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George Cartwright: Barrier Islands Bird


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George Cartwright can't be forgotten. The triple sax threat is part of the archaeology of modern New York. The downtown scene, just like New Orleans or 52 Street, has its mythology, and, as much as John Zorn, Cartwright figures in that, having come to the city fresh out of The Creative Music Studio in Woodstock, New York in the late 1970s, bringing with him his trio featuring the equally crucial percussionist David Moss and reed player Michael Lytle.

Curlew came next, a protean band of which Cartwright would assume leadership. It would come to anchor Manhattan's hippest avant-jazz club, The Knitting Factory. Curlew was an immensely popular draw, with guitar great Fred Frith and radical cello innovator Tom Cora among its members. Cartwright and Curlew will go down as pioneers who renewed the jazz contract at the end of its first century, into that of its second.

All About Jazz: I noticed you play alto, tenor and soprano sax. Isn't it uncommon for an alto player to choose the soprano or tenor as a secondary instrument?

George Cartwright: Why?

AAJ: Because the alto is Eb, and the tenor and soprano are Bb instruments.

GC: Right...I think it's uncommon for someone to choose alto and tenor as their main instruments. Usually people go with alto or tenor. Of course a lot of woodwind players double, and play all the instruments.

AAJ: Well, John Coltrane played soprano and tenor, and Evan Parker plays soprano and tenor, so I see a lot of soprano and tenor doubling because they're both Bb?

GC: Yeah, all those soprano and tenor players, they're afraid of the alto.

AAJ: Well, that's what made me think: you love challenges, you love putting an obstacle in front of yourself. And that's why you switch immediately from an alto to a tenor, to challenge yourself, and see what the results are.

GC: Well really, I started on the alto, and I wanted to get a tenor. But sometimes all those guys who double a lot on all kinds of reed instruments, will have very similar setups (I mean, not everybody), so they can double so they can play the instrument and have it easier for them. But I always wanted to have a completely different sound on my instrument, so I have different reeds, different mouthpieces, different horns, different setups, and I like having the different sounds. And sometimes when I have a song it's like, "Well, is tenor or alto better?"

AAJ: I get the sense, listening to your music, that you have very wide, eclectic taste. My first impression of your work was "southern-fried Henry Cow. Fred Frith has been a member of your band. How much credit do you give Henry Cow for the development of your style? A group that you seem to have influenced is John Zorn's Naked City. Do you see yourself as part of a continuum of groups like that?

GC: Absolutely not. I've never heard Henry Cow, and John Zorn's Naked City, though I'm a big John Zorn fan, I never really listened to any of that, for whatever reasons. And as far as Fred Frith being in the band, he was clearly bringing those influences into the band in at that moment and time, and I know that Tom Cora and [drummer] Pippin Barnett were big Henry Cow fans, so they would probably bring them in; but as far as me, I never—and I know people have said that before, but I don't really listen to Henry Cow so I don't really know.

I mean it's been peculiar for me because sometimes people will say it's like this band or that band: I never heard them. So I think it's more [that] there was an open space there at points in time and people filled it in. I have lots of other influences, if that makes any sense.

AAJ: I'll jump ahead a bit. Denardo Coleman played on one of your first recordings [Live at CBGB's, Oct. 1, 1980on 2008 DMG/ARC reissue of Curlew 1st Album (1981)]. I know you also don't like to hear that you sound like Ornette Coleman—which is also overstated, I agree. But is there a coincidence that you used Denardo when you did?

GC: One of the things with Curlew and myself—I'm a huge Ornette Coleman fan. I've listened to him forever. When I heard Dancing in Your Head (A & M/ Verve, 1975), that changed my life. That, and the Miles Davis album Tribute to Jack Johnson (Columbia, 1971). But I came from the country, and I didn't know anything. Nobody told me anything. I had to go out and find this stuff, really almost on my own—but not totally on my own.

These things just blew me away and I said, "I want to do something like that." And I'm not a very good mimic, and there've been times where I've tried to play like Ornette, and failed. But I'm happy with that. I'm happy with the result I get out of that. 'Cause I think it sounds kind of cool. If I use what I perceive as the way he plays—which is only my perception, it's not how he plays—because you can't get your brain into that, how someone else plays, just your interpretation of it; it's always been inspiring to me and I'm totally influenced by that.

