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George Cartwright: Barrier Islands Bird

By Published: September 13, 2010
GC: Absolutely not. I was just a regular guy—I guess. I was always interested in the stuff with the most feeling: like the blues, and country music. And I could see that Curlew was something that was going to need somebody to be sort of the leader and the organizer, and to make the phone calls. And I wanted to write most of the music, and it just kind of happened. My commitment sort of developed at the Creative Music Studio, the commitment that the important thing was the music, and you would make decisions about the music based on what you thought would make the music the best.

And in Curlew, it was kind of like, I would write most of the songs, and other people would bring in songs. And then it sort of was taken from the composer and given to the band, so everybody could fill it up with their stuff. And that was kind of the way we worked; very, very normal band process, I think.

AAJ: Well, it's different from the typical "head/blow/head."

GC: I'd rather find the music. A funny story, when I was in college I knew this trumpet player. And he'd go, "Man, if I could just play what I can hear, Man!" And I thought, "Wow," and I started to imagine hearing things and I figured out what they were, and they were really, really boring! I thought, "Man, I don't want to play what I hear, I want to play what I can find!"

AAJ: Picasso said, "I don't search, I find."

GC: Oh, really. [laughs] Well, I agree with him...

AAJ: Now the name, Curlew, evokes very specific things, the long bill, eccentric bird digging in the mud—which came first, the band or the name?

GC: The band came first. There was a very interesting painter in the early 20th century from the Mississippi coast named Walter Anderson. And he would sail out to the Barrier Islands in Mississippi—row out in his rowboat; it's about 12 miles. And he would write journals and he would paint. He died in a hurricane, because he wanted to see what it was like to be in a hurricane, and he strapped himself to a tree on one of the islands, and he lived through the hurricane then died of pneumonia or something a few months later...But I was looking for a name for the band, and I was reading in his journals, and he had a list of all the birds he'd seen.

And I saw the word "Curlew." And I thought, "I don't even know what a curlew is!" I don't know what it does, what it looks like. But I liked, the name, I liked the reference. And if people don't look it up, they're not going to know what it is, either.

AAJ: Of course, you have been exposed to the oil catastrophe off the Mississippi coast. What kind of effect does that have on an artist? How does an artist deal with that?

GC: Well, it's just one more giant catastrophe...You just go, "Well, natural disasters, man-made disasters, wars..." You just sort of psychologically vomit, then go, "Man...Let's have another war or what the heck. Let's get six more million people killed..."

I think sympathy, understanding, help, jobs, money help people deal. And artistically, as an artist I think that stuff goes in you, and that it comes out somehow—that it comes out in a way that you can't describe because when you do art I think you're talking about feeling—except for sad, happy feelings. The real deep stuff and I think this will always appeal to immediate art and literature and music, is there's something more than what you see or hear or read, that goes from the musicians to the listener, and nobody can put a word on it—like speak to us in a way we can't speak.

AAJ: I admire the way you admire your own players. On that great video [The Hardwood] released with your recent CD reissue [Beautiful Western Saddle (Cuneiform, 2010)], you sit down and listen to your players before you get up and play again, it's very clear that you're listening very closely to them so you can just come in and make the right decisions with regard to what you do. And it makes me think of Duke Ellington
Duke Ellington
Duke Ellington
1899 - 1974
. And also like Ellington, there's a lot of humor on the surface of your music, while beneath that there are challenges of great difficulty. Are you deeply versed in Ellington?

GC: Very much. Huge inspiration. I think that, and Ornette's idea of everything's equal. When I got [guitarist] Davey Williams to be in the band, I thought that was incredible because he already played in some blues bands and maybe some rock bands—he never played anything like Curlew. Of course, neither had I. I thought, Wow, this guy he's my good friend from Alabama, this will be incredible! I just knew. And the same thing with, say, [bassist] Ann Rupel. I just said, "Here's the context, and let's go."

AAJ: Well Tom Cora—can you tell us about your rapport with him? He must have been phenomenally inspiring.

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