playback technologies, digital media, and online publics to make, share, and experience music. Dean has taught courses on world music cultures, music of Latin America and the Caribbean, and jazz history at institutions in and around New York, including City College, The New School, and Princeton.

 

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