When jazz tries to get rockish, the result is too often an embarrassing cross between oversimplifed jazz and awkwardly non-idiomatic rock. But when jazz tries to get funky, the results are often much better. Case in point: this adventurous but tight septet date led by saxophonist Sean Nowell, who writes and arranges with a great sense of voicing and structure but who can also take things out in exhilarating style when called upon to do so. The compositions are all Nowell originals except for a version of Jimi Hendrix’s “Crosstown Traffic,” and not only are they funky, but they also often rock hard–believe it or not.
Track review of “Mantis Style”
New York City-based saxophonist Sean Nowell has found a home with the increasingly prominent West Coast modern jazz record label, Posi-Tone Records. His fourth release highlights the turbo-powered acoustic-electric band, The Kung-Fu Masters. Word has it that the ensemble has been creating a buzz in The Big Apple, and in recent times has acted like a jazz collective, featuring guest spots by formidable players such as guitaristMike Stern and trumpeter Jeremy Pelt. Now that Nowell has firmed-up the core band, let us hope that this high quality album signifies the beginning of a lengthy recording cycle. Simply put, this unit knocks the living daylights out of conventional jazz-funk stylizations.
“Mantis Style” is an example of the ensemble’s vast weaponry. Marked by difficult super-funk time signatures and regimented unison lines, either keyboardist Art Hirahara or Adam Klipple calm the waters by rewinding the intensity with supple electric piano phrasings then up the ante, summoning the frontline to reenergize the proceedings. Think of James Brown’s JB Horns kicking matters into submission via a rigorously technical arrangement, shadowed by punchy accents and snappy choruses. With some push and pull, the musicians restate the primary theme towards the finale as trombonist Michael Dease navigates the perimeter while offering subtle contrasts. Here and throughout, Nowell and associates dish out a sweltering modus operandi with an irrefutable vengeance.
Personnel: Sean Nowell: tenor saxophone; Brad Mason: trumpet; Michael Dease: trombone; Art Hirahara: keyboards; Adam Klipple: organ, keyboards; Evan Marien: bass; Marko Djordjevic: drums.
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.
Breath taking electric jazz/funk with the sax man giving as much time to the B3 as he does to his own axe. Kicking it with a funked up treatment that turns Hendrix on his head, the good vibes continue to flow in non-stop fashion as the party rolls on and gate crashers try to work their way in. A super sonic stew that really gets the blood flowing, Nowell finds himself on surer footing with each new release. A tasty, smoking winner throughout.
Sean Nowell is another fine example of the high level of artistry to come out of the Posi-Tone stable of artists. I was fortunate enough to have Sean field some questions for us on his latest release and jazz in general.
Stockholm Swingin’ does just that…It swing hard! Can you tell us more about the record?
S.N. – “Stockholm Swingin’ began when guitarist Fredrik Olsson decided to bring 15 year old pianist Leo Lindberg to New York for the first time. Fredrik reached out to drummer Joe Abba, an old college friend and longtime cohort of mine, to set up a jam session with some of his favorite musicians and much fun was had by all. This inspired Fredrik to apply for a travel grant from the Swedish Arts Council for Joe and I to fly to Sweden to make a 14 day tour. With the addition of acoustic bassist Lars Ekman, we piled into the van, braved the ice and moose, and were met with enthusiastic ovations across the Swedish countryside. Stockholm Swingin’ represents a snapshot of the group at the end of the tour performing at the world renowned Glenn Miller Cafe in Stockholm. Since then, the group has done another even more successful tour of Sweden and 2 tours of NYC to consistently delighted audiences.
Stockholm Swingin’ was recorded over two nights at the Glenn Miller Cafe in Stockholm. It’s a great sounding, intimate room with lots of energy exchange with the audience. The people of Sweden are really psyched to hear killing swinging!”
The Seeker is another high octane foot to the floor type release. Your tone has a nice blues inflection that some cats work their entire career for and can never find. Being from Birmingham (I’m from Ky.), do you think your regional upbringing played a significant roll in your finding your voice?
S.N. – “I grew up singing in the Southern Baptist Church and even attended Samford, a Southern Baptist University for two years before learning about jazz at Berklee College of Music. It’s been extremely valuable to me to grow up around people screaming the blues through their voice, guitars, horns, and drums…I learned how to swing from the old guys at the late night jam sessions in rough parts of Birmingham, Al. and have worked to keep that spirit as I’ve added more complexities that I’ve discovered here in NYC and through my world travels. I truly believe that keeping your eyes and ears open is the key to the real essence of jazz.”
You received your B.A. from what I call “Jazz U.” (Berklee) and your M.A. from Manhattan which are arguably the two finest schools to study jazz here in the United States. How tough is the competition and do you think some of the younger cats play with a little more academia than passion?
S.N. – “Berklee was easily the best music school I’ve ever experienced. When I was there it was around 65% non-North American and most of those people were the best in their country and had been in jazz conservatory since they were 15. Suffice to say that I had quite a lot of ground to cover as I never had any proper schooling in jazz theory or jazz composition (which is why I majored in it). There were 3000 music students there at the time and around 350 of those were sax players. I started out way behind and ended up toward the up middle of the bunch. Many guys go there when they already sound great to just refine their craft and meet people. I was definitely there to learn. I graduated high school knowing 3 major scales and 2 blues scales and had the most uneven technique and pinched sound you’ve ever hear. When I was at Samford, I had to basically relearn how to play Alto Sax through studying classical music. I’ve not had as straight a path down this road as I would have liked to, but it’s given me the unique experiences to draw from that informs my musical taste and compositional style to this day.
Brandford Marsalis said of Berklee and I’ll paraphrase – “yeah the school is o.k. but it’s close to New York where I can grab great gigs on the weekend otherwise its not really worth most peoples time. Is real swing taking a back seat to a more academic approach from some of the younger players that are starting to emerge on the scene?
S.N. – “Swinging hard never goes out of style. As a matter of fact, doing anything on a high level with a warm inviting spirit never goes out of style. My favorite compliment to receive from audience members is “I have no idea what you guys are doing, but it makes me feel good!” The audience always knows what’s good. If it’s too self serving, they will be sort of quiet and indifferent. If it’s hitting, they go through the roof. Also if little kids are dancing all over the place and losing their minds, you know your delivering the goods.”
More passion, less academia?
S.N. -“I like to ride the razors edge of both. To quote my own bio: “Sean Nowell is a tenor saxophonist and composer from Birmingham, Alabama steeped in the southern traditions of blues, gospel, jazz and funk fused with complex harmonic and world rhythm concepts that permeate the music of New York City.” I feel like it’s a necessity to have all of it up in your playing and composing. I like to write infectious (sometimes complex) grooves, strong singable melodies and colorful harmonies. I feel like a lot of guys try to be arbitrarily complicated in their playing and writing. I just simply write what I sing.”
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.