Joseph Bowie is one of rock music’s most intriguing anomalies. He embodies the spirits of many musical predecessors, ranging from Ornette Coleman and James Brown to Joe Strummer. Yet, he remains an entirely separate and distinctive entity altogether. On stage, Bowie’s powers are undeniable. He is a wild, explosive, almost uncontrollable force that pushes sound and movement to its most uncomfortable extremes. That he does it with such liquid-finesse makes it seems like the work of musical hoodoo. As frontman of the punk-funk jazz outfit Defunkt (a rotating collective over the past four decades, with Bowie the front-and-center constant), Bowie has orchestrated works constructed with the intricacies of jazz, charged with the muscular pump of rock and executed with punk’s ferocity.
Since their proper introduction to audiences in 1980 with their eponymous debut, Defunkt has been an underground New York favourite. Bowie, often a sharply-dressed and persuasively suave presence onstage, can work a room with fever-pitched intensity. His early days found him consorting with New York’s No Wave elite, including Jean-Michel Basquiat, Blondie, Kid Creole, and John Lurie.
Born into a musical family (his late brother is famed jazz trumpeter Lester Bowie, who co-founded Art Ensemble of Chicago), Bowie had already cut his teeth on a number of projects in the ’70s. His recordings with jazz musician Oliver Lake (best-known for his works with collectives Black Artists Group and World Saxophone Quartet) yielded results that illustrated Bowie’s discipline as a musician. Their lone album together, Joseph Bowie / Oliver Lake (1976), is spare, with lines of sound scribbled on mainly the trombone and saxophone over a spacious backdrop. Bowie’s playing is controlled, but you can hear the fermenting imagination that would be exercised in future projects.
Bowie’s most important break came with the emergence of New York’s punk scene, later referred to as the No Wave movement. Establishing a musical camaraderie with James Chance, leader of the agit-punk-funk band James Chance and the Contortions, the trombonist now had the platform to finally unleash a creative fury that allowed his talents to rub uncomfortably against the crude improvisations of punk. James Chance and the Contortions are notable for their wry, nervy brand of funk as well as their frontman’s volatile onstage behavior. As a member of the horn section in the Contortions, Bowie was learning the art of happenstance and, always one to make an opportunity out of the freely flowing creative energy, he initiated the band’s second inception as James White and the Blacks.
Bowie’s brief dalliances with the Blacks merely bridged his experience with what was to come with Defunkt. This natural progression saw the trombonist/singer induce yet another shift in the No Wave movement with a hybridized brand of punk-rock, jazz, and funk. Harder and more aggressive than their like-minded contemporaries the Lounge Lizards (featuring John Lurie), Defunkt was a stepping-out band that demanded people’s attention and movement. Their self-titled debut explored a pop gamut of loose, stretchy funk, accents of electronic noise, and the ever-present danger of Bowie’s assaultive trombone.
Defunkt (1980) thrilled audiences, though not enough of them; the band remained an edgy curio on the margins of success. Bowie et al. continued to promote their brand of highly-charged funk with a series of impressive live shows that took them across the US and Europe.
For their sophomore release, Thermonuclear Sweat (1982), the band upped the ante and set the funk on fire. The rhythms here are tighter, the grooves taut with tension, and the jazz lines more mercurial. Bowie tests his grounds with braver autonomy, daring socio-political queries on the likes of “Illusion”, proving that while it is his intention that listeners have a good time, he also wants them to have plenty of gristle to chew on.
Working the quieter end of the spectrum, the album also produces far more romantic designs, such as “Cocktail Hour (Blue Bossa)”, a midtempo sway that gives Bowie’s supple trombone playing the full floor. Not unlike the band’s previous effort, Thermonuclear Sweat was a crowd-pleaser and a critics’ choice but did little to bother the charts.
A long hiatus from the music industry found Bowie in the Caribbean. Tired of industry hassles and looking to sober up from a drug habit, the young musician found a day job as a waiter while discovering new ventures in Buddhism and track and field sports. In 1988, six years following their sophomore release, Defunkt returned with In America.
