Graded on a Curve:
James White and the Blacks, Sax Maniac

No Wave history is populated with numerous characters, but few heaved forth as much personality as vocalist-saxophonist-bandleader James Chance. Initially the frontman of the Contortions, by the end of the ’70s he’d formed James White and the Blacks and issued Off White. After that lineup exploded, he reconvened the group with all new personnel and recorded Sax Maniac for Animal Records, the label of Blondie’s Chris Stein. If not as incendiary as the Contortions’ material on the Brian Eno-produced No New York, the LP is still infused with Chance’s distinctive brand of surliness and suavity. Fusing funk and punk in an avant laboratory, its Redux vinyl edition is out August 24 through Futurismo.

The early recordings of the Contortions, and specifically the four songs that open 1978’s No New York, were so inspired and intense in their frenzy that listeners could maybe be persuaded that Chance’s subsequent work was of lesser, if not negligible, interest. While in terms of wild, inventive enthusiasm the Contortions are hard to beat (the streak of quality extended into ’79’s Buy the Contortions), and to discredit the guy work as James White as second-rate stuff is a blunder in my estimation.

If the Contortions could register as a subversive demolition party, James White and the Blacks were more of an attempt to further blend the rawness of Chance’s big-city attitude, the power of his voice, and his funky free-jazzy sax playing with disco, R&B, and pop forms. The results, while less immediately formidable, basically had no chance for a chart crossover, but where many other similar attempts at hybridization and sound (and by extension audience) broadening register today as failures, the two LPs by White and the Blacks hold up pretty dang well, mainly because Chance’s personality wasn’t diluted.

Lots of folks seem to prefer the first White/Blacks alb Off White, maybe in part because it was a reshuffling of seminal No Wave figures (a bunch of Contortions are involved, as is Lydia Lunch as Stella Rico), and for a long while I sorta felt the same. That’s partly because while I was familiar with Sax Maniac (rating it fairly highly, certainly higher than some), I never owned a copy, making my time spent with it minimal. However, soaking it up in relation to this reissue has elevated it in my esteem; I now consider it the equal of Off White, and in some ways it’s the more interesting of the two.

Even as the backing vocals of Discolitas Bemshi Jones and Cherie Donovan in opener “Irresistible Impulse” provide immediate pop counterpoint, and the band has become increasingly pro, you still must contend with the man’s persona, which persisted as Montana-sized and as potent as a 42nd St. grindhouse double feature circa 1980; if an obvious swipe of James Brown’s massive stage-studio thrust specifically, and R&B/ Soul vocalist showmanship in general, Chance’s voice across Sax Maniac is still a paint-stripping punk gesture par excellence.

And that band? As said, increasingly pro but thankfully not slick or milquetoast, as on the title track and “Sax Machine” trombonist Joseph Bowie and trumpeter John Mulkerin, both of NYC Downtowners Defunkt, augmented a sound that ultimately had less to do with disco and a whole lot more with building a sturdy wing in the playhouse of art-punk-funk.

Later in “Irresistible Impulse” the Discolitas sing “Take cover, get back, cause he’s going to attack!,” making me wonder what might’ve transpired had White and the Blacks cut a disc for Sugar Hill Records, Chance dishes a wickedly bent sax solo, and his bonkers-banging electric piano spot preceding it (his playing on the instrument also deepens “Disco Jaded”) is nothing to scoff at, either.

Chance as White might be a flouter of convention, but he’s never a faker; not only is the undersung saxophonist Luther Thomas in the band (he of the Human Arts Ensemble, the Saint Louis Creative Ensemble, and his own terrific archival release Funky Donkey as part of the Atavistic label’s Unheard Music Series), but so is trumpeter Jack Walrath on “That Old Black Magic.”

I’m going to make it as plain as possible. Walrath played with Mingus (on his late Atlantic albums Changes One and Changes Two, in fact), so it’s doubtful that he’d entertain contributing to a studio session by a piker/ prima donna. But y’know, it also strikes me that this statement can be misconstrued as special pleading, and in two words, fuck that.

It only takes a listen to Sax Maniac, which persists as a fitting tribute in dedication to Chance’s muse and Debbie Harry’s friend, the photographer Anya Phillips, to understand that James White and the Blacks are for real. Chance sums it up nicely in the dance craze number “The Twitch”: “give me some sass, but don’tcha play nothing crass.” He and they don’t, and after over a quarter century, Sax Maniac still kills.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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