The New York Times
February 5, 1982, Friday, Late City Final Edition
Section C; Page 29, Column 1; Weekend Desk


JOE BOWIE has been around and back again, playing his trombone behind blues musicians in his native St. Louis, blowing avant-garde jazz in Europe, working as musical director for a popular Chicago soul singer, then plunging into the distinct but sometimes overlapping punk and funk scenes in downtown Manhattan. His band, Defunkt, reflects the diversity of its leader's background and the varied stops he has made along the way. It's as funky as James Brown, and as creatively fractured and extreme as the music of Mr. Bowie's former employer, James Chance, the leader of the Contortions.

Strutting in front of a wickedly tight rhythm section that's playing a mixture of Sly Stone, Jimi Hendrix and mid-70's Miles Davis, Mr. Bowie blows whooping solos on his trombone and sings sharp, cutting lyrics about drug addiction and car accidents and nuclear war. Most of the lyrics were written by his friend Janos Gat, a member of the dissident Hungarian theatrical troupe that runs the Squat Theater. Defunkt recently returned from its third trip to Britain, where the six-piece band has exerted considerable influence on the emerg ingBritish funk scene. Tomorrow night it will perform at the Peppermi nt Lounge, 128 West 45th Street (719-3140), and on Sunday night it wi ll be at the West Bank Cafe, 407 West 42d Street (695-6909). At rehearsal, Joe Bowie took time out to talk about his and Defunkt's odyssey. He made it sound like the most natural thing in the world .

Family of Musicians

The first thing one has to realize about Joseph Bowie is that he is the youngest of three musician brothers, the oldest of whom is Lester Bowie, the celebrated jazz trumpet player and founding member of the Art Ensemble of Chicago. The middle brother, Byron, is a saxophonist who sometimes performs with Defunkt. Growing up in that competitive environment, and being the youngest, Joseph Bowie had to take his music seriously.

''I started playing with blues and soul bands when I was around 15,'' he recalled , ''working in and around St. Louis in those afterhours joints. '' Pretty soon he was working with the big wheels on the circuit, nationally recognized blues men like Albert King and Little Milton. But jazz was in his blood, and in the late 1960's he was a founding member of a St. Louis musicians' collective called the Black Artists' Group . Among the men who worked with that organization were a number of players who would later become leading lights on New York's new jazz scene - among them the saxophonists Oliver Lake and Julius Hemphill, and the drummer Charles (Bobo) Shaw.

The nucleus of the Black Artists' Group went to Paris in the early 70's, but in 1973 Bobo Shaw and Joe Bowie decided to settle in New York City, where they founded a group called the Human Arts Ensemble that played a mixture of free jazz, funk and blues. The La Mama Theater let the group use a small performance space on East Third Street, in the heart of the Lower East Side, and despite the unpromising location, they turned it into one of the hot spots of the emerging loft jazz movement, offering early New York performances by such St. Louis stalwarts as Julius Hemphill and Hamiet Bluiett. These concerts attracted a number of musicians and fans, including a young white saxophonist from the Midwest, James Seigfried, who sometimes stayed to jam with Mr. Bowie and Mr. Shaw.

During the next few years, while Joe Bowie kept busy playing the trombone with the Human Arts Ensemble and a number of other jazz bands, Mr. Seigfried veered from free-form improvising to leading a crazed, intense noise-funk band called the Contortions, which did its own versions of a number of James Brown funk hits as well as songs that Mr. Seigfried had written, wih? such titles as ''Contort Yourself'' and ''Almost Black.'' The Contortions, with Mr. Seigfried performing either as James Chance or James White, became one of the most controversial and talked-about bands on the downtown ''no wave'' scene. In 1978, the British record producer Brian Eno recorded them, along with three other downtown bands , for a groundbreaking album called ''No New York.''

Fronting an All-Black Band

Soon after, Mr. Seigfried decided he wanted to add a horn section to the Contor tions and asked Joe Bowie to put it together. Then Mr. Seigfried let his original Contortions go, and Mr. Bowie began recommending rhythm players he had worked with in St. Louis or met around 1976, when he spent a year and a half in Chicago as musical director for the soul singer Tyrone Davis. Before long, Mr. Seigfriedwas fronting an all-black band, with Mr. Bowie as its leader. In the fall of 1979, the band began opening Mr. Seigfried's performances with its own sets, and coming up with its own material. That was the beginning of Defunkt.

Since then, Defunkt has developed a cult following in New York and a somewhat broader audience in Europe, especially in Britain, where the leading music weekly, New Musical Express, recently put Mr. Bowie on its cover. During Defunkt's early residency at the Squat Thater on 23d Street, Joe Bowie became friendly with Janos Gat, who furnished mordant lyrics for some of Mr. Bowie's tunes. The band made an album for Hannibal Records, followed by a single. ''We're going to keep doing singles,'' Mr. Bowie said, ''because the last one had reasonable success. Who knows ? We might get a hit.''

Defunkt employs a shifting galaxy of horn players, including noted jazz musicians like the saxophonist Frank Lowe and Joe Bowie's brother Lester. ''But there isn't as much freedom in the rhythm section as there is for the horns,'' Mr. Bowie emphasized. ''I like to keep the rhythms tight to give the people something to latch onto. If you listen, you can hear things straight off the jukebox in our music. I've always been an admirer of Ornette Coleman and I like the electric music he's making now. But it's still very intellectual to me. Defunkt is more commercial, I think.''

But Defunkt isn't just another new-funk party band, he stressed. Defunkt has a message. ''We want our songs to be very realistic,'' Mr. Bowie said. ''Defunkt's music isn't some 'hey baby' kind of thing; you can see just by looking around you, at what's happening on t he streets and in the world, that these are not the good times, everything is not all right. We're trying to be messengers, or newscasters broad casting the honest news, te lling everybody to wake up.''

GRAPHIC: Illustrations: Photo of Joe Bowie

Copyright New York Times, 1981


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