Review Summary: The essence of jazz fusion.
Michael League – bassist, arranger and composer for Snarky Puppy, said this about Family Dinner Volume Two, ‘the idea was to create unlikely but natural pairings between the vocalists and instrumentalists.’ It’s this very aspect of the album that gives it such a strong identity. There are hints of folk, country, funk, African, dance, electro-pop, soul and progressive rock scattered throughout this album courtesy of its many guest musicians and diverse singers, but it is Snarky Puppy’s brand of jazz that gives this album its sonic consistency, and helps keep it from being just a collection of songs.
Instrumental solos make up one of the strongest stylistic elements of this album, and are present on all but one track here. Sometimes they’re long and progressively structured, like the piano interlude in ‘Don’t You Know’, which serves as a two and half minute oasis away from the upbeat, vocally-layered funk that drives the rest of the song on either side. At other times fun and skill are the game, such as Jeff Coffin’s excitable saxophone performance in ‘I Remember’.
It would be easy to dismiss Family Dinner Vol. 2 as lazy as Snarky Puppy are rearranging songs originally written by the guest artists that appear on this album, but it makes for an interesting exercise to compare Snarky Puppy’s version of the songs against the versions envisioned originally by the writing artist. By doing this, Snarky Puppy’s flair for interesting, polyrhythmic textures becomes very apparent. The extra coda written for opening track ‘I Asked’, takes the thematically hummed heartbeat sound used in the song and layers it with free-form drumming and atmospheric synths, transferring a song based in indie-folk into the realms of the experimental.
There are some songs that are vastly improved as a result of the jazz collective’s input. Laura Mvula’s offering, ‘Sing to the Moon’, which first appeared on her 2013 album, sounded stilted and unfinished. Snarky Puppy’s delicately layered organs, skilful and soulful keyboard solos, and gorgeous trumpet arrangements, combined with a little rhythmic restructuring allowed the song to be the longing and passionate gem of a ballad it was always meant to be. David Crosby’s contemplative ‘Somebody Home’, is similarly made all the more luxuriant by understated but deftly placed melodic lines coming from all around the jazz orchestra.
I would, however, also assert that the improvements Snarky Puppy have made to these songs is not the cause for the album, but rather a symptom of something else. The vast number of credits listed for this album shows how strongly collaboration is playing a part here. What we hear is the result of many great musical minds pooling their expertise into the performances. You only have to watch the performances for this album that Snarky Puppy filmed in front of a live studio audience to see how the artists smile at each other as they perform, how they groove themselves into the music, and enjoy each other’s influence. It’s not just musical expertise that binds this album together, but it is a love of music that is integral to the DNA of Family Dinner Volume 2.