Meet The Curlews
Cuneiform Rune 157

Curlew may be facing an insurmountable problem.

With its nucleus of guitarist Davey Williams and saxophonist/composer George Cartwright together for almost a quarter century, the five-man ensemble continues to play rooted, unshowy jazz-rock on this, its eighth album. Trouble is, by staying true to its modest goals, the group risks being characterized as sort of a Preservation Hall Jazz Band of fusion, creating composition-based songs in a world populated by hyper showy Dukes of Dixieland types.

In truth, Curlew pretty much has the field to itself. Most of the jazz-based improvisers attracted to electricity in the 1970s either returned to the mainstream or roam the farthest reaches of atonality. Concurrently, rockers so debased the genre with seemingly perpetual and self-indulgent guitar solos and egotistical, tumultuous percussion displays, not to mention sub-standard vocals (!), that detractors began to describe fusion in terms of another f-word.

With three new members on board, the band tries to make this disc compact. But with 11 tunes — seven written by the now Minneapolis-based Cartwright — most featuring round robin solos and an unvarying beat from Mississippi-raised drummer Bruce Golden, tracks often seem to extend much longer than they should. For all the times Golden tries to break up his accompaniment by utilizing different percussion patters, and instruments such as the cow bell on “Lemon Bitter”, there are many more instances when he seems to be going out of his way to (over) emphasize every beat.

True to the jam band ethos, bassist Fred Chalenor sticks to a strict time-keeping function, while Memphis-based pianist/electric pianist Chris Parker seems to skip around the keyboard. He attempts to approximate the megapower of someone like McCoy Tyner on his own “Cold Ride”; turns to romantic impressionism on both parts of “Late December”; and plays standard The Mothers-meet-Steely Dan electric piano is on the title tune. That composition is a bit strange in itself, for when you add together what sounds like an electrified saxophone blend, some chunka chunka rhythm guitar parts and keyboard glissandos, Curlew appears to be mirroring an outtake from Frank Zappa’s HOT RATS album.

But Parker’s most revealing solo come after some Stax-Volt-style bass runs and chicken clucking sax on “Barn Door”. Two-handedly he works over the keys, in sort of a reverse image to what Junior Mance or Ray Bryant does. Even when they don’t play the blues, these pianists sound bluesy, whereas Parker’s touch is blanched even when he plays the blues.

Williams, one of two full-fledged outside improvisers to live in Birmingham, Ala. — the other is his on-again/off-again partner LaDonna Smith — keeps his wackiness in check here and the session is weaker for it. Like a Bizzaro version of a guitar god, he mostly limits himself throughout to the sort of modified fuzz tones he introduces on bassist Chalenor’s “Space Flight Cat”, only indulging in distorted buzzing on the Latinesque “ARM” and finally unveiling some extraterrestrial effects on the final cut.

Meanwhile, Cartwright’s braying trills on that tune and jocular excursions on “Sensible Shoes/Proper Fit”, where he remain just slightly off tempo from the rest of the band, appear to be the last remaining hurrahs of a former New York alternative music denizen.

Taken together the many unexpected licks the quintet introduces into the disc put them head, shoulder and instrument above any standard fuzak or jamband practitioner. But if the exceptional parts of different tracks had been linked on fewer, more focused compositions, MEET THE CURLEWS would have solved the band’s seemingly formidable predicament. It also would have been a classic instead of a merely an unapologetic model of intelligent fusion.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. Space Flight Cat 2. Late December 3. Meet The Curlews 4. ARM 6. HATED 7. Sensible Shoes/Proper Fit 8. Barn Door 9. Lemon Bitter 10. Late December (reprise) 11. Middle and Fall

Personnel: George Cartwright (soprano, alto and tenor saxophone); Davey Williams six and 12- string guitar); Chris Parker (piano, electric piano); Fred Chalenor (bass); Bruce Golden (drums)