They honed their craft underground, bouncing their self-described "brasshouse" music off the tunnel walls of the New York City subway. But the scruffy trio Too Many Zooz isn't your usual bunch of buskers. Crackling with energy and frantically corralling jazz, EDM, Afrobeat, Afro-Cuban, and ska elements into its bursting-at-the seams sound, the band won a loyal following through busking in Union Square Station in 2014. Videos filmed by passers-by went viral, getting the attention of Beyoncé, who recruited the group to record with her on "Daddy Lessons" and "Formation" for last year's meteoric Lemonade. The trio also joined Queen Bey at last year's CMA Awards for a blistering performance of "Daddy Lessons" with the Dixie Chicks. There, Zooz saxophonist Leo Pellegrino, as peroxided as Billy Idol, honking like beloved E Streeter Clarence Clemons, danced like James Brown in front of an audience that probably had no idea who he or his band mates—Matt Doe on trumpet and David "King of Sludge" Parks on a percussive contraption that includes a bass drum, cowbell, jamblock, and a cymbal—were. But even so, the band's subway days are pretty much in the past.
Pellegrino grew up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in a musical family that confronted him with all kinds of music: jazz, polka, avant-garde, and more. His father, Stephen, is an accordionist who creates interdisciplinary theater works, taking on the roles of composer, arranger, choreographer, and director with a common theme of labor struggles past and present.
Pellegrino met Parks through mutual involvement in another band, the Drumadics, and he hooked up with Doe through their time together at the Manhattan School of Music. After making Too Many Zooz an official enterprise in 2014, the band coined the term brasshouse to try to describe its eclectic mix of styles and cultures. Trumpeter Doe blows like Dizzy Gillespsie with a head full of shrooms, Pellegrino honks and squawks while making Brown-style get-on-the-good-foot spins, and Parks whacks out slinky, syncopated Afro-Cuban rhythms. Electronic and house music is a touchstone of the band's sound, along with the juju of King Sunny Ade and Fela Kuti's rhythms. But the brass still shines through, and the overall sound at times has echoes of pre-reggae pioneers like the Skatelites.
When Too Many Zooz started busking for income, they learned how to capture a live audience quickly: play something visceral and unique enough to hold the crowd's attention to get the message across, and make them want to pay for it. The band has worked up four EPs—F NOTE, Fanimals, Brasshouse Volume 1: Survival of the Flyest, and The Internet—and one LP, Subway Gawdz, released in late June of last year. The group branches out instrumentally in the studio, with Sludge on piano and Leo on bass clarinet and tenor sax. But live, they stick to the basic trio of drum, trumpet, and sax.
"I don't want to haul all that equipment around," Pellegrino jokes. He's retained a lingering fondness for the band's simpler subway days, when the musicians mostly just wanted to make rent.
"It was so easy, all we had to do was get there, set up and play—no sound checks, no waiting around, just take out the instruments and play."
The band's newfound acclaim and higher-profile gigs, however, have been a mixed blessing. The gigs are more stressful than ever.
"It's not like I have stage fright, but I just want to do the best show that I can, and I can't relax until I've played the last note," Pellegrino says. "You have a soundcheck that takes about two hours, then there's not usually enough time for you to do anything else before the gig," he says, noting that the long days and minimal rest make it tough to stay healthy.
But as he discovered with the CMAs, the band's sudden fame does have its rewards—certainly none of them dreamed of sharing a stage with this generation's biggest pop star at a country music awards show. But events like that shouldn't surprise anybody. As they've proven to audiences above and below ground, Too Many Zooz dream too big to be put in a cage.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Wild Animals"