When Kung Fu Bastard debuted five years ago at Twins Jazz, they seemed to be in a perpetual state of flux. (I described them at the time as “an equation in which there is no constant.”) That’s still true, to a degree, on the self-titled debut album by multi-reedist Bobby Muncy and guitarist Anthony Pirog’s experimental jazz quartet. But Kung Fu Bastard’s metamorphoses are organized ones. Put another way, there’s still no constant, but the variables have pretty stable ranges. It’s fascinating, and it’s fun.
Appropriate to its vinyl format, Kung Fu Bastard comprises two distinct halves (not counting the download-only bonus track, the conventional-but-tasty postbop “Luchador”). The first follows the more distinct path: its three tracks placed from most to least weird; or, if you like, least to most accessible. Not to say that the opening “For the Love of Money”—a Pirog/Muncy original, not The O’Jays’—doesn’t have a hook. Indeed, Nathan Kawaller’s throbbing, ominous bass line promptly grabs the ear—and then promptly confuses it with meter-shifting rhythmic distortions. There follows a decidedly un-lyrical melody, then a long collective improvisation.
Muncy’s “It’s A Free Man Who Misses His Home,” on the other hand, does offer percussive, Ornette-esque lyricism and a melodic Ferguson solo. It’s “Nonet,” though, that transcends lyricism and achieves loveliness. It features the lush arrangement (thanks to heavy overdubs, with Ferguson doubling on drums and vibes and Muncy playing tenor, soprano, clarinet, bass clarinet, and flute) of a wistful ballad that’s equal parts Hoagy Carmichael and Hector Berlioz—though Pirog assails a notably darker bridge with a clanging-bell guitar tone. But much of the power comes from a pair of double-time Muncy solos, first on tenor, then on clarinet, with Pirog providing sinister underlines.
If side one travels from point A to point B, side two tends toward Frankenstein-like hybrids of both points. “Anthony’s Last Stand” is a tempestuous but tuneful Muncy composition that gives the tenor man room to munch moodily (while Kawaller and Ferguson subtly undulate) before dissolving into Pirog’s multitrack psychedelia. It’s pointillism, not cacophony—something like a Star Trek sound effects collage—but the spook factor is nonetheless high.
“Prosthaphaeresis 44-16,” meanwhile, trudges into doom metal… if doom metal had EWI and a keytar. (A contrapuntal improv between them is the song’s peak.) “Lullaby for Alice” returns to plainspoken beauty: A duet for tenor sax and acoustic guitar, it very nearly crosses into folk music with Pirog playing folky changes (with his electric providing some pretty solo lines and backgrounds) and Muncy engaging in a colloquial, conversational sort of lyricism.
If anything among all this approaches constancy, it’s Ferguson, whose wicked ride cymbal is uncannily able to mold itself to the performances. (He’s the drama of “Anthony’s Last Stand,” the aggression of “Prosthaphaeresis 44-16.”) More to the point, though, Kung Fu Bastard doesn’t want to be consistent. They want to try on ideas. Why make music that’s the product of a laboratory when the music can be the laboratory?