The Funky Knuckles & Mark Lettieri Trio are an extension of the vast Snarky Puppy family, and two further acts making waves out of the rock, jazz and gospel melting pot that is Dallas, Texas. Their instrumental styles will appeal to fans of Snarky Puppy, and their rock and funk sensibility will present you with something fresh and energised. Ahead of their UK tour this month, which sees them performing at Band on the Wall on Saturday 16th April, we chatted to Snarky Puppy guitarist and trio leader Mark Lettieri about his introduction to guitar playing, the trio dynamic and his favourite tracks to perform with Snarky Puppy.
What was it that initially got you started on the guitar, and what have been the landmark moments on your way to becoming a professional player?
We had an acoustic guitar lying around the Lettieri house when I was kid, since my dad plays a little bit as hobby. I used to bang on it, and made enough racket one day that dad offered to get me some lessons. It was all downhill from there! As for landmark moments…I started out as primarily a “rock guy,” so in college, when I started playing with gospel and R&B musicians, I became exposed to what it means to “groove,” and that really opened my eyes as a player. Also, leading my own band has always been a learning experience…in a good way.
You’re a diverse player and composer, which your 2013 album Futurefun demonstrates, with flavours of rock, funk, jazz and RnB running throughout the record. Does this broad range reflect your musical taste?
Absolutely. I’ve absorbed a LOT of music over my years of playing, and my compositions will always reflect that. I don’t discriminate styles. If it’s done well, I’ll listen to it. That’s why you’ll hear heavy grunge songs like “Grillman,” and then soul ballads like “Extraspecial.” But no matter the style, it’s all going to come from my own interpretation.
Many of the musicians on that record are affiliated with Snarky Puppy as well as groups like Forq and Cory Henry’s Funk Apostles, that are lead by members of Snarky Puppy. How do you go about inviting musicians to play on a record, and is their affiliation with the group a sure sign that they will bring something special to the session?
I send ’em a text or an email! Ha! These guys are all my friends first, and my colleagues second. We all want to see each other achieve great things with our individual projects, so we’re happy to help each other out. Thankfully, these friends of mine also happen to be some of the best players in the world, so I know everything they put their hands on will be special.
Tell us about the Mark Lettieri trio, the players involved and what we can expect to hear from the trio on this tour.
I’ve always loved trios. Jimi Hendrix’s “Band of Gypsys” album is one of my all-time favorites. I like performing as a trio, because not only does it allow for flexibility as far as improvisation, it helps me see if the compositions can really stand up on their own – without the studio instruments and overdubs, etc. Plus, I’m kind of a “busy” player sometimes, so the space is good! This tour will feature Wes Stephenson on bass, who plays in the trio frequently as well as on my albums, and Cedric Moore on drums. Cedric brings a very dynamic and aggressive sound to the music, and I’m excited to see where he takes it live. Both Wes and Cedric are also members of the Funky Knuckles, who will be playing a set after mine each night.
You have contributed to albums from a vast array of artists; from rapper Lupe Fiasco to gospel vocalist Myron Butler. Does working in different styles and in different environments feedback in to your creative work?
It does. From doing session work, I’ve learned loads about production and getting studio sounds. I think working with great producers has made me a better producer myself. Like seeing how the puzzle pieces of a song can all fit together. No matter the genre though, my role is the same…even with my solo material…and that’s to use the guitar and its capabilities to serve the song at hand. I’m all about making great sounding music with my tool of choice.
Which Snarky Puppy track is the most fun for you to play live? You seem to really cut loose on tracks like ‘What About Me?’
Well, “What About Me?” is always a fun one, and I try to keep the solos fresh each night…hopefully. I also enjoy playing “Quartermaster,” since I love funk and quartet gospel grooves. “Sleeper” is another favorite. It might be the closest thing we have to an arena epic…and I’ve always loved 80’s rock…so there ya go!