Over the last nine years, Snarky Puppy have made a name for themselves as a formidable, instrumental, jazz-fusion collective. I would suggest that their 2014 album, We Like It Here, is a modern jazz classic. Their success, for the most part, lies within their embracing of the concept of a musical family. For each of their records, the band releases videos of the live recording of the projects, and in these videos you can clearly see why the group refers to itself as “the fam”. They gel so well as a group, with many powerful voices blending together without a single musician ever losing their individual sound in the mix. This idea was put on display on their 2013 collaborative project, Family Dinner Vol. 1, a record that saw the group acting as a backing group for eight vocalists including Magda Giannikou and Lalah Hathaway. This year sees the release of the long awaited follow up to that highly successful record, Family Dinner Vol. 2. With a much larger group of widely varied musical guests, Family Dinner Vol. 2 is up there with We Like It Here as one of the best albums Snarky Puppy has ever made, and that is in no small part, down to the caring, communal feel of the project.
Family Dinner Vol. 2 consists of a series of songs written by the vocal guests, which have been arranged by the members of Snarky Puppy to be played by the entire ensemble as well as a number of all-star instrumental guests. The album opens with a song by Becca Stevens (who I was fortunate enough to see live in November, and whose album, Perfect Animal featured on my best of 2015 list) called ‘I Asked’, this song is the perfect example of what this record is all about. It takes an already brilliant song, and turns it completely on its head without ever compromising its original feel and essence. ‘I Asked’ features the unique vocal style of Becca Stevens, as well as her trademark, polyrhythmic compositional style, boosted by the folk talents of Swedish trio, Väsen and Snarky Puppy’s phenomenal percussion section, complete with both of the band’s drummers, Larnell Lewis and Robert ‘Sput’ Searight. In fact, the percussion section features prominently throughout the record and sounds better than it ever has before on a Snarky Puppy project.
Other highlights of the record include the 10 minute epic, ‘Don’t You Know’ from British singer/multi-instrumentalist/arranger/composer, Jacob Collier, which features a powerful and visceral vocal performance from Collier; aided by a harmoniser (his keyboard work on this track is also fantastic). Speaking of keys, on the track ‘Sing to the Moon’, featuring Laura Mvula’s singularly brilliant and smooth vocal performance, sees every one of Snarky Puppy’s keyboard players taking short but effective solos in turn. I would also like to make special mention of ‘I Remember’ (featuring KNOWER and Jeff Coffin). This is the funkiest track on the album by far. The bass line is really hard hitting and the electronically enhanced instrumental performances from the whole group are fast paced and heavy. The horn section is at its best on this track with the inclusion of powerful stabs in quick succession. KNOWER’s vocalist, Genevieve Artadi delivers a frantic and energetic performance on this song, but the uncontested highlight of the track is Jeff Coffin’s (Bela Fleck and the Flecktones, Dave Matthews Band, Jeff Coffin Mut’et) hefty, frenetic and wild, tenor saxophone solo. This is one of my favourite solos that Coffin has ever recorded. As a saxophonist myself, I was completely blown away.
The one track that I can’t finish this review without mentioning is the contribution of rock legend, David Crosby. The song of his featured on Family Dinner Vol. 2 was written on the day he was approached by Michael League to feature on the record and is a beautiful ballad called ‘Somebody Home’, which Crosby describes as an “apology from all men to all women” and is all about looking within a person to find out who they really are rather than judging them based on their appearance. This song is the most serene and calm on the record, and contrasts really well with the lively and endlessly energetic set of tracks preceding it. This is a meaningful and fitting end to the album and will likely be remembered as one of Snarky Puppy’s and Crosby’s best songs.
Aside from one or two marginally forgettable contributions, Snarky Puppy’s Family Dinner Vol. 2is an endlessly fun and inspiring musical project. The fact that the entire thing was recorded live and that much of the proceeds will be donated to a music charity called The Roots of Music, only makes the project feel even more familial. This second entry in Snarky Puppy’s series of collaborative projects is one of the best records the band has ever released and is a testament to how far the band has come in the last nine years, and how far they are likely to go.
As a side note, I would suggest that if possible, anyone looking to listen to this album should check out the Deluxe Edition as it contains Snarky Puppy’s brilliant takes on Becca Stevens’ ‘Be Still’ and Väsen’s ‘Shapons Vindaloo’, which are both outstanding tracks.