Guitarist Mark Lettieri on his forthcoming album and GroundUP festival highlights

Through his work with Snarky Puppy and Vulfpeck offshoot The Fearless Flyers, guitarist Mark Lettieri has become highly regarded amongst fans of contemporary jazz, fusion and R&B. With versatility being one the Texas-based artist’s calling cards, he’s just as comfortable ripping through a raucous rock solo or laying down subtle tracks for funk, hip-hop or gospel-rooted sessions. His work under his own name is the purest expression of his immaculate tone, articulate playing and inspired composition, and it is that which sees him returning to Band on the Wall on 24th April, flanked by Funky Knuckles bassist Wes Stephenson and FORQ drummer Jason ‘JT’ Thomas. Ahead of the show, we had the pleasure of pitching Mark some geeky gear questions and uncovering details about his forthcoming record, Things of that Nature.

You’ve just returned from GroundUP festival in Miami. What were your highlights and did the new Snarky Puppy material go down well?

Mark Lettieri: ‘GroundUP Fest is always a great time! Even just to catch up with friends you haven’t seen in a while. This year was a bit different for me, as I brought my whole family. Some great memories watching my daughter take in a Susana Baca performance. Not bad for a first concert! I enjoyed a raucous set with my trio, and the Snarky sets were all fantastic as well. The new tunes are really starting to take shape, and I think we passed the very discerning SP audience litmus test!’

You’re bringing music from your forthcoming record, Things of that Nature to Band on the Wall in April. What can you tell us about the writing and making of the album? Were there any ‘first time’ experiences making the record?

ML: ‘A lot of the music was written as a reflection of my experiences as a new father. Naptime is a great example of that. That tune has a sense of urgency to it – I composed it while my daughter was asleep and the ideas flowed through me rather quickly – because once she woke up, my attention would obviously have to be focused back on her! There’s another song dedicated to my cats (Blockheads), and one for my wife (Suess Pants), written about a favourite pair of pyjamas. Family and everyday life experiences have always had a big impact on my writing and the songs on this record continue that tradition. We recorded the core of it in just a few days, as trio with my rhythm section of Jason Thomas on drums and Wes Stephenson bass. I then added all the guitar overdubs, and brought in keyboards (Bobby Sparks, Shaun Martin and Justin Stanton) and saxophone (Bob Reynolds). Andy Laviolette captured much of the process on film.’

The Fearless Flyers project has been a resounding success. Considering how quickly the project came together, were you surprised by the response? When can we expect to hear the project continued?

ML: ‘I had a feeling it would make some waves, but it’s extraordinary to see how it’s exploded. Turns out people have a real thirst for funky micro-jams! And that’s fine by me. We recorded our second project during the first week of January 2019 and I believe it will be released sometime this Spring.’

Has the way that Vulfpeck and Cory Wong operate rubbed off on you artistically? They seem to have mastered what so many artists struggle with: finding harmony between their creativity and the promotion and admin elements of their work…

ML: ‘It’s inspiring to see how they’ve strategised their social media presence and image. It definitely reflects the content of the music in a positive and intriguing way and does a great job of bringing the fans “in” – making them feel like they’re really part of something. I’ve taken some cues from them, for sure.’

Charlie Hunter suggests that a guitarist can improve without touching their guitar – in his case, practicing the drums to work on his rhythm and mechanical independence. Have you any recommendations for how guitarists can improve without picking up their instrument?

ML: ‘Charlie is right. Because he’s one of Earth’s funkiest humans and is rarely ever wrong 😀. Working out on a new instrument is always good practice for any musician wanting to extend beyond the scope of their main instrument. It just help you understand music better. But if you don’t have access to a drum set or piano or whatever, you can practice by just forcing yourself to listen to music differently. For example (and this is something I do myself), put on one of your favourite songs — something you’ve listened to a million times — except this time just listen to the kick drum, or the hi-hat pattern, or maybe the reverb on the vocals. The more you’re aware of all the tones and subtle nuances that make each instrument unique to a mix or arrangement, the better you’ll understand how instruments in songs really work and how to better apply all these sounds to your own music. It’s kind of like “producer practice”’.

What was the most exciting thing you saw at NAMM this year? Were there any pieces of gear you saw that looked like game changers, or things you might utilise in future?

ML: ‘Keeley Electronics is releasing some new pedals that I’m very excited about. Specifically this whacky guitar synth thing. I also got to test drive a new Supro amp head – which I’m not sure I’m allowed to talk about, but it’s rad 😀. NAMM is always such a great hang though. As long as you bring ear plugs and hand sanitiser!’

Bob Reynolds vlogged about David Ryan Harris’ 50th birthday recording session at Sonic Ranch last year, explaining how he’d got close friends and musicians he admired together for a celebratory session. If you had the opportunity to do the same thing tomorrow, who are you calling?

ML: ‘Ya know, I’d probably just call all the usual suspects. I’m very thankful I get to make the music I love with people I love. Just go look at the liner notes of any of my albums, any Snarky Puppy album, or many of the albums I’ve done for other artists as a session player. Those are the people I’d call!’