t the 2016 CMA Awards one sound burst from the stage like a thunderquake. Beyoncé performed “Daddy Lessons” accompanied by Dixie Chicks and Too Many Zooz–the New York City trio which originally recorded the song on the star’s Lemonade album—the trio bringing the sound of the street to Beyoncé’s glittering musical declaration. Glued to their smart phones, tablets, and TVs, America beheld Too Many Zooz’ innovative polyglot style.
Beyoncé and Dixie Chicks sashayed the song’s verses in a rollicking country vibe, but as the performance neared midpoint, a tall, burly baritone saxophonist with a luminous white pompadour took the stage like a bar-walking gladiator. TMZ’s Leo Pellegrino danced, shimmied, and shaked, matching Beyoncé move for move, while blowing growling saxophone notes that brought urban funk to “Daddy Lessons”’ two-beat country jig. TMZ trumpeter Matt Doe and drummer King of Sludge performed on the stage’s backline as a blaring multiple horn line raised “Daddy Lessons”’ intensity, followed by Beyoncé and Dixie Chicks focusing on the song’s political theme with sledgehammer intent.
Too Many Zooz’s baritone saxophonist Pellegrino, trumpeter Matt Doe, and drummer King of Sludge held Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena stage for mere minutes, but the same talent that moved Beyoncé to have the group record both “Daddy Lessons” and “Formation” on Lemonade has seen the trio sell thousands of CDs and downloads, and inspired viral videos liked by hundreds of thousands of Too Many Zooz’s fans, worldwide.
Too Many Zooz’s manic music, dubbed “BrassHouse” by drummer King of Sludge, is an irresistible rocket that combines styles more far-flung than any international space station. As heard on the group’s EPs, F NOTE, Fanimals, Brasshouse Volume 1: Survival of the Flyest, The Internet, and LP, Subway Gawdz, Too Many Zooz creates a visceral vocal-free smack-to-the-senses. TMZ’s Brasshouse summons EDM, house, techno, and glitch, paired to the indigenous punch of Cuban, Afro-Cuban, Caribbean, and Brazilian Carnival rhythms, heightened by the dancing and saxophone soloing prowess of a bionic Pepper Adams. Like Nortec Collective mashed with Daft Punk by way of a mad sonic scientist, Too Many Zooz has conquered New York City—your headset’s resistance is futile.
“We pride ourselves that nearly every person of every color, creed and background and upbringing can find something in our music to relate to,” Matt Doe says. “Someone from Cuba can say ‘I hear Cuban music in the cowbells.’ Someone into death metal will enjoy it next to a grandmother who hears it as old swing music. Others hear Klezmer. Whatever people want to hear in our music they can seemingly find it.”
Many New Yorkers found Too Many Zooz at the Union Square subway station, where the trio began busking in 2014. After one of TMZ’s videos went viral on Reddit, creating almost a million fans, sales of the band’s digital downloads and CD sales skyrocketed.
If TMZ’s music wasn’t already electrifying, Leo Pellegrino’s dance moves, which spin like a Zoot-suit wearing swinger, add visual thrills to the band’s musical mastery. A classically trained musician, Pellegrino began dancing as both expression and rebellion. What Beyoncé loved is now available to all.
“Horn players, especially baritone saxophone players, look so lame on stage!” Pellegrino notes. “I just watched an NBA half-time show and this band’s horn players were killing my eyes. I wondered ‘why does the horn have to be such a lame instrument visually?’ I began dancing in the subway and people loved it. I realized that I had been brainwashed, all my teachers telling me not to move. I’d been told that was improper technique, but that became my key to success.”
Too Many Zooz’s songs are marvels of simplicity born of musical complexity. Pellegrino, Doe, and King of Sludge condense multiple–what might be considered clashing styles–into a riveting jackhammer brew. King of Sludge’s staccato eighth-note rhythms performed on a unique bass drum/cowbell/jamblock/cymbal setup forms the music’s gritty rhythmic bed. Matt Doe’s trumpet is a constant, providing melody and harmony, while Leo Pelligrino’s saxophone follows an unusual path before blasting into solo revelry. A question as to why Matt never solos results in unexpected insight.
“Not to sound existential,” Matt offers, “but I don’t like using standardized terms when describing our music. We’re all doing things that are out of the ordinary for our instruments and our roles. Leo plays saxophone but in all reality he’s almost playing the role of a bass player, providing the bass sound you would hear in electronic music. I provide the top line, the synth sound you would hear in a dance track. When Leo solos, it’s like a breakdown when the bass is the featured element of the band. Leo is a huge part of our sound and presence. I don’t solo per se, but I am playing nearly the entire show. It doesn’t make sense for me to play more!”
TMZ’s seeds were formed when Indiana native King of Sludge (schooled in many African styles by native African masters), and Boston-born Pellegrino played in an earlier subway busking band, Drumadics. Fellow Manhattan School of Music classmate and Pittsburgh native Doe played in various ensembles with Pellegrino, the threesome eventually busking together by chance—their chemistry sparking an instant bond.
“Our music is a democracy,” Doe says. “From the start, we were all bouncing off each other, listening to each other and not thinking too much.”
TMZ have collaborated with Galatic, Kreayshawn, Jerry “Wonda” Duplessis, and, of course, Beyoncé, whose CMA’s performance provided TMZ with great inspiration.
“Knowing that Beyoncé enjoys our music on her own time?” ponders King of Sludge. “That’s a great thing.”
What’s next for TMZ? The trio’s upcoming EP will feature a rawer sound, the group returning to their original roots, and most likely, their original 14th Street subway station.
“When we began, it was basic, just trumpet, saxophone and drums,” Leo says. “No production on our first EP then we added production and guests and vocalists on Subway Gawdz. This next EP is back to our roots.”
“We try to use the studio in the same way we use the subway,” King of Sludge says. “The subway has limits but the studio doesn’t. We use what we can to be creative in the studio. There’s no limits on what we do.”
Does TMZ recommend the subway path to stardom?
“The subway, then videos and Beyoncé helped propel our popularity,” Matt says. “The subway is a great promotional vehicle. There’s nowhere else that you can reach such a wide demographic. If you want to get out and be seen and up your numbers, go to the subway. That’s always part of our business plan.”