Kung Fu has mastered the not-so-ancient art of live butt-whooping funk.
The Connecticut-based band is on their third tour across Colorado — home to funk-friendly crowds from the plains to the mountains — and making their first stop in Aspen at Belly Up on Monday, Jan. 21.
The band has quickly made a name for itself over the last few years, with kinetic live shows showcasing a booming brand of electro-jazz rock and their eponymous 2011 album.
As keyboard player Todd Stoops tells it, though, this group of orphans from East Coast jam bands started with little ambition for the kind of success they’re starting to enjoy.
Stoops had played keys for the Vermont-based RAQ since 2002, enjoying a few years of touring. By 2009, though, he’d put off his music projects, moved to Connecticut, and had a baby with his wife. Then he started getting together with a handful of musician friends for Monday night jam sessions at a club in New Haven — just for the joy of playing together.
Like Stoops, they were East Coast jam band and funk vets, including members of The Breakfast and Deep Banana Blackout. It solidified into a lineup of Tim Palmieri on guitar, Robert Somerville on sax, Chrstopher DeAngelis on bass, Adrian Tramontano on drums, and Stoops playing keyboards.
“We never had plans of touring or doing anything really with it,” Stoops told me from his home.
They all had a love for the energetic 70s jazz fusion sound of Herbie Hancock and his ilk, the speedy synth- and syncopation-driven elements of progressive funk. Their first night on stage, they covered Jeff Beck, Miles Davis and Freddie Hubbard, filling it out with improvisational riffs.
After their second week in a planned 14-week run of gigs in New Haven, they sold out the whole run. Thus, Kung Fu was born.
“It’s neat to have a project with no grand plan, that started as just a fun thing, and to see it take off,” he says.
Stoops and his bandmates were quickly inspired to start writing songs. What came out was a fresh-sounding funk – a sort of 21st century Parliament Funkadelic or Meters that rocked a little bit harder and incorporated elements of jazz and electronic dance music in equal measure, all with an overriding, freewheeling New Orleans spirit.
Their live show has grown into a propulsive force of non-stop action and tight arrangements. They make room for a little improv, still, but their sets these days are tightly focused.
“We come with a pretty aggressive sound and we pack as much as we can in,” Stoops says. “We come with a mission to blow up the bridge like a bunch of commandos.”
Kung Fu’s members have all been in bands before, where guys try to strategize for success — aiming for bigger tours and with their eyes on playing arenas. In Kung Fu, the band’s rise has come without any such ambition — nonetheless taking them on national tours and trips to festivals like the legendary JazzFest in New Orleans.
“With Kung Fu, it all happened without us trying,” he laughs. “It’s very humbling.”
Kung Fu has found some of its most fervent fans here in Colorado. On the East Coast, in cities like New Haven, Stoops says he’s found the crowds a little more reserved than here out west. On their last run through Colorado, a group of kids that caught their set in Breckenridge ended up following them through several more gigs across the state. In Colorado, he says, fans feed off of the band’s energy with unique abandon.
“The Colorado music lover gives back more than anywhere in the country,” Stoops says.
It may come as a surprise that nobody had taken Kung Fu as a band name before 2009. In fact, it was Stoops’ son, Oscar, who named the band. The kid was 18 months old when his dad’s band was taking shape — and watching “Kung Fu Panda” about 10 times a day — so when the band needed a name, it popped into Stoops’ head.
“Besides all the heady reasons it’s cool, I take a step back and I’m like, ‘That’s the coolest band name in the world,’” he says.
Yeah, and the way they’re attacking the stage these days, Kung Fu is living up to its name.