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by Dan Grunebaum

James Chance & The Contortions

The innovator of New York’s “no wave” movement makes his Japan debut, three decades after the fact

With the average apartment in Manhattan selling for $1 million, it’s hard to imagine there was a time when a musician could show up in New York, find a dumpy apartment in the Village, and scratch out a living.

But in the mid-’70s, a number of musical scenes thrived on the low cost of living in a bombed out New York hit by white flight. Best-known is the punk/New Wave scene centered on the rock club CBGB, which spawned groups like the Ramones and Blondie.

Less well-known is the No Wave movement, which emerged out of an attempt by white jazz musicians to merge funk and free jazz with the anti-authoritarian energy of rock ‘n’ roll. At the heart of that movement was the charismatic, pompadoured sax player James Chance, who makes his long awaited Japan debut this weekend.

In interviews posted on his homepage, the Milwaukee native explains what drove the would-be jazz saxophonist to take a different tack. “The rock scene and the jazz scene were, practically, right on top of each other, but there was no communication between the two at all,” he recalled. “When I moved here, my real ambition was to make it as a jazz musician, but when I got here, I realized that wasn’t going to happen. I just didn’t fit into the jazz scene at all. My whole attitude, my own personal style and everything was more out of rock ‘n’ roll.”

In addition to his jazz leanings, Chance was impressed by the bands he was seeing at CBGB, and he’d also played in an Iggy Pop & The Stooges cover band back in Milwaukee. After getting kicked out of Lydia Lunch’s band, the infamous Teenage Jesus, Chance decided to launch a group that would bring together his various musical predilections.

The result was the Contortions, a unit that originally included Japanese members like the boyfriend of avant-garde musician Ikue Mori. The band soon became one of the biggest draws of the downtown Manhattan scene, and became immortalized on the influential (but out of print) 1978 album, No New York, produced by Brian Eno.

The Contortions also became known for a volatile live show, which saw Chance jumping off the stage to take swings at unresponsive audiences. “I always wanted to have a strong groove. That is why I started attacking people, because they wouldn’t dance...There is no excuse for sitting on the floor like a bunch of hippies.”

After 1979’s Buy the Contortions, the band flamed out. But Chance soon reemerged as James White (a play on his love for James Brown), purveying his quirky blend of funk, free jazz and rock energy on the albums Sax Maniac (for Christ Stein of Blondie’s Animal label), Off White and, finally, Flaming Demonics.

Years of relative quiet followed, with units like John Lurie’s Lounge Lizards picking up the slack, but the release of a box set of early Chance material by indie label Tiger Sushi in 2003, Irresistible Impulse, has sparked a resurgence of interest in No Wave. Chance and the reconstituted Contortions completed a successful tour of Europe, followed it up with a set at the Vincent Gallo-curated All Tomorrow’s Parties, and finally come to Japan, where Chance is viewed as a hero by many in the underground music community.

For the three-date engagement at Unit, some of the bands Chance has influenced will be joining him, including free jazz/jam band Date Course Pentagon Royal Garden and angular alt-rockers the Zazen Boys.

Unit, July 14-16. See concert listings for details.

Discuss music with METROPOLIS readers at http://forum.japantoday.com


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