Sean Nowell is a name I remember from a couple of years ago when sizing up his last album Stockholm Swingin’ (2011), a snappy live encounter of solid, straight ahead jazz performed by both American and Swedish musicians in a small combo band. The Kung-Fu Masters is an about face from the trad direction Nowell went on Stockholm, propagating instead a brand of funk-jazz with one foot far in the past and another one far in the future. But other than the fact that it’s jazz, it could hardly be stylistically farther apart from the European date.
Though it’s a bit of a shock going from the prior record to the current one, followers of this tenor saxophonist, composer and bandleader were probably not surprised at all. Nowell’s career has always careened from one corner of jazz to another, and he’d already been trying out the new style performing with his Kung-Fu Masters band in local NYC clubs. Nowell’s brand of funky jazz-rock generally pits the electric keyboards of Art Hirahara and Adam Klipple along with electric bassist Even Marien and drummer Marko Djordjevic against the formidable horn section of Nowell, trombonist Michael Dease and trumpet player Brad Mason. I describe it as two opposing forces because that rhythm section is often moving between 70s style fusion and 21st century electronica while the horn section roots itself firmly in the soulful hard bop tradition of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers or the 60s version of the Jazz Crusaders. Even when those horns are run through effects pedals.
When you think about it, amping up the brass is old school,; Eddie Harris was electrifying his sax way back when in ’67 and Nowell’s plugged in sax goes great with the ’68 hit “Crosstown Traffic” that begins the album, as the bank o’ horns fill up the huge space that Hendrix’s guitar originally filled. And then for good measure, an original, dizzying horn figure is tagged on the end.
Nowell’s own tunes, which make up the rest of the fare on The Kung-Fu Masters, often get even more adventurous than that, but he stubbornly maintains his grip on the subtleties, spontaneity and swing of jazz. “In The Shikshteesh” has a chugging groove of its own, and Dease, whose made his name as a straight ahead trombonist of the highest order, is able to negotiate that groove like a champ. Nowell’s sax is modified to sound like an accordion, alternately playing an unadorned sax like Michael Brecker. That mutated chord sax shows up again on “Mantis Style” a song with knotty progressions locked in with knotty rhythms and a spunky Rhodes solo. On the rambunctious “Can Do Man,” Dease and Mason get their horns tricked up with circuitry, too, in a jerky ride through a multitude of motifs, from JB sweaty funk to a smooth slow funk vibe and spacey groove where Nowell and Dease’s alien horns engage in call and response.
The album contains some jazztronica moments, too as the one that begins “The 55th Chamber,” but theB3 and the horns are all old school funk. “Uncrumplable” boasts an electronics video arcade groove, complete with a Pac man synth solo. And still, it’s Dease’s bubbling trombone solo that’s the track’s highlight. A classic rock bass line form the basis for “Song Of The Southland” a song that wouldn’t be out of place on a 70s rock-jazz record. Horns seem to fly around Marien’s vamp, and the organ swells in and out to modulate the undercurrent of harmony. Mason’s searching and soaring trumpet solo tops it off.
Following up on such a friendly, by-the-book mainstream jazz with this attitude filled electric funk-jazz record might have caused my ears to do a double-take, but it became clear that Sean Nowell knew what he was doing, because he did it so well. Yes, from a guy (and a record label) who can make such good acoustic modern jazz records is one of the better electric fusion records to come out so far this year.