Saxophonist/composer George Cartwright’s musical heritage or persona may represent somewhat of an anomaly. Born and reared in blues-orientated Mississippi, Cartwright went on to study with the likes of notable modern jazz icons such as, Anthony Braxton, Oliver Lake, Wadada Leo Smith and others while subsequently reeking havoc on the New York Downtown scene by forming the jazz/prog-rock/improvising band, “Curlew”. During the late 70’s, early 80’s Cartwright entrenched himself among New York City’s “downtown movement” rank and file while demonstrating his gifts as a sharp soloist and prolific composer coupled with a keen penchant for assimilating disparate musical elements. With his second solo recording, The Memphis Years Cartwright furthers that notion as he draws upon his Southern roots to compile a special blend of “Memphis-Horns” style R&B along with forward thinking rock, funk and jazz improvisation. On this recording, Cartwright garners support from longtime collaborators, lyricist Paul Haines, and vocalist Amy Denio as the overall results prove to be curiously stimulating and a bit abstract yet altogether foot-stomping and gregariously festive!
The diverse mix commences with Amy Denio’s compelling vocals on the piece titled, “Surprise, Surprise” followed by punchy choruses from the horn section as the music contains grassroots rock and soul underpinnings thanks to the aggregate of seasoned “Memphis” session musicians. Yet, the quirky vibe sets the pace for a series of compositions that meld – hot Southern R&B with a light-hearted or slightly slanted New York City “downtown” attitude. The ever-resourceful Cartwright continues with his variations of standard funk-jazz-rock fare on the piece titled, “The Please Fasten Your Seatbelt Sign” featuring Amy Denio’s sultry vocals which nicely contrast some of the hard-edged ensemble work capped off by Jim Spake’s blistering soprano sax solo. Intriguing and to some degree, far-reaching concepts come to fruition once again on compositions such as the 10-minute, “Coffee & Pie” complete with rock solid rhythmic structures and a free-flight tenor sax solo by Lawrence Miller as the Blues goes head to head with modern jazz tendencies. On “Coffee & Pie”, the band sound as though they’re performing at a late night Blues venue while frequently deviating from the straight and narrow via huge hard hitting and guiltless block chords from pianist Chris Parker, divergent choruses from the horns along with Cartwright’s gritty and angular phrasing. The hodgepodge of serpentine arrangements, bold tenacity and decisive soloing impart a distinctive edge or more importantly a refreshingly entertaining view of traditional grooves intermingled with newfangled propositions.
Other highlights are Cartwright’s piercing tenor sax solo on his otherworldly and dream-laden piece titled, “Clumsy”. Chris Parker’s wonderfully inventive gospel tinged piano performance on “In Serious Veins” and the 11-minute opus dedicated to the late poet, beat writer Allen Ginsburg, “Zero Street” which progresses as a multi-part suite featuring dark, haunting choruses that transcend into thoughtful melodies. Here, baritone saxophonist Jim Spake anchors the horn section via his deep, penetrating lines that counter the thriving momentum yet also compliment Amy Denio’s rich, lyric-less vocals; hence, a fitting climax to a very powerful and memorable recording!
George Cartwright succeeds where many others have failed as this ever-inventive and witty composer/musician once again enlivens his personalized view of musical matters, which more than likely culminates from an adventuresome past, yet Cartwright continues to astound! With the The Memphis Years Cartwright cross-pollinates the old with the new in artful fashion, yet it all sounds so genuine and uninhibited but then again, we wouldn’t expect anything less....... * * * * ½
George Cartwright; Alto, Tenor & Soprano Saxophones: Amy Denio; Vocals: Jim Spake; Baritone, Tenor & Soprano Saxophones: Chris Parker; Piano: Doug Garrison; Drums & Percussion: Kevin Sheehan; Acoustic Bass: Tim Goodwin; Acoustic & Electric Bass: Tom Clary; Flugelhorn: Lawrence Miller; Tenor Saxophone: Scott Thompson; Trumpet: Special Guest: Davey Williams; Electric Guitar: