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Album Review

When looking back at the heydays of New York City's so-called "downtown scene" (for the sake of discussion, let's consider that to be the '80s plus a half decade or so extending back into the '70s and forward into the '90s), it seems surprising that Curlew aren't mentioned more frequently, but then again, maybe it's not particularly surprising that Curlew haven't — thus far — become as famous as a few others who used venues in the Lower East Side, NoLiTa, and Tribeca as the launching pads for careers of worldwide renown. Although downtown music was always about erasing musical boundaries (among other things), Curlew might have erased musical boundaries too well; after all, it's never been too difficult to assign Sonic Youth to the box named "rock" and Dave Douglas to "jazz" (John Zorn is one person who blew up the box from the get-go) for marketing purposes — not that the artists themselves ever asked to be categorized thusly. But what about a band that combined elements of free jazz, avant rock, and interludes of textural improv with saxophonist/leader George Cartwright's Mississippi-bred R&B/funk sensibility and down-home friendly tunefulness? Where does that fit, exactly? Well, how about right in your ears. Forget the Lounge Lizards' tongue-in-cheek hipsterism of the time — Curlew in their early years were the no-compromise real thing.

Bill Laswell is probably the most "famous" musician on Curlew's eponymous debut LP, and it's interesting to note that not only had he not fallen into his more well-known ambient dub persona at the time of this 1980 recording — but the first Material album had not even been released, nor his first solo effort, Baselines. On tracks like the opening "Panther Burn" his slippery, rubbery bass is all over the place and far from deep and dubby. Laswell is more interested in playing in-your-face funk-jazz than in building up layers of "atmosphere" (although there is atmosphere of a different sort on the collective improv "But Get It," spacious but disturbed more than calming), and the same goes for guitarist Nicky Skopelitis, a future ongoing partner in Laswell's sonic universe who emerges as a fleet-fingered fusoid six-stringer here (check out "Bitter Thumbs"). Drummer Bill Bacon from Material alternately nails the groove and rolls and tumbles along, and cellist Tom Cora makes every effort to transport his instrument as far as possible from the world of "chamber music" — his earthy and abrasive tone and jagged interjections are as wonderful on this disc as they ever would be (and his "Rudders" is a great Curlew tune). Then of course there is the leader, and while Cartwright can wail with the best of them, he is more interested in a group sound than in hogging the solo spotlight, as he would continue to prove through numerous Curlew incarnations (later featuring Pippin Barnett on drums and Davey Williams on guitar and a shifting cast of avant luminaries such as Fred Frith, Anton Fier, Wayne Horvitz, Ann Rupel, Samm Bennett, Kenny Wollesen, and Fred Chalenor) on Cuneiform albums up to and including 2003's Mercury. With his sax staking out territory somewhere between R&B, funk, harmolodics, and free jazz/improv, screaming with passion one moment and rolling out an insistently catchy and good-natured melody the next, you might wonder if downtown avant types were thrown into a conundrum at Curlew gigs: "Will we still be hip if somebody catches us dancing the Funky Chicken to this stuff?"


Formed: 1979

Genre: Rock

Years Active: '80s, '90s, '00s

Curlew were formed in 1979 by George Cartwright, who has served as the group's leader, saxophonist, and main composer for nearly three decades. Although Curlew have been viewed as pioneers of New York City's so-called "downtown scene," Cartwright was born in Mississippi and has consistently brought a roadhouse R&B swagger -- not to mention the influence of early hero Ornette Coleman -- to the band's sound. Throughout the '80s and '90s, Curlew served as something of an incubator and showcase for N.Y.C....
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Curlew, Curlew
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