Wandering into a Kung Fu show for the first time is like stumbling upon a gold nugget in a stream full of pebbles. Before the unacquainted can comprehend what they’re experiencing, they’re aware it’s something rare and splendid.
That’s because the five-piece Connecticut-based fusion outfit, scheduled to perform at 9 p.m. Thursday at the River Street Jazz Café in Plains Township, Pennsylvania, combines instrumental virtuosity with a danceable sensibility that makes their complex arrangements simultaneously awe-inspiring and fun.
Growing from weekly bar gigs in New Haven in 2010 – original bassist Dave Livolsi recruited veterans of improvisation for the project – the ensemble began leaning toward the genre-weaving sounds of ’70s-born bands like Weather Report and The Headhunters, a process guitarist Tim Palmieri said happened organically.
“We were all excited about it, and we were practicing funk-fusion covers and playing every Monday,” Palmieri recalled. “We started writing some originals and adding to the sound, and it just picked up steam naturally through Facebook, which is really helpful, because now the whole country can hear what we were doing. We just decided to roll with it.”
Crafting a unique blend of jazz and funk, interspersed with interludes of hard and progressive rock, Kung Fu recorded an eponymous record in 2011 and began touring in 2012, contributing to the thriving modern funk movement that includes such celebrated groups as The New Mastersounds, Lettuce and Dumpstaphunk.
Kung Fu’s brilliant 2014 studio effort, “Tsar Bomba,” cemented the band among the elite in the category, but 2016’s “Joyride,” which featured both songs that paid sonic homage to predecessors like Funkadelic and The Meters and songs that pushed the progressive envelope of jazz fusion, was even more robust and diverse in its execution.
Kung Fu’s current lineup is comprised of Palmieri, his longtime bandmate and drummer in The Breakfast, Adrian Tramontano, Deep Banana Blackout saxophonist Rob Somerville, bassist Chris DeAngelis and keyboard and organ player Beau Sasser.
Palmieri said Sasser, the newest member, was an integral factor in the evolution of the sound.
“A big change, what I consider to be a positive addition, was when we got our new keyboardist Beau Sasser,” Palmieri said. “That was part of the richer sound, maybe a little less digital sounding or electronic synthesizer sounding, but still capable of all that, because Beau comes from a very strong jazz, organ boogaloo, classic R&B background.
“Compositionally, he brings different things to the table. And, like any band, you keep growing as an artist, or you should be anyway. You don’t want to write songs like you just wrote; you want to keep moving in a forward direction. I feel like ‘Joyride’ pretty much did that. We were reacting to the new sound and energy and that came out in the writing.”
Since spring 2017, the band has released new music in a series of singles titled “Ninja Cuts,” and continues to churn out genre-defying gems like “Sfvendago” and “Caught Up.”
“With the ‘Ninja Cuts’ we’re exploring these different sides of ourselves, but also what works for this band,” Palmieri said. “People expect a level of ferocity and intellectual musicianship.”
And thus far, Kung Fu has not disappointed.
Palmieri, for his part, is one of the most distinctive guitarists in progressive music today. He flows effortlessly from elegant rhythm to blistering lead, playing as quickly and technically as the Vais and Van Halens of the metal era and as deftly and soulfully as the Kings of blues, with the chops to touch every other style along the spectrum.
When asked about his ability to do it all in singular fashion, Palmieri jokingly references Robert Johnson’s legendary Faustian deal before humbly reflecting on his own progression.
“It’s totally a lot of guitar playing,” he said. “I’ve been playing since I was 4 years old, very much steeped in rock ‘n’ roll and, in the teenage years, got into jazz music. I love theory and the history of music, and I’ll be a student for the rest of my life. So it’s fun to dip your toes into every genre.
“Through all that exploration and practicing and internalizing, your own voice comes through. I can adapt to any situation … . This band just happens to be high-octane funk. Ultimately, I want to communicate something. I can’t just be noodling or like ‘oh, look at all these fast licks.’ I have to think like a horn player or singer. There’s got to be phrasing. You can know a ton of words in the English language, but that doesn’t make you an effective speaker.”
And Kung Fu, Palmieri notes, is fortunate to have players who can communicate to one another and as a unit to an audience.
“It’s a treat,” Palmieri said. “It’s fun, in the moment, for jamming. You can have your own musical idea out there, and they’re able to react to it. And it’s like having a security blanket because you know, ‘OK it’s his turn to solo. He’s going to completely kill it right now and wow the audience,’ so you can rest easy knowing everyone is working their asses off to make it sound good.”
Looking forward to releasing another full-length album, Kung Fu recently entered the studio to record two new songs, which the band plans to debut along with the “Ninja Cuts” they’ve been trickling out over the past year. In the meantime, Palmieri said, the band is happy to return to Northeastern Pennsylvania.
“Our affinity for Wilkes-Barre goes back a long way to when The Breakfast would play Murray’s Inn,” Palmieri said. “We’ve always connected with the people in Wilkes-Barre. We’ve always had a good time. … We can tell people appreciate good music there, and it keeps us coming back.”
Kung Fu performs Thursday, Sept. 27 at the River Street Jazz Cafe (667 N. River St., Plains, Pa., 18705). Tickets: $12 in advance here, $18 day of show. For more information, visit the venue’s website.
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