JAMES CHANCE AND THE CONTORTIONS, January 26, 2018, El Cortez, Brooklyn NY
by John Pietaro
James Chance (right) with two Contortions, El Cortez, Brooklyn NY (photo by John Pietaro)
If Dada represented the destruction of art as we knew it during the first World War, then No Wave was its latter-century counterpart, and James Chance our own Marcel Duchamp. Cabaret Voltaire may be lost but bits of it are apparently sprinkled on the streets of Bushwick.
Brooklyn’s El Cortez was filled with an audience in anticipation of the No Wave auter’s first New York performance billed as James Chance and the Contortions in many years. Chance experienced a rush of attention early on when, in 1978, his band was heard on the iconic album ‘No New York’. In the decades since, he survived a myriad of turbulence, starting with the 1981 death of significant other Anya Phillips as well as a series of professional disappointments. Through it all, he’s managed to release music which foresaw the rise of the avant-punk movement, embraced free jazz and formulated a brand of funk weaned on Ornette Coleman’s Prime Time that pointed the way forward for Defunkt. He garnered attention with onstage contorted dance moves, but more so, with the unique practice of slapping audience members braving the front row. Chance would later say that his moderate violence was but a means to awaken the crowd, but some responses to this saw the outbreak of throw-down fisticuffs, bloody noses and busted chops. But he kept playing, regardless of the wounds. Tours in the 1980s and ‘90s included noted members of Ornette Coleman’s coveted circle in a reformulated Contortions; here Chance was able to fully realize his vision in a way impossible with the original band. Regular European gigs led to a second home in Paris where he increasingly came to spend most of his days. Even there, the music was permeated by various periods of silence.
Adding to the excitement at El Cortez was an opening act of note: Martin Bisi, founder and producer of Material. While Chance was subject to the punk ghetto, Material became downtown darlings in the arts community, then Bisi scored big by producing Herbie Hancock’s massive hit “Rockit”. The house appeared well versed in his lore and filled the front area, rollicking to the raw electronics, digital delays and Bisi vocals run through effects. By the time this explosive set ended, all were ready for the main attraction (a full review of Bisi’s set can be found in an upcoming column by this writer).
As club staff re-set the stage, deliciously edgy ‘80s sounds tore through the PA, up from out of the time and space underground. The already crowded house began packing tightly. With nowhere to leave coats, audience members either wore them or held onto the bulky winter wear, and within moments the area anywhere near the stage was inflamed with body heat and anticipation. The thickening crowd mixed hipster youth with 60- and 50-somethings old enough to recall when Ford told New York to Drop Dead. Contortions, as the case may be, were up onstage prepping: Richard Dworkin, Chance’s talented drummer since ‘85 (also a founder of the Microscopic Septet), tenor saxophonist/keyboard player Robert Aaron who has also been a long-time member, and a truly swinging trumpeter that may or may not have been Mac Gollehon who’d added powerful lead lines and solos to Chance’s latest album. Most unfortunately, the band's bassist canceled with scant notice.
The leader walked toward the stage, head angled downward with his signature pompadour ever present, though a bit worse for the wear. A pinkish sport jacket hung a bit uncomfortably over a gappy green shirt, and, characteristically, he acknowledged no one in the crowd. After wriggling to the front, Chance made his way onstage and sans any fanfare the band kicked into a Latin-tinged dance piece. Chance, walking the very edge of the stage, offered just a hint of the spastic-styled dancing he’d crafted years prior. But as the piece throbbed and pulsated, it became clear that, though not lip-syncing, the band was playing along with its own recorded instrumental tracks. This practice lasted for several numbers during which Chance crooned in a voice matured to somewhere between David Johansen and Tom Waits.
Once the recorded tracks were dropped, the absence of a bassist and guitarist became all too obvious. Aaron moved to the keyboard but stood shakily before rapidly declining into overt staggering and stumbling. As Chance exchanged his alto for a seat at the keyboard, he painstakingly tried to continue the performance. But the spectacle of a teetering band member under some heavy influence, unable to play anything, was all too obvious. Such adverse conditions might have driven other performers to simply end the gig, but this leader’s skin was well thickened by life on the burnt-out, abandoned Lower East Side of old. As a member of the club’s staff struggled to keep Aaron safely in a chair, Chance attempted to draw the audience’s attention back to his performance. “I’d like to play my favorite song from 1962 when I was nine years old”, he said as the band cast a deconstruction of “I Left My Heart in San Francisco”, riddled with broken rhythms, inadvertent shifts of meter, and discordant harmonies. The piece was generally unrecognizable but very No Wave in both reach and spirit.
The music continued as the felled saxophonist lay crumpled in a corner of the stage. Suddenly, an old biker-type, all wooly grey beard and leather, pushed through the thicket, shouting: “Get outta my way, I’ve gotta get him---ROBERT! ARE YA ALRIGHT?!” The trio kept playing, sort of, as the harried club employee now attempted to hold back Hell’s Aged. Gruff shouts of “Lemme through!” over-powered the band and then after telling someone to hold his cane (really), the big ex-biker and a pair of friends stumbled onstage and tried fruitlessly to lift Aaron as he fought his way back to his feet---all this as Chance was playing a solo alto piece. The performance came to an obvious conclusion as Aaron, in a state of apparent blind drunkenness, ham-fisted the keyboard before Chance walked over and tore the cable out of the instrument angrily. A woman, heard from within the audience, shouted “That did it, we’re out of here” as the band looked away.
It can be said that this Contortions appearance was simply James Chance delving further into the absurdist realm than any of the earlier slap-fests could have achieved. If so, then the prone Robert Aaron served as the embodiment of Duchamp’s “Fountain” sculpture. No Wave, like Dada, was born of struggle, a creative opposition to nationalism, bias and violence. Admirable, but in the destruction of art as we know it, the populace is left with a painful emptiness that would leave us all staggering.