James Probability, No Wave and Punk-Funk Pioneer, Dies at 71

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James Probability, the singer, saxophonist and composer who melded punk, funk and free jazz into bristling dance music because the chief of the Contortions, died on Tuesday in Manhattan. He was 71.

His brother, David Siegfried, mentioned Mr. Probability had been in declining well being for years and succumbed to problems of gastrointestinal illness on the Terence Cardinal Cooke Well being Care Heart in East Harlem.

Through the late Seventies explosion of punk tradition in New York Metropolis, the Contortions had been on the forefront of a mode known as no wave — music that got down to be as confrontational and radical in sound and efficiency as punk’s style and perspective had been visually.

Contortions songs like “I Can’t Stand Myself” and “Throw Me Away” stuffed the rhythmic constructions of James Brown’s funk with angular, dissonant riffs, to be topped by Mr. Probability’s yelping, blurting, screaming vocals and his trilling, squawking alto saxophone. He was a stay wire onstage, together with his personal twitchy variations of strikes tailored from Brown, Mick Jagger and his punk contemporaries.

Though the Contortions typically carried out in fits and ties, their music and stage presence had been proudly abrasive. Within the band’s early days, Mr. Probability was so decided to get a response from arty, indifferent spectators that he would leap into the viewers and slap or kiss somebody. Viewers members typically fought again.

“I received an enormous kick out of frightening individuals, I don’t deny that,” Mr. Probability mentioned in a 2003 interview with Pitchfork.

Adele Bertei, who performed keyboards within the Contortions, mentioned: “It was a sort of musical Brutalism. We actually wished to destroy concepts of artwork as elitist — and of punk as musically revolutionary, when it actually was nearly a three-chord development.”

Mr. Probability, she added, “was so singular in his musical imaginative and prescient, in his presence, in his will to smash all conformity into items, that he won’t ever be forgotten by anybody who skilled his music stay. It was sort of insane, however sort of good, the physicality of it.”

Mr. Probability was born James Siegfried on April 20, 1953, in Milwaukee. His father, Donald Siegfried, was the enterprise supervisor for a Wisconsin faculty district. His mom, Jean, taught elementary faculty; she survives him, alongside together with his brother, David, and his sisters Jill Siegfried and Mary Koehler.

James Siegfried studied classical piano with nuns in his elementary faculty when he was 7 years outdated; it bored him. However when he was 11, a jazz trainer taught him to play requirements and stride piano. Through the late Nineteen Sixties, he soaked up the period’s rock. He briefly attended Michigan State College, then returned to Milwaukee and studied jazz on the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music, the place he picked up the alto saxophone and began enjoying free jazz.

Late in 1975, he moved to New York Metropolis, drawn by reporting in The Village Voice concerning the punk-rock incubator CBGB and the loft jazz scene. He frequented each.

“I went to jazz periods at locations just like the Tin Palace, which was a half a block from CBGB’s,” he advised Glenn O’Brien in 2011. “However there was no overlap. No person who went to the Tin Palace would ever go to CBGB’s, or vice versa.”

He took classes from a loft jazz grasp, the tenor saxophonist David Murray, and began a jazz group, Flaming Youth. However he disliked the studious jazz viewers.

“He wished individuals to be dancing,” mentioned Sylvia Reed, a lifelong pal who was briefly Mr. Probability’s supervisor. “He wished to tug individuals off the ground.”

He additionally quickly realized that “I wasn’t going to make it within the jazz scene,” Mr. Probability mentioned in 2011. “Too many guys might play sax higher than me.” He met Lydia Lunch, a pioneering no wave performer, at CBGB; shared his Decrease East Facet residence together with her; and performed together with her band, Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, for a lot of 1977. He began the Contortions after Ms. Lunch determined her band didn’t want a saxophone.

By then, he was performing as James Probability. “He wished a stage title that sounded prefer it might be an actual title, not a foolish punk title like Rotten,” David Siegfried mentioned. “He was additionally actually into movie noir, and it match with that.”

Mr. Siegfried added, “Behind that combative stage persona, James was reclusive, shy and softhearted.”

