Welcome to the seventh volume of Salt Peanuts, a music newsletter showcasing the best jazz, funk, soul, afrobeat, and world music!
It’s been a little while since the last one, so I felt the need to capture the summer of 2017 in a hearty post – one that features an old favorite, Snarky Puppy. New releases by Nick Hakim, Moses Sumney, and Jordan Rakei round out this issue and the link to the full Volume 7 Spotify playlist is here.
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Artist of the Month
(Spotlight on a Salt Peanuts favorite)
Those of you who know me well also know that Snarky Puppy occupies a special place in my heart. My favorite band from ~2014-2016, they’ve perfected the combination of critical acclaim and commercial success – appealing to the stiffest music critic, the drunkest white girl, and (somewhere in-between) the brashest jazz bro all at once. Snarky Puppy’s music emerges from an established base of jazz fusion, funk, and rock, then has tendrils reaching into classical, afrobeat, big band, gospel, samba, and soul.
The three-time Grammy winners formed in 2003 in the dorms and studios of University of North Texas. Snarky Puppy’s core then grew to include members from Dallas, Brooklyn, and the UK. Michael League, the bassist and bandleader, is simply a music-writing maniac: 10 albums since 2006 while touring nonstop, and filming and posting every live album since 2010 on YouTube, capturing the creative process. Friends have asked me what makes the group unique, but a singular answer is not easy. It’s the foot-tapping melodies integrated with the wild, climactic solos; the chameleon-like flexibility to work with artists from around the globe; the cinematic narratives often told without lyrics; the ability to conjure seemingly any groove or jam in live shows. Oh, it also helps to have the most talented musicians on the planet.
It would simply be unhealthy, if not heretic, to distill all of Snarky Puppy’s music into one post. So let’s nerd out over a couple compositions, starting with “Lingus” (live recording here). Written while League was on an Aer Lingus flight, the song has four sections: 1) a funky, lethargic main theme; 2) trumpet vs. sax 8-bar solos with wah-wah pedals; 3) a jaw-dropping 4-minute keyboard solo; and 4) horn choruses and synth solos accelerating to a frantic finish. It’s Cory Henry’s keyboard solo that sent “Lingus” viral, now with ~12 million views. The solo itself progresses from complex reharmonization to a one-hand solo over the reharmonization to simultaneous solo lines from both hands. Shaun Martin’s reactions in the live video at 5:53 (😳), 6:43 (😂), and especially 7:03 (😱) say it all. If you’re a music nerd and want an in-depth analysis of the solo, check out this piece. And if you want more Cory Henry: check out his live cover of Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy”, his organ jam session with Nicholas Semrad, and his emotional solo tribute to gospel artist Melvin Crispell.
I could dissect solos for days on end, but a favorite Snarky Puppy project exists on the other end of the spectrum, looking at the collective whole. In 2015, the band recorded Sylva with the 52-piece Metropole Orchestra from the Netherlands, winning them Grammy #2. Sylva is more an orchestral suite than an album, and you should watch the live performance recording to appreciate its splendor. It’s 54 minutes of unadulterated musical entertainment split into six songs themed around the world’s forests. Soaring string melodies pass into funky horn choruses, from which a bold trombone or guitar will emerge, only to yield to a solitary solo piano. From the grandiose then cheeky intro of “Sintra” to the massive second line party of “Atchafalaya” to the otherworldly 15+ minute journeys of “The Curtain” and “The Clearing”, Sylva is adventurous, bold, and irreproducible.
Snarky Puppy’s prolificacy goes well beyond their albums. Many of their members simultaneously pursue solo careers, from Cory Henry (The Funk Apostles) to pianist Bill Laurance to trumpeter Mike Maher (Maz) – and drummer Robert “Sput” Searight records with Kendrick Lamar. The full Volume 7 playlist has a curated Snarky Puppy oeuvre, with my favorites at the top. As you watch the live recordings, you’ll notice how much fun the band has – it’s infectious, captures an audience, and makes the complexities accessible. And as their Family Dinner albums confirm, Snarky Puppy stands for inclusion, genre-b(l)ending, and always stretching pre-existing boundaries. I wish I could recapture the feeling of my first listens to SP; sadly I can’t, so I’ll pass that experience on to you.
