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James Chance and The Contortions: James Chance and the Contortions: Buy

Trevor MacLaren By

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James Chance and the Contortions
Buy (a/k/a Buy The Contortions)

Since the 1960s jazz has played an important part in the deconstruction of western music. Jazz has lent its ideologies to a variety of new musical forms that have grown into some of the most interesting and provocative music of the last thirty years. As I have mentioned in past columns, free and avant-garde styles have had a direct and/or indirect influence on the New York punk of the 1970s, from the wall of articulated noise that John Cage and Lou Reed used in The Velvet Underground to Coltrane's influence on the guitar interplay of Television's Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd, to San Francisco's new wave pioneers Romeo Void. One important step between punk and the modern downtown New York jazz scene that rarely, if ever, gets mentioned is so-called no wave. Yet this obscure sub-genre of punk and avant-garde composition is a vital part of modern jazz.

The name of this genre was taken from a Brian Eno compilation of punk-based avant-garde bands that were immersed in the CBGB punk scene. While David Byrne was adding abstract ideas to pop music with the Talking Heads, Arto Lindsay and Ikue Mori (along with their band DNA) were going about it the other way around. By constructing music that threw out melody and harmony, they in effect abolished the very ideas that new wave bands were attempting to generate in the process of bringing melody and harmony to punk's nihilistic tendencies. But what makes no wave important to jazz is its footnote in the history of modern free and avant-garde jazz. This freeform offering saw the rise of Lindsay and DNA, John Lurie's Lounge Lizards, Sonic Youth, Derek Bailey, John Zorn's short-lived but hugely influential Locus Solus, and underground pop innovator Anton Fier's Golden Palominos, whose first record featured Zorn, Lindsay, Bill Laswell and Fred Firth.

One of most remarkable records from this era came from none other than free jazz saxophonist James Chance, aka James White. James Sigfried was a free jazz saxophonist who came to New York to play and ended up joining no wave pioneers Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, who featured the reigning Queen of New York's underground, Lydia Lunch. Chance soon left and formed The Contortions, who would later become The Blacks. The band may come across rooted in Ornette Coleman's Prime Time, but it was equally influenced the J.B.'s. With that much funk, Chance scaled the band down to a sparse, chaotic group that devoured funk and disco with as much hate as admiration.

Chance's ideology was built of a foundation of nihilism that came more from UK punk than New York's version, but Chance took his own chop directions from Ayler, Coltrane, and Sanders. His sound and technique in no way equaled the aforementioned masters, but his coarse, angular, and primitive style was certainly fitting for the horn attacks that followed his aggressive vocal style. It is the originality of Buy — or Buy the Contortions — that makes this record a compelling find for fans of progressive free and avant-garde jazz.

The tracks have a popping groove that acid jazz would later copy, but it's fronted by rash squeals and Chance's confrontational vocals. The most well known track of Chance's arsenal is "Contort Yourself", which along with "I Don't Want to Be Happy" The Contortions lay down a funk/disco based groove with a four on the floor beat, askew organ riffs and an open tuned (all in the note of E minor it seems) slide guitar back the Ayleresque atonal rants. Through the anger and aggression Chance made a solid record that had a sound like nothing before or since. The man who would best represent, reconstruct, and deconstruct the ideas on this record is John Zorn. Though Laswell, Sharrock, Jackson and Brotzmann would come close to this sound with Last Exit, only Zorn would make more complex, trivial, and noisier records that branched into a variety of compositional ideas a million light years ahead of anyone else's.

Buy is still a great disc that sounds as original and cutting edge as when it was released. In the new millennium jazz has been stretched and twisted into a variety sounds and ideas. Though many will question the role of jazz on this record, Chance as a player is completely steeped in the tradition. During its evolution, many avenues of jazz moved along sideways and/or trivial paths, but James Chance and The Contortions took the genre toward an interesting frontier that many players are still exploring and experimenting with.


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