Sunday, April 9, 2023

Album review: Curlew, CBGBs, NYC, 1987

 The NYC Jazz Record, March 2023

Curlew, CBGBs, NYC, 1987

Review by John Pietaro

This historic reach back to 1987, one of the high years of “downtown”, opens in the hallowed crush of CBGB (there was no “s” in the title) with Curlew’s pulsating rendition of “Ray”. The  piece by saxophonist George Cartwright was inspired by novelist Barry Hannah. Like Cartwright, Hannah was an artist stemming from the deep south who thrived in dark humor. But Curlew’s urgency leaves little space for laughter. One reference point is Ornette’s Prime Time, had that ensemble been reared not in a Prince Street loft, but across Bowery and over. The linear work of each member of Curlew reached as far as any band at CBGB would, or could. “Ray”, angular, swinging, funk-infected, is a celebration of musical liberation that lusciously conjoins into a raw Coleman-like piece, the B-section of which will send shivers down the spine of latent listeners. The wonderfully restless electric bass of Ann Rupel, tenaciously seeking news paths through the thicket, pushing the primal-scream solos of Cartwright, guitarist Davey Williams, and especially cellist Tom Cora, as well as the sonic explosions of drummer Pippin Barnet, remains an essential showcase of the downtown sound.

“Kissing Goodbye”, which follows, is perhaps the missing link between Prime Time and the throttling polyrhythms of ‘80s King Crimson, peppered by the essence of stale beer that perfumed Bowery and Bleeker. Ornette’s penchant for folkish melodies is often realized in Cartwright’s compositions, the improvisation’s this inspired are nothing short of legendary. And as an aside, aspects of Crimson’s 1973 “Lark’s Tongues in Aspic” are evident within the ominous pulsations of “To the Summer in Our Hearts”, but then Rupel turns that harmonic structure on its head.

Curlew was founded in 1979 not long after Cartwright arrived in NYC. His biography, intertwined with that of the band, is the stuff of East Village legend, and by the time this set was recorded (directly off the mixing board), the ensemble had found its classic line-up which demonstrated again and again the necessary ingredients. Yet it remains vexing as to why Curlew has so often sat on the music’s periphery. The answer may be found in its interchangeable line-up, even with the downtown A-list on hand. Earlier, Bill Laswell, Fred Frith, Nicky Skopelitis, and Denardo Coleman held chairs, and later Chris Cochrane, Kenny Wolleson, and Sam Bennett, among other notables. The scene overflowed with talent and there was a vast array of venues, encouraging transience for many. Just a year after this performance at CBGB, Ann Rupel founded No Safety with Cochrane, Barnett, Zeena Parkins, and Doug Seidel, thriving on Curlew’s magic. Around the same time, Tom Cora co-led Skeleton Crew with Fred Frith, and Frith continued his own trans-Atlantic foray, including the Golden Palominos and Massacre with Laswell. The cross-pollination was impossible to avoid, but so daring the synthesis that even in casting ‘the shock of the new’, its presence was fleeting, an emulsion. Such a capture as Curlew at CBGB, though remains immortal.


George Cartwright - saxes
Tom Cora - cello
Davey Williams - guitar
Ann Rupel - bass
Pippin Barnett - drums

1. Ray

2. Kissing Goodbye

3.To the Summer in Our Hearts

4. Barking

5. Moonlake

6. One Fried Egg

7.The Hardwood

8. Oklahoma

9. Agitar / The Victim

10. Light Sentence

11. Mink's Dream

12. First Bite

13. Shoats





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