So it turns out in the 80’s painter, poet, author, inventor and experimenter Brion Gysin cut a weirdo funk album in Paris. You might know Gysin from his work with William Burroughs, inventing the cut up technique, ‘the Dreammachine’, and he even opened a restaurant in Tangier’s in the 1950’s famously booking The Master Musicians of Joujouka and introducing the tiny village to the world.
Gysin doesn’t so much sing as intone, dancing around the taut funky grooves with his highly distinctive voice. It feels like a spoken word performance, a stripped down poetry recital, or perhaps the rantings of a madman. It’s pretty much all of the above, and one of the strangest funk albums you’ll ever hear. The pairing of a literary icon and artist with cosmopolitan Parisian funk is probably not what you would immediately expect – though given how well travelled he was, it makes a peculiar kind of sense.
He’s joined on one piece by jazz/world legend Don Cherry (pocket trumpet), who cut a similarly funky Parisian album around the same time. This was produced by Frenchman Ramuntcho Matta, alongside Senegalese drummer Prosper Niang (Xalam), Yann Le Ker on bass (from the group Modern Guy) and Frederic Cousseau on drums (from Suicide Romeo), as well as Elli Medeiros, Lizzy Mercier Descloux, Caroline Loeb. They’re all gun musicians. The music is tight – allowing Gysin to be loose, playing with repetition, rhythms and expectation.
This kind of avant world funk is very much of it’s own time and place, and that’s what makes it so great. It’s weird, inventive; it may not even be music. Thematically, as if the title Junk doesn’t immediately give it away, it exists alongside the world of vices celebrated by his friend Burroughs – though you could never imagine Burroughs liking this music. “Stop smoking? You’re joking,” Gysin rasps through hackneyed coughs, playing around with basic almost childish rhymes on ‘Stop Smoking’. Elsewhere he’s talking about ‘kicking that habit’ – I wonder what that might refer to? ‘Kick it, kick it, kick it,’ he offers sounding like every other musical hype machine, before offering ‘kick that habit,’ and now its something else. Cherry’s soulful pocket trumpet circles around him as Gysin plays around with the word ‘Kick’, now sounding more like an internal monologue that anything else, half muttering, less a hype man than a slightly confused soul searching for meaning or meanings in the word. I’ve never heard anyone approach singing, or being a front man like this.
Gysin comes across as a weird jester, playful, at one moment screeching like a baboon the next, you’re never quite sure what you are going to get. It’s definitely a curio, yet the music is ridiculously good. There are three versions of ‘Kick’ (which featuring Don Cherry are pure joy – particularly the instrumental), and two versions of ‘Stop Smoking’ – including one with really beautiful female vocals for Gysin to duet with – well kind’ve. The multiple versions don’t feel excessive, primarily because this session is such a creative exercise, and because Gysin is a relatively sparse non-singer, so when you recognise the song, it feels like visiting an old friend who’s aged a little bit since you last met.
Like much of Gysin’s art Junk is highly idiosyncratic, requiring you to suspend your expectations at the door. While we expected the results to be weird, we never expected it to be this funky and fun.