Sean Nowell has firmly established his credentials as a stolid post-bop saxophonist with a string of discs stretching back to 2006, but he opens The Kung-Fu Masters by covering Jimi Hendrix (a resplendent rendition of the sinuous classic, “Crosstown Traffic”) and devotes the liner notes to a single quote from martial artist Bruce Lee that begins, “There are no limits.” The adjoining photo of Nowell — left leg and hand poised for a karate kick and chop, right hand cradling his tenor sax, sunglasses on, neck muscles tensed, mouth yelling — undercuts his industrial-strength alter ego just a smidge with good humor, and so does the music. The Kung-Fu Masters is named after a septet Nowell has led since 2009, long enough to flex an impressively muscular mix of jazz, funk, rock and electronic, leavened with an appealing dab of carefree fun.
The Hendrix and Bruce Lee references help program the wayback machine to the ’60s and ’70s. Sure, there are some blipping riffs and pronounced effects, especially from Nowell’s longtime cohort (and Posi-Tone label mate), keyboardist Art Hirahara. But the bulk of the tracks on Kung Fu feature three-part horn arrangements (with ace bop trombonist Michael Dease and trumpeter Brad Mason joining Nowell) that are taut like a traveling blues revue or, more often, greasy and groove-oriented like the Crusaders, Bohannon, or the JBs. Throw in Adam Klipple’s fatback organ and the powerhouse funk-rock rhythm section (drummer Marko Djordjevic and bassist Evan Marien) and you’ve got music that spits and sizzles on the grill.
The talented, practiced band and Nowell’s dynamic arrangements rescue The Kung-Fu Masters from retro cliché. Check the way all seven members are deployed on the snaky funk, replete with a four-note vamp played rondo style, on “In the Shikshteesh,” the Shaft-on-the-Autobahn dislocation of “The Outside World,” the slingshot-groove skirmishing between the horns and the keys on “The 55th Chamber,” and the porridge of textures that comprise “Uncrumpable.” On The Kung-Fu Masters, Sean Nowell gets back to his bad self.