Leopard Records  Leopard D77085

Mark Lettieri (baritone, electric and bass guitars, keyboards, programming); Steve Lukather (electric guitar solo track 6); Jason “JT” Thomas (drums); Robert “Sput” Searight (drums); Adam Deitch (drums); Nate Smith (drums); TaRon Lockett (drums and percussion); Daric Bennett (bass);  Wes Stephenson (bass); Braylon Lacy (bass); Justin Stanton (synthesisers); Shaun Martin (Fender Rhodes, synthesiser, vocoder); Bobby Sparks II (Hammond B3, synthesisers, clavinet, mellotron); Philip Lassiter (trumpet); Sam Greenfield (tenor sax); Doug DeHays (baritone sax); Kristian Persson (trombone); Travis Toy (pedal steel guitar); Frédéric Yonnet (harmonica); Keith Anderson (tenor sax solo track 9); Jacob Collier (background vocals, vocal arrangement track 7).
Recorded at various home studios in the US and Europe in 2020.

The baritone in the title doesn’t refer to a baritone voice or a baritone saxophone, but a baritone guitar. A conventional electric guitar is tuned EADGBE, but a baritone guitar uses a lower tuning system (BEADF#B), resulting in a bigger, punchier, meatier sound. It’s this type of guitar that Mark Lettieri, guitarist with the jazz/funk/world/rock music ensemble Snarky Puppy, is highlighting on this release. Last year, Lettieri released an EP featuring the baritone, and such was the response that he was asked to record a follow-up album.

The impact of Covid-19 meant that Lettieri resorted to recording the music in his home studio and then emailing music files to the other musicians scattered across the globe, including the east and west coasts of America, and Europe. It says something about the way this album was assembled, that the musicians sound as if they were in the same room together. Lettieri is joined by many musicians, including some fellow colleagues from Snarky Puppy and Toto guitarist Steve Lukather. The album, says Lettieri, was inspired by music from the 70s and 80s, and one can certainly hear the influences of the likes of Prince, Herbie Hancock, George Duke and War.

The nine tracks have titles with an astral connection and most are in the jazz-funk vein, with the greater emphasis on funk. The opener, ‘Red Dwarf’ is a fast, furious, funk number with a ferocious bassline and lots of jangling rhythm guitar. And as with most of the tracks on the album, Lettieri stacks or layers different guitar parts to create a polyphonic brew of lines, rhythms and riffs. Sometimes recordings created with multiple overdubs can sound cluttered, but to Lettieri’s credit, it’s not the case anywhere on this album.  ‘Magnetar’ is an excellent funk track in the Herbie Hancock/Headhunters vein and even features Shaun Martin on vocoder, an instrument popularised by Hancock on songs such as ‘I Thought It Was You.’ Lettieri’s multiple guitar playing on this track is exquisite.

‘Pulsar’ is another high octane funk track with drummer Robert “Sput” Searight grooving on a four-on-the-floor beat with open high-hat, and Lettieri playing a scintillating combination of lead, bass and rhythm guitar – this is one my favourites. ‘Tidal Tail,’ is apparently inspired by Prince and includes some funky Hammond organ lines by Bobby Sparks II, while “Voyager One” is a mid-tempo jazz-funk number, reminiscent of the music George Duke and Stanley Clarke played together.

The driving number “Star Catchers” was inspired by the Brecker Brothers, and features a punchy horn section and a guitar solo by Steve Lukather. ‘Blue Straggler’ is where funk meets country, with Travis Toy’s pedal steel guitar intertwining with a slow-funk groove. One mystery is that the album credits and the press release that came with this album both have singer/multi-instrumentalist Jacob Collier credited with background vocals and vocal arrangement on this track. But his contribution must be well-hidden within the mix, as I could not hear any vocals, even with headphones. Interestingly, the metadata on the digital files for this album does not include Collier’s name – were his vocals left off at the last minute? ‘Nebulae’ includes some rousing playing by the French harmonica player Frédéric Yonnet, and the last few seconds feature some solo playing from him.

‘Supernova’ is another funk excursion, with Keith Anderson playing a gutsy tenor sax solo. The final track, ‘Sublight’ marks a shift in style, as Lettieri plays fingerstyle guitar using acoustic, baritone and standard electric guitars, with just Jason “JT” Thomas accompanying him with brushes and a snare drum. If you’re a fan of jazz-funk and guitar (I am), there is plenty to like about this album, and it has enjoyed repeated playing in my home. But do bear in mind that this is more of a jazz-FUNK album.