From left: George Cartwright, Michael Lytle, David Moss

As far as Denardo, I had met him when I moved to New York, with Bill Laswell, and actually did some recording and playing with a woman named Nora Roberta Nausbaum that Ornette was producing. And Denardo was friends with Bill. Bill said, for whatever reason, "Let's get Denardo to play." And he played on that one gig and it was wonderful. He's a great, great drummer, great guy—totally I think unappreciated in the jazz world, for what he brings to music—because it's, "Well, he's Ornette's son." So he's kind of outside the range of the large accepted jazz world. One of my favorites.

AAJ: So you started saxophone—how old were you and when would this have been?

GC: In 1971, I got a saxophone on my 21st birthday.

AAJ: So you were born in 1950. What was it like learning music in the South? What did you grow up listening to, what impressed you the most?

GC: When I was a kid, in high school, I was really into Bob Dylan and The The Rolling Stones and Cream, you know those bands of the time. My sister was into Motown, and I thought that was all too wishy-washy and they got horns, and I didn't like that, it wasn't rough enough for me. Of course, I'm not stupid any more [laughs], and have changed my opinions of things a lot.

It's kind of funny. The Vietnam War was going on, I had a low draft number, I was a conscientious objector, and I just felt very fueled, or something: "I'd like to play the saxophone!" And I bought a Charles Lloyd album, called Live at Monterey, I think [Forest Flower (Atlantic, 1966)]. And, I loved it. I couldn't hear it, but I loved how it felt, if that makes any sense. I thought, "Well, I'd like to play the saxophone."

I was a conscientious objector, and then I went to Memphis State, then I went to Jackson State, then I went to Southern Mississippi. Then I decided—then actually I was able to play a little bit—and I went to The Creative Music Studio, in 1977, where Karl Berger and Ingrid Sertso had started a school. And Oliver Lake, Leo Smith, Art Ensemble Of Chicago, Dave Holland, Frederick Rzewski—all the big, big guys of the time taught there.

And then I moved to New York City. I talked to Oliver Lake. I thought I was playing pretty good, and I said, "Oliver, I'm thinking about moving to New York, but there are so many saxophone players!" And Oliver said, "George, there's always room for one more!" And that's how those guys were and are, they were very supportive, inclusive and—"Go do it..."

AAJ: And so you made it in New York.

GC: I think I did good things. I was fortunate to have the opportunity to be in the right place at the right time, to be able do really good music, and meet creative people and talented people who were all going, "Wow! Here we are! Let's go!" Let's go do whatever this is, or create whatever it is. It was very exciting.

AAJ: To back up a bit, when you first started up, did you have any special mentors, or people that meant a lot to you, teachers, in the early '70s, before you got to the Creative Music Studio?

GC: Well, I had a great saxophone teacher at the University of Southern Mississippi named Wilbur Moreland. A really nice guy—he was really a clarinetist, and he taught saxophone players 'cause he kind of had to. I was not very good. I was learning, and I was practicing five or six, or seven hours a day. But he treated me like the good students. And it meant the world to me.

AAJ: What is the history of your role as leader? You seem like a very natural leader and you don't hog the stage, and you let the other musicians breathe and speak on their own, and you know how to knit them together—Were you a leader growing up, in any way?

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. 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.

AAJ: Well I met Tom at the Creative Music Studio. And he didn't start playing the cello until—I don't know, I think he was in his early twenties...We played together there, and when Curlew got started, he wanted to play and I wanted to play. And Tom, he was kind of one of those people that, he just happened to play the cello. So he doesn't, he sort of stands—take all cello players, nothing against them all, they're great—and then over there, there's Tom Cora. And his way, his basic way of playing and the way he would challenge himself in his compositions (which I think were very unappreciated), which were incredible, they're very hard for us to play but he could play them like cutting butter with a hot knife. It was very easy.

AAJ: Your loss of Tom Cora would of course have been traumatic. You must have severely missed him—I mean, obviously you did. On the other hand, was the revolving nature of your cast in any way an inspiration?