A unfastened motion of boundary-defying musicians and visible artists coalesced as no wave with a sequence of 5 concert events on the Soho gallery Artists Area in Could 1978. The sequence was attended by Brian Eno, a producer who selected the Contortions and three different bands — Mars, DNA and Teenage Jesus and the Jerks — to share a compilation album that might endure as a doc of a pivotal inventive second: “No New York.”

Mr. Probability discovered a catalyst in Anya Phillips, a designer and photojournalist who grew to become his girlfriend and supervisor, selling the band and honing his theatricality as a frontman. The Contortions usually stuffed New York Metropolis golf equipment — principally Max’s Kansas Metropolis, which had an ongoing rivalry with CBGB.

“He was a chameleon,” Deborah Harry of Blondie, an occasional visitor singer with Mr. Probability, mentioned. “He might lure you in with being so cute and so jerky, with the entire downtown factor. However then he would do issues that had been actually very superior musically.”

The band received a recording contract with Ze Information and in 1979 launched the album “Purchase,” which captured crisp studio variations of Mr. Probability’s songs. Extra raucous stay recordings could be launched after the early Contortions broke up.

Noisy because it appeared, the music was tautly constructed, as Mr. Probability defined to Pitchfork. “As an alternative of chord adjustments, I wrote an element for every instrument, ranging from the bass and constructing it up from there. Interlocking rhythmic melodies. It’s very structured,” he mentioned. “Songs are literally all written out in charts.”

Michael Zilkha, the proprietor of Ze Information, prompted Mr. Probability to make a “disco report,” leaving it to Mr. Probability to determine what that meant. Mr. Probability was effectively conscious of racial tensions between the largely white New York punk scene and Black-rooted jazz and disco; the Contortions made a degree of enjoying cowl variations of R&B songs of their units. Mr. Probability uncovered and challenged the racial divide, naming his disco undertaking James White and the Blacks and titling the album “Off White,” additionally launched in 1979. Its songs included “White Savages,” “Nearly Black,” “White Satan” and “Bleached Black.”

Recorded by the Contortions band and company together with Ms. Lunch, a lot of the songs moved solely barely nearer to mainstream pop and dance music. However the group did rework a jagged Contortions tune, “Contort Your self,” with a disco beat and authorised an prolonged remix.

The Contortions broke up in 1979 due to conflicts over cash and personalities. Mr. Probability had additionally developed a heroin dependancy that might have an effect on him for the remainder of his life. Former Contortions members went on to start out bands together with Bush Tetras, the Raybeats and eight Eyed Spy.

Mr. Probability fashioned a brand new lineup of James White and the Blacks, that includes Black sidemen from the trombonist Joseph Bowie’s band Defunkt. It launched the album “Sax Maniac” in 1982; a unique lineup launched the album “Soften Your self Down” in 1986.

By the top of the Eighties, Mr. Probability had grown disillusioned with the music enterprise, and his dependancy had additionally deepened. However in 2001, he reconciled with surviving Seventies Contortions band members and returned to performing with them and different musicians. A French band that had been hurriedly convened for a competition efficiency stayed collectively to carry out and tour with him; they had been billed as James Probability and Les Contortions they usually launched the total album “Incorrigible!” in 2012.

Ms. Reed mentioned that Mr. Probability had additionally recorded a trove of solo piano music that will ultimately be launched.

Mr. Probability gave his final stay performances in 2019. In 2018, youthful admirers of his punk funk introduced him to a nationwide viewers when the Scottish band Franz Ferdinand added him as a shock visitor on “The Late Present with Stephen Colbert.”

Mr. Probability performed a jabbing, dissonant, squealing alto sax solo, delivering it with a signature James Brown transfer: a drop to his knees.

In liner notes to a 2010 compilation, “Twist Your Soul,” Mr. Probability wrote, “Our music was far more than a mere artwork assertion or a automobile to understand mass-produced fantasies of celeb — we lived it. Fame, fortune and the long run had been irrelevant. We could have been self-absorbed, however we had been bent on pushing our music and our lives to the furthest restrict we might conceive of.”


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