I last saw James Chance in Leeds nearly 12 years ago when he played at the now defunct New Roscoe pub in Bristol Street. That night with Les Contorsions, in front of only 23 people (if you included the bar staff and sound guy), the American saxophonist, keyboard player, songwriter and singer performed as if there were no tomorrow in what to this very day still remains one of the top ten gigs I have ever had the pleasure of experiencing. It was as absurd as it was astonishing, a bold apocalyptic blur of punk, funk, jazz and show business pizzazz.
Tonight James Chance is back in this West Yorkshire city. This time round he is in the Brudenell’s Community Room, accompanied by Die Contortions (presumably the German equivalent of a band who have backed him on-and-off for 40 years and who provide a rare glimpse of European optimism) and he is playing to an audience that has more than quadrupled in size from the one he had faced in 2007.
Whilst this show never quite reaches the dizzying heights James Chance scaled back in the New Roscoe – to be quite honest, I doubt that anything ever could – it is nonetheless a still wildly entertaining performance that continues to embrace a diverse range of musical forms (from free-form jazz to the Great American Songbook) before questioning, confronting and completely deconstructing them all.
It is also a performance that cements James Chance’s legendary status in the world of contemporary music, a man who as a founding member of Teenage Jesus and the Jerks burst onto New York’s No Wave scene of the late ‘70s and has continued to shake the artistic establishment ever since through his exploration of sound.
With his faded pompadour, outsized bright yellow jacket, blue shirt, black dress slacks and matching patent leather shoes, James Chance bears a striking resemblance to the ageing gigolo he references in ‘The Street With No Name’, a bluesy-noir number he belts out half way through tonight’s set. Now 65 years of age he may have lost some of his agility but still has enough spring in his step to leave the stage during ‘Splurge’ and cut a pretty remarkable rug in the crowd before returning from whence he came to honk out a furiously demented sax solo.
As he reaches the September of his years, James Chance has returned to some of the music of his childhood. He recreates Henry Mancini and Johnny Mercer’s ‘Days of Wine and Roses’ in the guise of some louche nightclub crooner, his wantonly off-key singing merely adding further charm to this old pop standard. He also revisits his favourite Frank Sinatra song, ‘That’s Life’, though I doubt very much that Ol’ Blue Eyes would have invested the lyrics with lines about “beautifully inscribed antique opium pipes” and “drifting off into some ineffable dream” before “closing my eyes and just die”.
But for all of these leisurely, albeit strangely surreal, strolls down memory lane, James Chance can still blast his way through an incredibly funky and hugely danceable ‘Melt Yourself Down’ and go on to light the touchpaper to a concluding free-form jazz blow-out that brings to mind the great American avant-garde jazz saxophonist Albert Ayler at his very best.
And then in a strangely poignant valediction and with it further evidence of his incredible grasp upon cultural repossession and rabid deconstruction, Chance disappears into whatever night he may behold with an austere acappella interpretation of ‘You Don’t Know What Love Is’.
Photos: Simon Godley
More photos from this show are HERE