How Ghost-Note Found, Lost And Re-invented Their Sound

Snarky Puppy side project Ghost-Note plays Moe’s Alley on Saturday, April 13

By the time drummer Sput Searight started Ghost-Note with Nate Werth, he’d  already dabbled in more genres than most musicians do in a lifetime. Not only was he a member of the kaleidoscopic jam-fusion band Snarky Puppy, but he’d also worked with Snoop Dogg, Timbaland and Kendrick Lamar.

All of that was just a prelude for Swagism, Ghost-Note’s second album.

It’s a dizzying, decidedly 21st-century jazz album, fully funked and respectful of no boundary. Interwoven equally with inspirational monologues straight out of Gil Scott-Heron and a whole bunch of zany phone calls, Swagism is post-G Funk, post-Tarantino, post-To Pimp a Butterfly jazz music.

But it was almost something else entirely. Searight and Werth spent more than a decade playing as drummer and percussionist in Snarky Puppy. The two played thousands of shows together, developing a uniquely collaborative style along the way.

“After shows, people would be like, ‘What song was that you guys were playing? What kind of groove was that? Was that rehearsed?’ But we just made it up on the spot,” says Searight. “After a while, we just started cracking jokes about putting out a record, saying it was going to be on our new release. We sat down and talked about it one day and were like, ‘We really should do that.’”

In 2015, the pair started working on music together. Later that year, they released Fortified, their first album as Ghost-Note.

“Initially, we wasn’t a band,” Searight says. “We were just two guys. Two percussionists that put out a record. It kind of gradually evolved into a band when people were asking us to come out and perform live. And the more we did that, the more interesting it got.”

Eventually, the ensemble grew to include Nate’s brother, Nick Werth, who plays an instrument called a “xylosynth.” “It’s pretty much like a vibraphone,” Searight says. “But he’s more like a DJ, the way he plays it.”

The xylosynth quickly became a central part of the band, and Searight and Werth set about writing an album for this new arrangement, a weird futuristic hybrid of electronics and percussion. This was the album that Ghost-Note was originally going to record. Then, less than a month away from the session, their xylosynth player told them he wouldn’t be playing on the record anymore.

The album was shot. But the studio time was already booked.

“We went into the studio dry,” Searight says. “With nothing, literally—a couple of ideas that we were conjuring up from other projects and stuff like that. But we didn’t have a game plan until the day we got there. And then we basically just threw out ideas, went in and recorded, started fleshing ’em out, and they started growing organically.”

Searight and Werth followed their instincts, chasing down ideas as they came. Clearly, they had some good ones, because the result is one of the most fun jazz albums in years.

“Everything we were playing in the studio was funk,” Searight says. “We didn’t really go that direction on purpose. That just kind of organically happened. The record just kind of got really funky.”

This willingness to take jazz in a more pop direction is part of what makes Swagism such a thrilling record. Check out the grimey synths and hi-hats in third track “Pace Maker,” or the almost J-pop melody on unabashed dance track “Fragile.” Taken as a whole, Swagism is a bracing reminder that jazz music isn’t a stuffy affair meant to be enjoyed in a turtleneck. It’s alive, engaged with the moment.

“It’s just freedom of expression,” Searight says. “We pride ourselves on being creative at all times.”

Ghost-Note plays at 8 p.m. on Saturday, April 14, at Moe’s Alley, 1535 Commercial Way, Santa Cruz. $15. 479-1854.

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