Rag, Saddle and All: Curlew and George Cartwright / Davu Seru


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Saxophonist and composer George Cartwright might not be an oft-repeated name in creative improvised music, but he should garner a weighted whistle whenever he does crop up. Raised in Mississippi and now calling Minneapolis home, Cartwright was co-leader of the seminal New York post-RIO/squirrely downtown jazz ensemble Curlew, alongside cellist Tom Cora, throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s.

In 2010, Curlew barely registers a blip when people talk about the "Downtown" scene, but with such luminaries as bassist Bill Laswell, guitarists Nicky Skopelitis and Davey Williams, and drummer Denardo Coleman passing through the ranks, that's a crying shame. By the early 1990s, the band's lineup was mostly solidified to include drummer Pippin Barnett and monster electric bassist Ann Rupel alongside Cartwright, Cora and Williams, though it was subsequently in relative flux (especially hard a blow was the death of Cora in 1998) and has seemingly been dormant since 2003.


A Beautiful Western Saddle

Cuneiform Records

2010 (1993)

A Beautiful Western Saddle is an unusual piece in the Curlew puzzle, setting the poems of Paul Haines (1933-2003) in wiry arrangements by members of the group and vocalist Amy Denio. The set was first issued on Cuneiform in 1993; the present reissue includes a DVD of live performances of some of the compositions, as well as a contemporaneous instrumental set recorded at the Knitting Factory and initially issued on VHS as The Hardwood.

Cartwright had long been a fan of the poet by the time this material was recorded, and contributed handily to an ongoing project between Paul Haines and genre-bashing percussionist Kip Hanrahan. The tunes are short, rather than sprawling, with the lengthiest being about five and a half minutes, mostly serving as an honest showcase for the spry, lilting and joyous koans of Haines' poetry. Amy Denio's voice is alternately husky and airily smooth, with little inflection to lend on top of the words, which are mostly half-sung and half spoken. In just seeing the poems on the page (indeed, most are reprinted in the collection Secret Carnival Workers, H.Pal, 2007), the reader might imagine them honored in chunky time signatures or maddening gestures, rather than garish bagatelles with poppy hooks left and right. There's a crisp sheen to the recording, rendering gutbucket tenor, skittering cello and fractured guitar plink with neon electricity.

If you're looking for unfettered Cartwright pyrotechnics, A Beautiful Western Saddle isn't that—not entirely, though the DVD offers some beautiful long-form instrumental compositions from the Knitting Factory. In fact, the Knit set offers as much proof as one would need of Cora's deserved place as one of the greatest improvising cellists who ever lived. What much of the music on this set provides is a reimagining and integration of eccentric, nearly tossed-off poems within the context of bumpy, occasionally skronky jazz-rock. In fact, Curlew seems to have grown these songs out of an axis that recalls pianist-composer Carla Bley or reedman Gary Windo—lieder-like declamations, oddball rock and gritty undertow converge in all sorts of colors. Notably, the Live in Washington D.C. component of the DVD is a bit more rough and ragged, recorded at the punk/art venue D.C. Space in late 1992 and featuring a pell-mell run-through of several Western Saddle pieces as well as period classics like Cartwright's "To the Summer in Our Hearts" and "The Hardwood." If this set isn't necessarily the "perfect" starting place in the Curlew discography, it shows what the band was capable of and how wide ranging its vision could be.

George Cartwright / Davu Seru


Roaratorio Records


Rag captures Cartwright and drummer Davu Seru (known for his work in the ensembles of multi-instrumentalist Milo Fine) in an unfettered duo setting, culled from concerts in Minneapolis in 2009. This limited edition vinyl-only release is the fourth in Minneapolis' Roaratorio Records stable to feature Cartwright—other sets include a duo with electronic artist Andrew Broder, a later and freer variant of Curlew, and a sideman appearance with ex-AACM pianist Carei Thomas (Mining our Bid'ness, 2002).

Across five improvisations, Cartwright is heard on soprano in addition to his usual alto and tenor saxophones. Seru is an interesting foil for Cartwright, start-stop jitters and sound-rhythm cut with an extremely broad stroke, he surges, piles and disappears against hard-bitten, heel-digging tenor on "Titus," as reedy lines bunch, billow and shout, flaming out and recharging. "Saint Joe to Himself" lopes and wanders at the outset, Cartwright's soprano hanging behind Seru's startling rumble and thrash before sending spikes through the mass.

The centerpiece of the album is the 18 minute "Troubles like Old Dirt," which takes up most of the second side, Cartwright's alto in bubbly, flywheel-charged cycles that recall Oliver Lake at his fiercest. Seru drops out to allow the reedman a space to explore the clicks of his pads and spin out soft, breathy tendrils and terse patter. That patter becomes a bevy of bitter screams as the drummer's taiko-like jabs and ceremonial weight return to encircle and shove off Cartwright's volleys, which shift from coiled multiphonics to a sinewy blues processional before reveling in jaunty hops. Rag is an excellent duo, finding two musicians engaged in an epic conversation and tug of wits, breath and rhythm.

Tracks and Personnel

A Beautiful Western Saddle

Tracks: CD1: Let's Sit Right Down/The Passing; Such Credentials as Have Become Pseudonym; Poem for Gretchen Ruth; All's Well that Ends; Peking Widow; The Prince; What is Free to a Good Home?; Still Trying; Breakfast; Today; Song Sung Long; Human Weather Words; Now Can You Tell Me or Can It Still Be Told?, Paint Me!. CD2: Saint Dog; Rudders; Moonlake; Gary Brown; Jim (to the James River); Saint Croix; Gimme; To the Summer in Our Hearts; It Must Be a Sign; The Hardwood; Today; Paint Me!, What is Free to a Good Home?, Now Can You Tell Me or Can It Still Be Told?, The Prince, Poem for Gretchen Ruth, Such Credentials as Have Become Pseudonym, To the Summer in Our Hearts, The Hardwood.

Personnel: George Cartwright: tenor saxophone, alto saxophone, voice; Tom Cora: cello, voice; Davey Williams: guitar; Ann Rupel: bass, voice; Pippin Barnett: drums; Amy Denio: voice.


Tracks: Titus; Saint Joe to Himself; Push Shove; Troubles Like Old Dirt; I Think Eudora Knows.

Personnel: George Cartwright: tenor saxophone, alto saxophone, soprano saxophone; Davu Seru, percussion.

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