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For Your Consideration: Snaarj's 'Levels'

Alex Marianyi
Contributing Writer
alex.marianyi[at]gmail.com / @alexmarianyi

“We’re a band!” jokes bassist Bobby Wooten, “NO SUBS!” According to alto saxophonist Josh Johnson, Snaarj is “more of a rock band than a jazz ensemble.” Tenor saxophonist Dustin Laurenzi adds, “We try to play our instruments in a different way than we’re expected to.”

I sat down with three of the four members of Snaarj to talk to them about their group and its most recently released album Levels. Of course, I had to ask, and they told me the odd name comes from the word “snarge,” which UrbanDictionary.com defines as “the residue smeared on an airplane after a bird/plane collision.” This grotesque word came to saxophonists Johnson and Laurenzi while on a car trip from their alma mater Indiana University to Chicago, their current home.

Being hip cats, they were listening to NPR and heard a piece about Chesley “Sully” Sullivan and his successful maneuvering of US Airways Flight 1549 into the Hudson Bay. Upon hearing the word, they decided it would be a “pretty sweet name” for their band. They continue to pay homage to Sullivan through song titles like “Chesley” and “Captain Cool,” both from Levels.

In addition to the “Miracle On The Hudson,” the members of Snaarj can list dozens of musical influences, as well. Dirty Projectors, Flying Lotus, Herent. With some thinking, John Hollenbeck and Igor Stravinsky. They’re reluctant to talk about jazz influences since they are, despite their insistence on playing across many genres, so often boxed into the category of “just a jazz quartet”. For overall album concept on Levels, they all agree that St. Vincent was a huge reference.

In many respects, they do in one album what Esperanza Spalding tried to do with two separate albums. On Chamber Music Society, she referenced her classical influences, and Radio Music Society brings in her popular music influences. On Levels, you can hear Stravinsky’s Octet for Wind Instruments in the two saxophones and some Goldie-style drum ‘n’ bass between Wooten on bass and Ben Lumsdaine on drums. Where parts of Spalding’s Radio Music Society sound trite and contrived, Levels seamlessly weaves myriad influences into their jazz background to create a unique and uniform sound.

Part of that sound is the fact that Snaarj has never done a cover, and this second release is no different. For most songs, one member brings in an idea or mostly completed composition, and the whole band chimes in to flesh it out. Johnson notes their honesty when working on a new tune: “We’ll take an idea and work on it for 30 minutes and then say, ‘I just don’t like that.’” Wooten adds that being comfortable with a groove is by far one of the most important parts of their composition process. “If you listen to recordings of our rehearsals, you’ll hear a half hour of us singing and clapping.”

They made sure to point out how intensely comfortable they were with each song on Levels before going into the studio. Many of the songs had already been evolving for a year or more by the time they recorded, and for the few that had been written just for the occasion, they did “Snaarj Camp” for the whole week before the session. (As a testament to how well they know the whole album, Laurenzi was drumming on his knee many of the more intricate rhythms while we were listening to and discussing the CD.)

For all of this feel-good talk about non-jazz influences and making music people across all genres will enjoy, there is some downright amazing musicianship on Levels. The breakdown halfway through “Oh, Sweetie!” features some glorious grooving. The section begins with the two saxophonists playing what they called a “hockit”-- one line gets split between two different instruments. Johnson and Laurenzi cited their having lived together for years as the reason why this often impossible compositional tool comes off without a hitch. “Pauly Shore Rides Again” showcases Bobby Wooten’s very tasteful bass playing, and Lumsdaine showcases some brilliant rhythmic invention on “Captain Cool” and digs into his percussion training with the glockenspiel accompaniment earlier on the track.

When asked about their target audience, they didn’t seem to be able to pinpoint one demographic. After some deliberation, they talked about how the venues have changed from primarily jazz to more rock and pop as the band moves forward. A memorable moment came for them when they opened up for Victor Wooten (Béla Fleck and the Flecktones) and realized that a whole room full of people they didn’t know were “dancing or bobbing their heads” to their music. They’ve even tried to convince their music history professor to go to one of their shows by pleading, “We got isorhythms!”

All-in-all, Snaarj has been a learning experience for each member. From stretching the limits of composition to pushing the bounds of what’s possible with each instrument, they’ve been there for each other for some of the most revealing moments: “Bobby can play more than one note on bass! Whoa!” The bond these four musicians share is unmistakable in person and irreplaceable on recording.

Alex Marianyi is a film scoring Irish jazz folk musician based in Chicago, IL. You can find out more about his exploits at alexmarianyi.com.