Sean Nowell – “The Kung-Fu Masters”


Sean Nowell - "The Kung-Fu Masters" (large)Some albums are just plain fun.  They can be analyzed and contextualized and extrapolated, but when they’re boiled down to their barest, essential element, all that really matters is that it’s joyful music sure to paste a grin on the face of anyone who hears it.

Saxophonist Sean Nowell is offering up just such an album with The Kung-Fu Masters… a modern jazz recording that channels the funk and soul and jazz of the sixties, delivering up an indefatigable exuberance and memorable, catchy tunes.

Thick grooves and unpretentious melodies mark this solid recording.

Your album personnel: Sean Nowell (tenor sax, effects), Brad Mason (trumpet, effects), Mike Dease (trombone), Art Hirahara (Rhodes, clavier, synths), Adam Klipple (organ, synths), Evan Marien (electric bass), and Marko Djordjevic (drums, pads).

The album opens with a version of Jimi Hendrix’s “Crosstown Traffic,” immediately setting the tone of celebration in motion.  Nobody pulls a punch here, but the fight is all in good fun and there isn’t a note delivered in anger.

“In the Shikshteesh” typifies many album tracks… uplifting brass and woodwind sections that often intertwine in thrilling fashion and a deep groove that digs in nice and slow, belied by a tempo that induces dance, not repose.

“The Outside World” maintains the prevailing swagger, but kicks the electronic effects up a notch, giving a nostalgic space-age vibe to the party-time atmosphere.  Nowell tosses out handfuls of electronic effects throughout this album, like confetti into the air, but avoids the trap of letting it become cliche or banal by keeping it leashed in the role of accompaniment to a textured rhythmic palette and a melodic approach that owes as much to its textural ambiguities as its infectious nature.

A track like “Prosperity” provides a good indication that Nowell is down with the concept of Joy as a mutable construct.  Warm harmonies bolster a spry melody, and a song that does nothing to detract from the album’s sunny disposition, yet all the same, provides it with a solemn thoughtfulness.

“Can-Do Man” brings a touch a cabaret to the festivities, with drawled notes, rhythmic bombast, and a cool blue stroll.

An enjoyable aspect of this recording is watching the dance play out between bassist Marien and the various array of electronic effects loosed upon this recording.  The contrast and compatibility between the deep voiced bounce of bass and the high-pitched sizzle and blip of electronic effects makes for an ebb and flow action tough not to fall for.

On keys and organ, Klipple and Hirahara participate in some wild aeronautics, but on a track like “Prosperity,” display a talent at maintaining a fluid motion and imbuing the music with a grace more akin to a soaring flight pattern than a darting one.

On drums, Djordjevic brings a skittish behavior to “Uncrumplable,” setting a tone that gets the electronic blips of effects to fall in line, and then getting Dease’s trombone to mimic the delivery with notes delivered with brevity and speed.  In truth, Djordjevic is probably manipulating more of this album than he’s letting on.  Ultimately it’s Nowell who plays the role of Oz, but there’s a certain power attached to the man who holds the strings that pull the curtain aside, and there are moments throughout this album that hint at Djordjevic assuming that role.

The main line of sax, trumpet, and trombone of Nowell, Mason, and Dease each find time to kick back and solo over the top of a wild tapestry of sound, but it’s the way they weave about one another, creating intricate displays of musicianship without forgetting to harmonize, that provides the real treat of the collaboration.

Plenty here to like, and plenty here to smile about.  Pretty much from the opening statement, I knew I’d have fun listening to this album, and it did not fail to deliver on that promise.  And now, months after first hearing it, it continues to deliver on that promise.

Released on the Posi-Tone Records label.

Jazz from NYC.

Available at eMusic.  Available at Amazon: CD | MP3


As far as the album title and cover image, the following quote is taken from Sean Nowell’s site…

Our goal is to unite humanity through positive expressions of the human spirit by combining Martial Arts, Jazz/Funk Music, Breakdancing, and Video Projection into a family friendly show that is a Celebration of Sonic and Physical Movement. We utilize cutting edge Video Artistry, a top notch 7 piece Jazz/Funk Band, incredibly athletic Breakdancers, and extraordinary Martial Artists ranging from Taekwondo to Wushu to Capoeira to showcase the similarities of human creative expression through these four different art forms simultaneously. Eventually this show will tour the world featuring local Breakdancers and Kung-Fu artists celebrating the similarities of our different cultures and facilitating true cultural exchange.

Figured maybe some of you would be curious.  That should probably answer most of the general questions.  Some nifty videos on Nowell’s site will give you a better sense of how it all shakes out in a live setting.  He also has a site dedicated to the Kung-Fu Masters project, which can be found at this LINK.