Monday, January 29, 2018

Performance review: James Chance & the Contortions, Brooklyn NY, Jan 26, 2018

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.

Thursday, January 25, 2018


By John Pietaro

Photo courtesy of Sylvia Black

“I didn’t know there were two 7 o’clocks”. Forgive the use of an old Pearl Bailey line in response to a morning record date, but it’s all too appropriate here. As per a Facebook event page, the January 15 performance of Lydia Lunch at City Winery was running from 4PM to 7PM. This time slot seemed as wrong for Ms. Lunch as the early call did for Ms. Bailey, but I scheduled my day around seeing the show and scoring even a brief interview. The no wave maven, underground poet, caster of downtown’s guttural cry was a must-see. Carrying my critic’s journal book, I left Brooklyn extra early and made my way into Lower Manhattan.

City Vineyard sits on a precipice at the edge of the Hudson River, a direct target for the gusts blowing vigorously off the water. Entering the club, the priceless water view so welcome on a summer evening seemed an ominous reminder of winter on West Street. But the cold dissipated as Lydia’s opening act, Sylvia Black, engaged in her sound check. The throbbing of her electric bass emoted throughout the room, a thick, droning line plucked percussively, cutting through spare harmonies and rhythm like a hot knife through ash. The bassist’s eyes were shut tightly as guitarist Avi Bortnick carefully dropped open, ringing chords into the sonic spaces, then alternately played unison with the bassline to create a massive soundscape. Drummer Aaron Johnson, making due with just snare drum with brushes and a conga drum on the tight stage, painted the air with a swirling shimmer, locking the pulsations subtly but with a firm solidity. Ms. Black leaned into the microphone with a deep audible breath, releasing a smoky alto laden with reverb. The kind of voice that long stays with you. Music writers of a certain age are reminded of Angelo Badalamenti’s brooding yet beautiful score to the original “Twin Peaks”; the overall effect, in both cases, is atmospheric, dark and utterly compelling. It was just about then that City Winery’s manager clarified that the show wasn’t scheduled for afternoon at all, but 8:30PM. I guess Pearl Bailey was right. She apologized for the error, heartily, especially when I said that I could not stay for the show as I had other commitments. But the sound check was so appealing, I chose to hang around at least for this.

Sylvia Black’s career has been varied and multi-faceted, split within genre, location and even personae. Residing now in LA, she had for some years performed in New York under the name Betty Black, holding court Friday nights at the Roxy Hotel. “It was a lounge act”, she explained. Perhaps, but rthis wasn’t one for the piano bar in a polite hotel, it was built on the raw energy of downtown. “I love standards, but am also very influenced by 1980s new wave, dance and punk songs too. So I began arranging all of this music in a new way”. Huey Lewis’ “I Want a New Drug” was dramatically stated when performed in a plodding, slow tempo as were pieces by the Ramones, Van Halen and Psychedelic Furs. And the old chestnut “Jezebel” was infused with changes of feel and vocal range. Such adaptations shared the bill with swing, R and B and originals. According to press on Betty Black, the Roxy shows, apparently echoed the heat of the moment, tagged ‘Blue Lounge’: diva kitsch theatrics and raunchy stage wear coupled with a powerful band of jazz musicians, guitarist Bortnick and drummer Johnson among them. Her bands always include a vibraphonist too, often horns. Bortnick has been working with John Scofield for the better part of the last twenty years, now preparing for an Asian tour; Johnson is just about to embark on a series of concerts with David Byrne. In the company of such musicians, Black has been recording the Blue Lounge repertoire for an album to be released soon, so those gigs were far from wasted on her. And of course, the Roxy is where she first encountered Lydia Lunch, one of Black’s iconic sheroes. The two have since become friends and are currently collaborating on an album. “Lydia heard my music at the Roxy and she said we must work together. My single “Walking on Fire” was released already but she heard it and recently overdubbed a vocal part”. Both the original version of the song and the no wave reimagining are available via Sylvia’s website. “But the album is a partnersip of new songs we are both writing. Lydia is headed to Europe after this and I’ll be working on the material in that period”. The new songs includes an array of music that swings and rocks with free improvisation, beat-driven spoken word and pop. The first taste of the album is “Sin City Salvation”, currently available as a download. The piece straddles no wave rawness and dance cool as it recalls a downtown lost to the passage of time.

The singer-bassist-songwriter now performs under the name Sylvia Black but current credits include both monikers connected by a slash. She insists that her actual first name is neither of the two, but no matter that. It may not make for good copy but adds a mysterious point of interest. Black was trained at the Berklee School of Music in Boston, the highly coveted college of jazz studies, graduating in 1999. In New York, she quickly became a part of the nightlife, moving easily through styles and sounds. She affiliated with the noted Black Rock Coalition and performed with the likes of Muzz Skillings of Living Colour before taking on the Roxy gig. As a composer Black wrote songs for high-level acts including Moby and Black Eyed Peas, and as an artist in her own right, recorded the 2016 album “Valley Low” as well as a variety of video releases. Concurrently, Black has been doing session work for the celebrated British producer Tony Visconti (David Bowie, Iggy Pop) who has called her “one of the most powerful bass players I’ve worked with” and “a groove master”. As a member of Telepopmusik she’s done a world tour and with Kristeen Young’s band she will be opening for the Damned in London next month. There has been critical attention, but still, she struggles. “It’s very exciting, yet I have a day job waiting for me in LA”, she stated. “I’m not marketable because I don’t have a singular style”, she explained in a tone of ironic resolve. “Music industry people have tried to get me to be one thing, but I can’t. I’m me”.

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