GC: People come and go. That's life. For whatever reasons, and then you deal with it. And although sad when people were gone, I looked it as an opportunity to get somebody else in, that I really liked, and take the band in a different direction. I always wanted, when people came into Curlew, after the start, to have them change the banc in some way, rather than just come in the band and take someone's place. And so when Bill [Laswell] left the band and I got Wayne Horvitz to play keyboard bass—I don't believe you could go out and find a band in the vein of Curlew, that has a keyboard bassist. I mean that's insane.

AAJ: Well, there's Ray Manzarek of Doors Wide Open, who played keyboard in place of bass...

GC: Dangit! I knew there was another band! And he did really good!—And then Wayne didn't want to do it any more, and he said, "Why don't you get Ann Rupel from V-Effect?" And when Ann left the band, after I moved to Memphis, Fred Chalenor came in and he was great. The point being that I wanted people to come in who would change the band. 'Cause I think that change is really a lot of fun. And there was no pressure to stay the same; it wasn't like we were making a lot of money at it.

AAJ: On Beautiful Western Saddle, the poetry by Paul Haines, he's such a great poet. And I wasn't aware that he was the lyricist for Carla Bley's Escalator Over the Hill (JCOA, 1971), another great classic album. Did he participate at all in how you interpreted his poetry musically, or did he just give it to you and let you do what you would with it?

GC: The latter. He would send me stuff, or us stuff, or take stuff from his [video] Third World Two (1981). And we'd just write songs to it, and I think he was really happy about it. Always said he was, and that's another big loss. It's just one of those things where you think, well this is a good idea. So I talked it over with everybody in the band, and everybody contributed a song except Pippin, I think, and spent a lot of time rehearsing and recording.

AAJ: I'll tell you what I like about you: you feel loss deeply. You mourn deeply. That's something I really admire about you.

GC: Thank you.

AAJ: Loss and recovery—is Curlew ever coming back?

GC: You know, I'd like it to. It's just a matter of time and finances. You know, the economy's bad and people are getting clobbered. I'm lucky that I live in St. Paul, Minnesota. There are so many good musicians here that I'm happy with the music I've done since I've been here. It's a way for me to keep going. I'd love to do more Curlew stuff. It's just, pulling together five people together from all over the country and start touring—it's fucking expensive!

AAJ: You new album—Rag (Roaratorio, 2010), with [drummer] Davu Seru—that's great stuff, it's very tight and dynamic. Is this a sign more to come in this vein? It seems like a whole new direction you could go in.

GC: Oh, yeah. I've been going in that direction. In Memphis for five years and here for ten or eleven years. It's really been good for me musically. I can't tell you how many good musicians there are here in the twin cities.

AAJ: Now you're not old but you're not young, either; so I think it's all right for me to ask you this as a final question: how do you see your role in music history? When the dust settles, what do you think will make audiences see you as distinctive? Are you larger than Curlew, or is Curlew larger than you?

GC: Uh, I dunno [laughs]—How's that for an answer? I think what Curlew was—and I don't know, or care—but I think Curlew was really distinctive. And why, or how—and I think about it and you've just got to be standing at the right place, in the right time—with the right people and then just the wind blows through.

AAJ: It's like sailing, I guess—sailing on the Mississippi gulf.

GC: Yeah, it just comes through and you go—it happens and it's done, and you just go, "I'm so glad I didn't screw that up!"

Selected Discography

Curlew, A Beautiful Western Saddle/The Hardwood (Cuneiform, 2010)

Curlew, 1st Album + Live at CGCB 1980 (DMG, 2008)

George Cartwright/GloryLand PonyCat, Black Ants Crawling (Innova, 2003)

Curlew, Mercury (Cuneiform, 2003)

Curlew, "Meet the Curlews!" (Cuneiform, 2002)

Curlew, North America (Cuneiform, 2002)

The Memphis Years (Cuneiform, 2000)

Georger Cartwright/Michael Lytle, Red Rope (CIMP, 1998)

Curlew, Fabulous Drop (Cuneiform, 1998)

Curlew, Paradise (Cuneiform, 1996)

Curlew, Live in Berlin (Cuneiform, 1990)

Georger Cartwright/Michael Lytle/David Moss, Meltable Snaps It (RecRec Germany, 1986)

Photo Credits

Page 1: Courtesy of Cuneiform Records

Pages 2, 3: Courtesy of Elewhale

Page 4: Courtesy of George Cartwright

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