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George Cartwright: Barrier Islands Bird

Gordon Marshall By

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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.

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