Smoldering like molten lava and intensely funky, In America stands as one Defunkt’s most volatile efforts. On their third LP, the band revs up the guitars to do serious battle with the horn section. Crushing numbers like “Smooth Love”, with its midtempo squall of screaming guitars and lacerating horns, and “Change”, a hip-hop swing of funk-rock, signal a turn that reveals a band at the height of their powers.
The take-no-prisoner approach also exposes the political edge of the album. On the title track, Bowie examines the racial and socio-economic divide in America; Bowie sings of dissension and all its inherent ironies over a walking funk bassline and overlaid samples of news talk. He allows his trombone to speak rhythms over the number like a political commentator. And on “Love You from Afar”, he delivers one of his best vocal performances. Bowie graces the album’s cover shirtless and ripped as if to drive home the point of the band’s new muscular sound, brandishing his trombone like a bazooka as though ready for war.
In 1990, the band stretched their creative abilities for the more varied Heroes. Defunkt’s fourth release is replete with atmospheres spun thick from minor keys, offering far more gentle persuasions than the explosive ruckus that was In America. On “Poise”, they venture into spare, eerie spaces where trumpets mournfully cry and vibraphones accent the terrain with Morricone moodiness. Other numbers mix clever humour with political commentary, such as “Mr. Bond” and “Debatman”, two numbers that respectively borrow from the musical themes of 007 and Batman in ingenious fashion. There are a number of rap-inspired cuts and healthy helpings of funk that round out the album.
For 1992’s Crisis, the band returned to their punk-rock roots, building on the jittery funk of their early albums and the combustible rock n’ roll of In America. Full of skronking jazz, sinewy funk, and sly sensuality, Crisis demonstrated Defunkt’s strengths as a live act. The band is a sight to behold onstage, and the live performances captured Bowie delivering Crisis with fist-pumping bravado. Live shows gave beautiful form to such numbers as the hyperventilating “You Don’t Know” and the jazz-rock jam “Hit Me”. Elsewhere, the band explored more outré realms, as on the beat-poetic jazz of “Next” and “Groove Fak-ed”, a swampy grind of eroto-funk and provocative boho lyricism.
Cum Funky was released in 1993, leaning toward brighter jazz and blues tones. Many numbers, including the title track (featuring a lead vocal by Kelli Sae) are housed in pop structures that give the music a little more radio accessibility. But all the fiery playing (including Bowie’s sirening trombone) is still present, as are the punkishly abrasive guitars.
One World followed in 1995, and this time the band cooled down the fire for more seductive R&B grooves. Defunkt now swayed instead of rocked, and Bowie made special use of his vocals, combining a sort-of beatnik speak with bluesy, throaty croons.
Presently, the band is still active, playing shows whenever the opportunity rises. But much has changed in the musical landscape. Music, in many ways, has been distilled to the flat screens on cell phones, the digital tide bringing revolution to consumerism, and our ways of interacting with entertainment and all its ensuing media. For a band that has thrived on the energy of their live shows, Defunkt find themselves in the precarious position of trying to convey the wealth of their talents in a soundbite or a clip. Their live shows, let it be said, are the stuff of legends.
Bowie and company, however, have continued to plug away. Their latest album Mastervolt is a work that has been put on hold for the last number of years. Originally picked up by a label that left it to languish without any promotional push, Mastervolt was returned to Bowie with full rights. He’s eager to find it a suitable home. The album is the soulful and vivacious affair that all the Defunkt albums are, and it marks yet another chapter in the band’s long, colourful and arduous journey.
After a life’s worth of travels and travails, Bowie has settled in the Netherlands. His drive and enthusiasm are unending, and his belief in the band is resolute. Defunkt’s powers of emotional transmittance are still in effect, and Bowie will continue to happily engage with listeners as long as there is music to share.