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Interview: Jay Jennings (Snarky Puppy)

Snarky Puppy was formed in 2014 at the University of North Texas with as an extra-curricular 10-piece ensemble full of talented jazz musicians needing another outlet for their creativity. 15 years, dozens and dozens of rotating musicians, and three Grammy awards later, the band is on the road again. Helmed by the founder, Michael League, the group still boasts 6 of the original members, and tours with 11 - 14 artists on the stage. The band is performing at the Madison Theater in Covington on Wednesday Sept 11th with support from touring singer-songwriter Alina Engibaryan.

With Grammys for Best R&B Performance (2014) and Best Contemporary Instrumental Album (2016 and 2017), you might struggle to understand their sound without listening to any of their 13 albums. Solidly rooted in jazz, but as distant from Big Band as imaginable, the band’s ambitious arrangements and individual skills merge onstage. Each member is immensely accomplished, and many are producers, studio musicians, or tour with nationally recognized artists outside of the Snarky Puppy organization. They bring a feel for jam, overall composition, and crazy improvisation to the group. League’s directing and arranging skills have always been stellar, but have honed over the years of working within this group. He’s pushed the boundaries for what a jazz band can sound like. Snarky Puppy skillfully balances funky, futuristic beats with artfully letting the individual musicians shine.

I spoke with Texas native Jay Jennings as the group drove into town and bent his ear about what to expect on this tour. Jennings is a trumpet player, former member of The Polyphonic Spree, and has backed such greats as Aretha Franklin, James Taylor, The O’Jays, and Broken Social Scene. He explained that the tour is focused on supporting the newest Snarky Puppy release, Immigrance, released on their own GroundUP label, but will also playing plenty of “oldies but goodies” each night along the current road trip. 

All of the band members that performed on the album are on the tour, so it’s a great representation of the chemistry that they bring to each new track in the studio. Jennings’ favorite new tunes off the new album are “Bigly Strictness”, which is packed full of grooves that shift from section to section, and the stuttering horn playground and killer beats of “Bad Kids To The Back”.

As a trumpet player, Jay Jennings is currently listening to a lot of early bebop and always studying the master, Louis Armstrong. On the road, and especially whenever flying, he’s writing new tunes for his own group, The YAYennings Quartet. Catch Jay and the whole Snarky Puppy orchestra of amazing musicians at the Madison Theater.