WASHINGTON — From the Grammy stage straight to the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, two talented music acts will join the NSO Pops live next week.
Three-time Grammy winner Snarky Puppy brings its jazz-fusion sound on Wednesday, Feb. 22.
Then, nine-time Grammy nominee Ledisi brings her brand of R&B and jazz on Feb. 24 and 25.
WTOP caught up with both artists to preview these two exciting shows.
Few contemporary artists are in this guy’s league.
Fairfax County native Michael League just steered Snarky Puppy to its third Grammy in four years as “Culcha Vulcha” won Best Contemporary Instrumental Album at the 59th annual awards on Sunday.
“It’s kind of surreal still,” League told WTOP. “The first two that we won were for projects with special guests. … This was the first time we ever won a Grammy for what we do 99 percent of the time, which is just us, the members of the band, playing our music. So, I think it was extra sweet for everybody.”
Ironically, League wasn’t even at this year’s ceremony, having already attended twice in the past.
“I was actually on stage in Miami Beach sound-checking with a new band I started called Bokanté,” League said. “There was a roar from the crowd of people who were watching the ceremony on their phones, so I was like, ‘I think we won a Grammy!’ … The first two years, we brought the whole band on stage, like 20 people. It was so funny. We’re like the misfits of the Grammys, like the Bad News Bears.”
It’s the source of that second Grammy — the 2015 concept album “Sylva,” which also won for Best Contemporary Instrumental Album — that Snarky Puppy will play next week at the Kennedy Center.
“I wanted to create a piece of music that knows no separation between the band and the orchestra,” League said. “I wanted to dive in and make it feel like one massive, 64-piece band, so from the very beginning, I wrote every piece with the orchestra integrated in, [brainstorming] like, ‘It would be really cool if this song started out with Moog bass, Contra bass and clarinets with flutes on the top.”
Even if you don’t know those technical music terms, there’s still plenty to enjoy in this concert.
“If you’re not an orchestral aficionado, you might be surprised how accessible it is, how modern and contemporary it sounds,” League said. “We’re pulling elements from J Dilla and the hip-hop world to Stravinsky to Bjork to Radiohead to gospel music and New Orleans music, all in this one kind of suite.”
If you listen closely, you might even notice an underlying forestry theme.
“I’m really fascinated by forests, so I tried to write each piece about a different forest that I’ve been to in my life,” League said. “One is actually the little wood behind my old house in Virginia, one is on a mountain in Portugal, one is this really crazy swampy forest in Louisiana, and one is not a real forest, it’s like the Dark Wood in ‘Snow White.’ When I was a kid, I was terrified when she runs through.”
From the imaginary woods of his childhood nightmares to the tangible woods of his actual Virginia backyard, League comes full circle to his upbringing in Clifton, Virginia, and Centreville High School.
“My brother was in the high school jazz band at Centreville, so I kind of followed in his footsteps,” League said. “Actually, my band director Dave Detwiler is in the NSO, so we’re inviting him to come up and play a solo on one of the tunes. It’s crazy, a full-circle thing. I remember he used to kidnap me and a sax player from my high school and take us to Georgetown University to rehearse with their band.”
Also on stage will be trombone player Victor Barranco, who was League’s classmate in the jazz studies department at the University of North Texas. It was there in Denton, Texas, that League formed the first incarnation of Snarky Puppy back in 2004. How did he come up with the band name?
“The guy who initially came up with the name is the tenor saxophone player in Bruce Hornsby’s band, Bobby Read. … My brother was gonna name a band that, but he decided to name it something else, so the name was in my head for a long time. I had just finished my first year at North Texas [and] booked a show in the basement of a pizza place. I needed a name, and I said, ‘Oh, I’ll just use Snarky Puppy.’ … I thought it’d be one gig, two gigs … and now it’s like 14 years later and I’m stuck with this stupid name.”
Fans hardly think it’s a stupid name. If anything, it stands out. Since those humble days, the band has picked up new members to the point that there’s now 20 to 40 rotating members at any given time.
“It’s kind of like a large band with a deep bench,” League said with a laugh. “The line between band member and occasional band member is pretty blurry. It’s just kind of like a big family of musicians.”
