Tenor saxophonist Sean Nowell, born in Alabama, educated in Boston and New York, has, over the course of his recording career for Positone Records, shown that he can not only swing but also bring the funk. “The Kung-Fu Masters” is his 4th CD for the Los Angeles, California-based label and it would not be out of place that Nowell and his group display their considerable “chops” and that the music has a real kick.
Bad puns aside, Nowell’s new CD channels the sounds of The Crusaders (circa late 1970s), Chicago and The Headhunters into a most delightful mash-up. With the driving rhythm section of Evan Marien(electric bass) and Marko Djordjevic (drums) plus the twin keyboards of Art Hirahara and Adam Klipple (he doubles on Hammond organ), the front line of Nowell, Brad Mason (trumpet) and Michael Dease (trombone) play music inspired by martial arts, breakdancing and comic books. And this music is quite good fun. With the exception of the explosive opening track, a ripping version of Jimi Hendrix’s “Crosstown Traffic“, Nowell composed and arranged the material. It’s impossible not to snap your fingers to the crackling funk of “The 55th Chamber” and “In the Shikshteesh“, the former riding on Hirahara’s rippling electric piano while the latter features the rich trombone sounds of Dease (one can hear the influence of Crusaders bone-man Wayne Henderson on this track.) Funk oozes out of the speakers on “Song of the Southland“, with the languid melody lines drifting over the keyboard washes, the throbbing bass lines and the “fatback” drums. Klipple’s burbling organ ushers in the handsome layered melody lines of “Prosperity” – the organist (who leads The Drive-by Leslies) takes the only solo and it drips with soulful conviction.
Other highlights include the rambunctious “The Outside World“, the propulsive excitement of “Uncrumplable” and the fiery overdrive of “Can Do Man” that takes the program out, leaving the listener breathless. Through it all, Sean Nowell’s tenor, whether electronically altered (there’s even a bit of “wah-wah”) or clean, leads the charge. He is generous in ceding the spotlight to his fellow players, preferring to blend in with the brass (though he stands on several tracks, including the aptly-titled “For All Intensive Purposes“). If you’re looking to shake off the winter doldrums and just have a good listen, “The Kung-Fu Masters” “kicks out the jams” in fine style.