When Free Jazz Gets Locked Up in a Groove...
Defunkt is one of those bands that sound incredible in theory, and rather disappointing in practice. In the early ‘80s, Joe and Byron Bowie (brothers of famed jazz trumpeter Lester Bowie) combined to form an outfit that would combine the tight grooves of funk with the freedom of experimental jazz. The resulting outfit, Defunkt, was an attempt to pull jazz-funk fusion away from the freeze-dried inanities of the emerging smooth jazz movement and create something both commercially viable and artistically fulfilling. With this latest Rykodisc release, pairing up Defunkt’s first two albums with added bonus tracks, the band’s early struggles and occasionally breakthroughs are given equal time, revealing a band attempting to create a type of music that may have been impossible to create.
Defunkt, the band’s debut, probably reveals Defunkt’s main flaw: its music often seems far more academic than organic. On many of its tracks, it seems like the band is fighting its own inclinations in order to sound more like a traditional funk band, reining in its more freeflowing nature in the name of the groove. It doesn’t feel like the band is completely dedicated to the music it’s performing. The musicians sound as if they are simply going through the motions, like a major label artist fallen on hard times and forced to work as a covers band in a bar.
This fault might not be with the band, who are all talented musicians, but in the songwriting itself. Witness a song like “Strangling Me with Your Love”, the supposed single on the album, which takes an absolutely banal funk riff and extends it beyond its expiration break, all-the-while refusing to pursue any of the jazzy variations that present themselves throughout the course of the song. Even worse are the anemic vocals, and horrendous lyrics that try to combine love with violence, and lines like “I made love to a photocopy”, that suggest that the band may have worked better as a strictly instrumental unit. With regards to some of these jazz-tinged funk sing-a-longs, I am reminded of the words of my friend Jeremy, “I get what they’re trying to do, but I’m not sure what they’re trying to do is even possible.”
Interestingly, the best songs on Defunkt, are the ones they crib from other sources. “In the Good Times” takes on the immortal “Good Times” riff, while “Defunkt” finds the band adapting the P-Funk anthem to suit its own purposes, while “Thermonuclear Sweat” is, as one would guess, a fission-filled update on James Brown’s “Cold Sweat”. While with other acts this lack of originality would be a minus, these tracks only point to the fact that Defunkt’s skills are less about creating grooves but rather radically reworking them. With these three tracks, Defunkt take on a recognizable trope and riff on them like, well, the jazz band that they really are rather than the funk band that they’re trying to be.
To be fair, they do achieve an admirable balance between jazz exploration and lockstep funk grooves on the bonus track, “Razor’s Edge”, a 10-minute exploration of cocaine addiction, that manages to keep a genuine danceable rhythm going as the musicians (including a guest spot from Lester himself) take their opportunities to take the song on another plane. In this 10-minute track, possibly the finest moment on this two-disc collection, Defunkt show that the “perfect synthesis” that they attempted on their debut album is achievable (albeit difficult).
Still, Thermonuclear Sweat, the follow up, is a better, tighter album, if not quite as bold in its intents, because the band follows their jazz instincts more often than not. Defunkt, which is joined by Vernon Reid whose recognizable riffage provides some of the best soloing on the album, is at its best when it isn’t hampered by cookie-cutter grooves and is allowed to explore. Thermonuclear Sweat still contains some funk tracks, but the band feels more comfortable, “I Tried to Live Alone” is the type of flat-out party starter that is missing from the lackluster Defunkt. However, the band mixes up with some straight jazz pieces like “Cocktail Hour (Blue Bossa)” and “Big Bird (Au Private)”, which makes it a more varied listening experience, capturing the sheer range of this talented band. Maybe the album works better for the simple fact that the band doesn’t stretch out songs just for the sake of stretching out songs. When the band runs out of ways to stretch materials, it ends the song rather than risking boring the audience, a marked difference between this album and its predecessor.
After all, there’s enough time to stretch out during their live performances, which constitute the bulk of Defunkt‘s bonus tracks (“Razor’s Edge” notwithstanding). While they may have been a fun band to hear live, these recordings fail to prove that Defunkt were a must-see musical experience. In fact the repetitive, uninteresting live takes on “Strangling You with My Love” and “In the Good Times” do more harm to Defunkt than good, acting as an encore that goes on for longer than actually desired, having the listener wonder at what point is it no longer impolite to slip out the door.
Ultimately, having both of these albums forced together seems a bit irritating. The people who would adore Defunkt would be cool on the more jazz-centric Thermonuclear Sweat (this group includes, oddly enough, the gentleman writing the liner notes who almost shrugs off the band’s second album). Vice-versa, those who would prefer Thermonuclear Sweat would rarely listen to the first album. It would have been nice for Rykodisc to provide separate issues. As it stands, this double disc set provides a good introduction to an underappreciated band that was as much ahead of itself as it was ahead of the times.