Top Shelf is the fourth release for longtime conspirators Ken Fowser and Behn Gillece. Their brand of original straight-ahead jazz is heartfelt and swinging with an interesting mix of complexity and accessibility. Gillece’s vibraphone and Fowser’s tenor saxophone playing are equally grounded in the tradition with an aggressive approach to modern sensibilities. Both deliver memorable solos throughout, although tracks such as “Stranded in Elizabeth” and “Unstoppable” stand out with performances that seem especially inspired. Trombonist Michael Dease adds color to the proceedings and demonstrates his virtuosity on the samba “Pequenina.” A strong rhythm section comprised of pianist Steve Einerson, bassist Dezron Douglas and drummer Rodney Green elevates the session to a status that is indeed top shelf.
If, as they say, the third time’s the charm, what does that make the fourth time? If it’s concerning a collaboration by tenor saxophonist Ken Fowser and vibraphonist Behn Gillece, it’s even more so the charm….
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.
Saxophonist Sean Nowell raised some eyebrows last year with an excellent mainstream post-bop jazz album called Stockholm Swinigin’. This new album approaches things from a different direction, leaving the world of buttoned down bop behind to import aspects of fusion, funk and pop into the mix. Along with Nowell on tenor saxophone, the Kung-Fu Masters are: Brad Mason on trumpet, Michael Dease on trombone, Art Hirahara and Adam Klipple on keyboards, Evan Marien on bass and Marko Djordjevic on drums. Jimi Hendrix’s rock anthem “Crosstown Traffic” is a highlight of the album with the horns replacing the amplified and distorted guitar riffs of the original recording, and the music barrels along at a breakneck pace. “In The Shikshteesh” allows for interesting work from the keyboard players, from synth to electric piano, they frame the sound of the music. There is a cool retro 1970’s funk vibe to “The Outside World” with punchy horns and dirty sounding keyboards conjuring up the grit of a city at the and of a busy day. Fans of the music that the late Donald Byrd recorded with the Mizell Brothers in the 1970’s will be right at home here. Some of the irreverence in the packaging of this disc might be a little misleading. This is not a frivolous album, but a set of music that draws from wildly diverse influences like martial arts movies, comic books and video games to push Nowell’s music into a new and unusual direction. Purists may turn away, but it is their loss, as the group is never disrespectful to the history of jazz but rather looks far afield for inspiration and material, and plays it an accessible and forthright manner. I hope the band has a chance to do some form of multi-media project along these lines, that would be a lot of fun to see.
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.
Diversity in soundscapes with a contemporary twist of flavor and pop. Jazz, funk, jazztronica? No label works perfectly here. The labeling of the music is up to the listener. I hear a myriad of influences from Middle Eastern to British Acid Jazz and beyond. At time the ambient quality one may associate with jazztronica will make an appearance but I do not necessarily this was the specific harmonic path this group was intending to cross. The break down to a pure funk laden jam has Nowell at the very top of his game. Foot to the floor originals, breaking the rules and creating a new energy is indeed pushing the music forward.
The Kung-Fu Masters isn’t simply another album for tenor saxophonist Sean Nowell; it’s the recorded coming out party for a band and concept that he’s been tweaking and promoting for years. Nowell has been field testing this project in New York jazz spots like 55 Bar, and his website contains various recorded performances of the group at the club dating back to 2009, but this marks the first official outing from this forward-thinking beast of a band.
The Kung-Fu Masters marry funk with post-modern jazz and electronica elements to create an offbeat, beat-heavy blend of music that’s brilliantly propelled by drummer Marko Djordjevic. He comes across as a mutated Mike Clark, capable of delivering Headhunters-worthy grooves and imitating the ever-looping beats that serve as the heartbeat for dance floor mixes; he may not be the front-and-center star of this date, but the success of this music rests squarely in his hands.
The rest of the band—which includes two keyboardists, a bassist and two other horns that keep Nowell company in the front line—does a fine job navigating its way through the saxophonist’s music. Bassist Evan Marien is completely in sync with Djordjevic, and keyboardists Art Hirahara and Adam Klipple (who also works the organ) alternate between delivering earthly delights and otherworldly sound bites. The horn section functions together like a modern dance club version of the JBs, nailing tasty riffs into place over the rhythm section, but its members also get the chance to individually break away on occasion and stand apart from the crowd.
Futurism finds its way into most of these pieces, yet the music speaks to the ears of today. Nowell’s electro-acoustic creations skirt normal jazz conventions while fully adhering to the core philosophy of jazz as an all-absorbing, ever-evolving entity. The Kung-Fu Masters seem like a band that would embrace pianist Herbie Hancock and Squarepusher, rather than viewing them as diametrically opposed forces in music. Maybe that makes this jazz for the rave generation or, perhaps, it just marks this as compelling stuff that doesn’t need to be placed into a labeled bin.
Track Listing: Crosstown Traffic; In The Shikshteesh; For All Intensive Purposes; Mantis Style; The Outside World; Prosperity; The 55th Chamber; Uncrumplable; Song Of The Southland; Can Do Man.
Personnel: Sean Nowell: tenor saxophone; Brad Mason: trumpet; Michael Dease: trombone; Art Hirahara: keyboards; Adam Klipple: organ, keyboards; Evan Marien: bass; Marko Djordjevic: drums.