(The freshest new singles, EPs, and albums on the scene)
Nick Hakim – Green Twins
You might remember from Vol. 2 my fondness for up-and-coming neo-soul artist Nick Hakim. Back then, I eagerly anticipated his first full-length album – it finally arrived this summer and it didn’t disappoint. Hakim stays true to his dreamy, deeply-EQ’d, guttural identity on Green Twins, but takes his narrative structure to new heights. “Cuffed” is a cheeky re-telling of a past romance and “Needy Bees” has some deadly, visceral minor-major chord resolutions (no wonder Raphael Saadiq picked it for a steamy scene on Insecure). If there’s one gripe about Green Twins, it’s that it’s overly processed when it doesn’t need to be. On “JP”, we get lost in the thick jungle of effects and pads while on “The Want”, real drums would’ve lent an air of authenticity. Despite this, the album has incredible re-listen value, only getting catchier with each play.
Highlights: “Green Twins”, “Needy Bees”, “TYAF”, “Cuffed”, “Slowly”, “The Want”
Moses Sumney – Aromanticism
When I was 13, I saw Muse live in Singapore and soon declared Matt Bellamy the greatest male vocalist on this planet. That mantle has been passed on to many artists since, but none as convincingly as Moses Sumney. Tender, rich, and chock-full of falsetto that’ll have you swooning, Aromanticism explores the pain and indifference of Sumney’s existence, delving into motifs of loneliness, self-care, and what Moses deems “aromanticism” – the inability to experience romantic love. His explanation for the inspiration behind the album takes from religious and philosophical thought, and the album itself is a self-reflection in existential nihilism that would make Nietzsche proud. The sonically cosmic, harmonically complex journey of Aromanticism is exquisite and one-of-a-kind.
Note: Sumney’s NPR Tiny Desk concert came out a few days ago and it’s a beautiful escape.
Highlights: “Don’t Bother Calling”, “Plastic”, “Quarrel”, “Doomed”, “Indulge Me”, “Self-Help Tape”
Jordan Rakei – Wallflower
Maybe 2017’s the year for them, maybe it was a weird summer, or maybe there’s something inherent that draws me to forlorn, introverted neo-soul singers. A frequent collaborator with Tom Misch, New Zealander Jordan Rakei is the third of this ilk in this volume and his new release Wallflower almost speaks for itself. Less atmospheric and visceral than Nick Hakim but more groove-based than Moses Sumney, Rakei finds his sweet spot crooning over lost lovers and his solitary teenage years. Rakei has the most diversity of sound in his album, as he ranges from slow ballad on “Chemical Coincidence” to reggae groove on “Clues Blues” to pop-forward on “Nerve”. Oceania keeps churning out rising stars.
Highlights: “Eye to Eye”, “Nerve”, “Chemical Coincidence”, “Lucid”
(One-off miscellaneous favorites)
Idris Muhammad – “Could Heaven Ever Be Like This”
Don’t be surprised if this sounds familiar – Idris Muhammad’s track from way back in 1977 is one of the most heavily sampled tunes out there (see: Drake, Jamie xx, J. Cole, Chrome Sparks, Jamiroquai).
Fabiano Do Nascimento – “Minha Ciranda”
The Brazilian guitar maestro’s sultry remake of this classic folk song will make you want to book a flight to Rio and samba into the wee hours of the morning (until you see flight prices and realize you have work tomorrow).
Portico Quartet – “Prickly Pear”
A feel-good, uplifting tune from the UK-based Portico Quartet, which is known for its use of the Hang, an exotic modern instrument resembling the steel pan. Listen to this one exploring a new city on a sunny day.
Georgia Anne Muldrow – “Kali Yuga”
I might as well have a blog dedicated solely to Georgia Anne since she keeps reappearing. This bass-heavy track is devoted to the “age of vice” as stated in Hindu scriptures. Legend.
Sam Cooke – “Chain Gang”
Had to throw in a classic from the King of Soul that’s as smoooooth as butter.
The Short List
(A space for sometimes relevant, sometimes collaborative, and sometimes unrelated content)