If you had gone to see bassist Michael League in his freshman year when he was studying jazz at the University of North Texas and told him that one day he would win four Grammys, make two acclaimed records with David Crosby and would open for Steely Dan, his reaction would have understandably been skeptical.
“Freshman? I couldn’t read the music and I could barely play,” League said with a laugh. “I wouldn’t have had a hard time believing it.”
The four-time Grammy winner returns home with his shape-shifting jazz fusion band Snarky Puppy, set to open for Steely Dan at Dickies Arena on Thursday, June 2.
While the show was originally scheduled for June 2020 before numerous postponements, Snarky Puppy was a last-minute addition to the tour after original opening act Steve Winwood was pulled due to pandemic-induced issues. League says it’s a dream come true to tour with Steely Dan.
“It was amazing,” he says. “We’ve played three shows now, and I’ve seen every second of every show. It’s amazing to see them play every night. They’re one of my favorite bands. every time is something that I don’t think anyone in Snarky Puppy took for granted.
Although he’s played those few shows so far, League has yet to speak personally to big Dan boss Donald Fagen.
“I haven’t bothered Donald yet just because the COVID protocols are pretty intense and I try to be respectful of that stuff,” he says. “But I’m sure at some point, maybe towards the end of the race or something, I’ll strike up a conversation with him.”
According to League, Snarky Puppy’s inclusion on the tour may have something to do with music legend David Crosby, with whom League has recorded a handful of collaborative albums under Crosby’s name.
“This tour is David’s fault,” League laughs. “I think David has been pressuring Donald to work with us in some context for a long time. And that was the occasion when Steve Winwood called off.
League says his time in Denton was not only instructive for his musical upbringing, it was essential to the essence of what Snarky Puppy has become, especially through his relationship with the North Texas music stalwart. , Bernard Wright, died May 19.
“When we were in North Texas, we sounded like a North Texas band,” League says. “It was definitely more cerebral. And our perspective on music and how we approached it was heavily influenced by a collegiate musical environment. And what Bernard and all these musicians in the Dallas music scene did, it’s basically exposing the band to a different mentality and purpose.
League goes so far as to say that Wright’s influence on him was the connective tissue between his studies at UNT and the real world.
“The scene was so welcoming and so warm and generous that by the time I moved to New York, I felt like I understood what it was like to be a professional musician.” –Michael League
“[Wright] kind of took me under his wing and brought me to the black American music scene in Dallas,” he says. “The gospel, R&B, hip-hop soul stuff that was going on. He opened up this incredibly rich artistic world to me. We played together at church three times a week, and then after church he would take me to jam sessions or concerts or whatever, and he effectively became my mentor.
During her time on the UNT campus, League says the school became a source of more technical music education rather than informing her about outside experiences.
“[UNT] gave me exactly what I needed because when I came to North Texas I really wasn’t technically proficient on my instrument and I couldn’t read all that stuff,” he says. “So it served me perfectly. I never felt that by leaving these walls, I would be perfectly prepared for a life as a professional musician. Dallas was a great way to fit in.
“The scene was so welcoming and so warm and generous that by the time I moved to New York, I felt like I understood what it was like to be a professional musician without just being kicked out of it. a small school in Texas to love the world’s greatest musical city.
Perhaps most importantly, League says what he taught DFW the most was how to relax.
“I was showing up to concerts, super stressed,” he says. “Do I know all the songs? Do I know all the breaks? And then we went on stage, and it always went well. To play a gig like that, you need a different skill set. You know, you have to have ears, you have to be flexible, you have to be open to things that are happening. All the musicians in the Dallas scene are very easy going, laid back people and the music comes out of them in a way that is a part of life.
As for working with Crosby again, League says new music will be coming sooner rather than later.
“We have just completed a third [record],” he says. “We also did a live DVD at a concert in Tarrytown, New York, four years ago with the Lighthouse Band – Becca Stevens, Michelle Willis, David and myself – and which, I think, is going to be mastered this week. So it’ll be out before the end of the year. And then last year, we did our third David and I studio album together.”
This recording was made at Sunset Studios in Los Angeles, and for the first time the band used a drummer on it, “the great Aaron Sterling,” League said.
“I’m more excited about this than any of the…records we made together,” League said of their latest effort. “It’s very special. So, I think it will come out next year.”