Revisiting the musical landscape of Snarky Puppy’s Sylva

With the release of the excellent “Family Dinner Volume 2” and a recent Grammy win for Best Contemporary Instrumental Album, it’s a good time to revisit Snarky Puppy’s landmark 2015 release, SylvaThere aren’t enough words to describe an album like this. It’s the result of a flurry of musicians, all from different backgrounds, coming together to play a few arranged improvisations, recorded live for an energetic and otherworldly 54 minutes of music — uniting a diverse litany of connections through their melodies.

Working with the Metropole Orchestra, the album features large-scale, orchestral productions grounded in a world-jazz foundation. With the range of soloists present, from keyboardist Cory Henry to Mike Maher on trumpet, it’s difficult for a composer to facilitate exactly when and how they will enter their moment in the spotlight as each solo must weave perfectly in and out of the arrangement. This makes Sylva truly a testament to how talented and hardworking these musicians are because it contains the synergy of a ten-piece jazz ensemble within a hundred-piece arrangement. After listening to the album, it will be interesting to see them perform this live, as the arrangement leaves enough room for improvisation so that each performance will be a unique one.

As cinematic as the first tracks get, “Sintra” is a great introduction with a violin melody reflecting 007. It flows smoothly into “Flight,” which begins with a synth bass and is led by multiple keyboard solos backed by horn transitions and a sax solo. The alternating solos by Henry and Justin Stanton on this song are definite highlights. “Atchafalaya” is a New Orleans jazz-influenced song featuring what might be one of the most infectious trumpet and bass lines in the album, which is saying a lot, because the album is filled with earworms. 

While the first three songs are quite diverse, they flow almost unconsciously from one to the next. After these overwhelming 15 minutes, Sylva slows down with an emotional and downbeat 15-minute epic: “The Curtain.” This piece contains many of my favorite moments on the album, topped by the gorgeous piano solo played by Bill Laurance, followed by a Middle Eastern/Indian influenced finale that fittingly closes out the first half of the album. The second half begins with “Gretel,” the shortest piece on the album and the most orchestral accompaniment containing the power of a Hans Zimmer score. Instead of ending on a soft chord, the piece builds to a climax which transitions into the beautiful Bernard Hermann-esque intro to “The Clearing.”

At this point, the album has shown it all with R&B, funk-soul, New Orleans jazz, symphonic rock, world fusion, and everything in between. But “The Clearing” embodies all that came before it, with every performer in the large ensemble feeling equally critical to its direction. After its first ending, “The Clearing” moves into a second ending brings Sylva to a wild close with an epic bass line, an unearthly drum line, and a final cadence that seems to say, “Yeah, we just did that.”

Sylva is an album for everyone: the musicians, the music critics, and the casual listeners. It has so many different bits and pieces that the energy never stops. An hour-long jam arranged and improvised all at the same time, it deserved “Best Contemporary Instrumental Album” at this year’s Grammys. This is the epitome of music collaboration, the meeting of improvisation and structure and is where ambition becomes reality for Michael League and Snarky Puppy.