Review: Kung Fu brings their lethal funk to the Putnam Den

Posted by Dale Obbie

Pulsing with lights, smoke and funky music, the Putnam Den took a brief trip through time on April 5, traveling back to the early 1970s - back to the era when bands like Weather Report and the Headhunters reigned supreme. Hailing from New Haven, CT, the newly formed jazz-fusion band Kung Fu dealt its whirlwind of fusion music blow-by-blow to a crowd of both dedicated fans and unsuspecting newcomers.

"Lethal funk" is the phrase most often used to describe Kung Fu's music by both critics and the band itself. And there's no wonder why: it's a pithy summary of the elements that mix to form its distinctive sound. Combining jazz-based improvisation with the hard edge of rock, the groove of funk and the throb of electronica, the band's music is as sophisticated as it is downright dirty, as cerebral as it is instinctively dance-provoking.

The band opened with the steamroller "Gung Ho," a complex tour de force with ferocious drive. But what makes "Gung Ho" distinctively "Kung Fu" is its breakneck dance beat - the unrelenting rhythm that catapulted the show forward from the start.

Next was "Bopcorn," another aptly named song, whose title brings to mind the funkiness of James Brown's "The Popcorn," as well as the technical complexity of bebop. And rightly so: guitarist Tim Palmieri and saxophonist Rob Somerville played a tightly synchronized yet trapezing melody reminiscent of Charlie Parker's "Donna Lee," while bassist Dave Livolsi, drummer Adrian Tramontano and keyboardist Todd Stoops laid a foundation of funk underneath their melodic acrobatics.

Then, taking a break from their funky onslaught, the band members slid into a downbeat blues song. It was a refreshing break from the intensity of the first two songs, and evidence that Kung Fu knows the worth in the occasional laidback groove. Nonetheless, their blues jam didn't lack the jazzy flourishes that give life to their other songs.

"Alright, let's take a shot," said Somerville, passing around shot glasses to his grinning band mates. Refreshed, they played a flawless cover of Weather Report's "Teen Town." Livolsi played blindingly fast Jaco Pastorius bass licks, while Stoops added a spacy synth overlay. As the song reached its climax, Palmieri shredded during a totally uninhibited finger-tapping guitar solo, taking the jazz-rock classic to new heights.

"Chakrabarty Overdrive," as its title suggests, was yet another supercharged juggernaut of a song. The powerhouse combination of Livolsi's thunderous bass playing and Tramontano's aggressive drumming drove the song along at a superhuman pace. Meanwhile, Stoops bent pitches on his clavinet, using melismas and Middle Eastern modes to add yet another element to the fusion of styles. "That's a song about this guy named Chakrabarty who used to be in a band with me...He's from India!" laughed Palmieri.

"This next song is called 'Letters from Bobby Portugal,'" added Palmieri. "It's like a journey in a sailboat to Portugal." Indeed it was: the song had a tropical feel and featured some mellow and richly textured guitar playing from Palmieri.

Covering Billy Cobham's "Stratus" - another '70s-era jazz-fusion classic - they sounded as if they were true fusion veterans themselves. Livolsi grooved on a repetitive rhythmic figure while Palmieri played a dissonant, brain-probing guitar solo. The song became so heated that several people in the crowd began moshing around - a testament to the heaviness of Kung Fu's sound, which sometimes adopts elements of metal in its flexible fusion of styles.

"Sometimes you gotta bring it," said Somerville as they returned to play an encore. It was an explosive funk song and the pinnacle of their performance's momentous energy. With each hand on a different keyboard, Stoops played with percussive precision, layering organ and synth sounds on top of one another. Somerville played a colorful sax solo, ending the night just as they had started it - with everybody dancing. 

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