Exactly 10 years after its formation, Snarky Puppy won its first Grammy for Best R&B Performance in 2014 with a cover of Brenda Russell’s “Something” performed in collaboration with Lalah Hathaway.
Two years later, Snarky Puppy picked up its second Grammy for “Sylva,” originally recorded with the Metropole Orkest, and now its 11th studio album “Culcha Vulcha” just won the band’s third Grammy.
Still, beyond all the accolades, this will be the band’s first live orchestral show ever in North America, having previously performed such shows overseas in the Netherlands, France, Germany and Norway.
“It’s all been Europe,” League said. “So I’m excited about this, to bring it back home. … It’s cool to be coming home and playing a stage where I saw so many great artists perform in my childhood.”
Click here for more information. Listen to the full conversation with Michael League of Snarky Puppy below:
The best art often comes from a personal place.
Just ask nine-time Grammy nominee Ledisi, who’s made a powerful career fusing the jazz roots of her childhood home of New Orleans with her more classical training at the University of California, Berkeley, where she studied music after moving to the Bay Area when she was just 10 years old.
“Even though it’s R&B with a mixture of jazz, I mix everything I am,” Ledisi said. “Being from New Orleans taught me that’s the heartbeat of everything — the drum and music and jazz — then to learn more about classical and musical theatre in the Bay Area. … I learned a lot about gospel, too. … I’m just a combination of everything all mixed-up, between the Bay Area funk and the heartbeat of jazz.”
Now, Ledisi will add the epic sound of an orchestra with the NSO Pops next week at Kennedy Center.
“It’s amazing,” Ledisi told WTOP. “I’ve done other songbooks like Nina Simone with an orchestra or a big band, but never [my own music]. To be able to do something at Kennedy Center with NSO is just amazing. To hear my music played with an orchestra, it’s going to be amazing. I’m excited!”
This is her first time performing at the Kennedy Center, aside from attending a fundraiser there once for the Duke Ellington School of Music. Fittingly, that very school will provide an ensemble of young performers known as The Mellow Tones to perform on stage as the opening act for Ledisi’s concert.
“I hope I get to see some of the show, but I’ll probably be a nervous wreck behind the scenes making sure things go great,” Ledisi joked about her pre-show. “I love that we’re all celebrating music.”
What can we expect to hear during the NSO concert?
“I’ve been asked to do some of Nina Simone’s work, so I’m gonna show the relationship she and I have had over the years between my music and hers,” Ledisi said. “I’m definitely going to do ‘Pieces of Me,’ which is a huge song. I can’t wait to do ‘Hate Me,’ which is a song that has string arrangements, and a song called ‘Lost & Found’ from my first record-label release with strings. That’s all orchestra.”
Indeed, “Lost & Found” earned her first two Grammy nods for Best New Artist and Best R&B Album.
“I was blown away,” Ledisi said of her first Grammys. “I was in the same category as Taylor Swift and Amy Winehouse for Best New Artist! It was like whoa! Then R&B Album was like Chaka Khan and [others]. Twas like wow! I didn’t think I was going to win, and I didn’t, but I was so happy to be there.”
In 2010, she was nominated for two more: Best R&B Album with “Turn Me Loose” and Best Female R&B Vocal Performance for “Goin’ Thru Changes.” In 2012, she bagged three more for Best R&B Album with “Pieces of Me” and Best R&B Performance and Best R&B Song for the title track. Her latest two came for Best R&B Performance with “Gonna Be Alright” in 2013 and “Like This” in 2015.
She’s still waiting on that first Grammy win, but admirably for her, winning is a much broader concept.
“Winning for me is being able to sustain and do a show like this with an orchestra, my music, and be appreciated,” Ledisi said. “Even without the Grammy, I’m appreciated for my work. This opportunity doesn’t happen for everyone, so I’m just honored that NSO thought worthy of me to be a part of it. I’m grateful. Very grateful. This is winning! To see my music written out with strings, it’s just amazing!”
Click here for more information. Listen to the full conversation with Ledisi below: