North America
Cuneiform Rune 167

Retrospectively Curlew got a raw deal.

When these tunes were briefly released — only in Germany — in the mid-1980s, the band’s mixture of jazz improvisations, R&B licks and compact pop hooks was ignored in favor of music performed by groups more closely allied to any one of those idioms.

Listening to this vastly uneven collection, however, shows that the band made up of dedicated New York downtowners, was groping towards the sort of non-idiomatic fusion many younger, more sophisticated groups revel in today, whether they be from the so-called jazz or so-called pop/rock side of the equation.

Appending an additional six songs, recorded live and featuring a slightly different and even earlier Curlew line-up to NORTH AMERICA’s original 13 tracks is even more instructive. Despite its downtown punk trappings, they show that the band members were also familiar with the blues and country music traditions. Over all, the 19 tracks show an evolving aggregation trying to conceive of the best way to mix the new concepts of jazzers like Henry Threadgill, Ornette Coleman and Butch Morris with a pop interface. Sometimes the musicians succeed; other times they fail — spectacularly. But that’s what make this CD interesting.

Tenor and alto saxophonist George Cartwright, who still leads the band today, and the late cellist Tom Cora (1953-1998), who later moved to Europe and collaborations with vocalist Catherine Jauniaux, are the only constants. The first 14 tunes feature a five man line-up with shifting drummers; guitarist Fred Frith, in between membership in art rockers Henry Cow and his present improvisational renown, plays bass, the same instrument he used in John Zorn’s Naked City; and guitarist Mark Howell, who later performed in Frith’s guitar quartet. The earlier quintet featured Cartwright, Cora, obscure bassist Otis Williams, who had an authoritative, light-fingered sound; drummer Anton Fier, after Pere Ubu and before his stint with The Golden Palominos; and guitarist Nicky Skopelitis, who recorded a duo session with skronk jazz legend Sonny Sharrock and has since been associated with producer Bill Laswell. Still with the majority of songs from Cartwright, there’s not much controversy about who is the leader.

The presence of Cora’s cello gives you some idea of the band’s ambitions at that time. Most downtown punk bands didn’t have any truck with someone able to play Pablo Casals’ instrument. Also of note is the fact that jazz cornettist Morris adds some muted trills on top of the relentless rhythm of the brief “Knee Songs 2” and experimental violinist Polly Bradfield screeches a few strings on the first versions of “Mink’s Dream” (sic), which also has an Ornette Coleman-like obbligato from Cartwright’s alto, as well as “Moonlake”, a partially acoustic country’n’fusion hoe-down.

“First Bite” and “Oklahoma” are also performed twice. Listening to different versions you hear why Curlew members, while good at what they did, were never real jazzers. For a start, none of the drummers ever really figured out jazz polyrhythms as opposed to beating out the constant, smashing pulse that rock demands. Secondly, at that time — he’s since become more erudite — Cartwright’s grating tone seemed to be midway between that of Boots Randolph’s yakety sax and James Chance’s rudimentary shronk punk. Coleman, Threadgill and even Albert Ayler performed by ignoring their original training; you get the feeling Cartwright lacked any.

Although Cora’s (over) amplified cello gives some respite from the standard beat group set up of guitars and drums, too many of the tunes are too short to let much interesting instrumental interplay develop. And nearly all have a pat structure, ending almost exactly as you would expect them.

Still comparing the different versions of the tunes, the jam session-like excesses appear to have been worked out of them by the time they were professionally recorded. Solos for the sake of solos have almost disappeared. While the unfettered openness is still there, arrangements make the end result more focused.

There are a couple of major mishaps as well, when Frith brings out a violin on “The Victim”, the resulting country pastiche sounds more like an outtake from WORKINGMAN’S DEAD than whatever the band hoped to show. More seriously, Frith and Cartwright sing on J.B. Lenoir’s “Feelin’ Good”, transforming a blues into a simplistic country ballad. Novelty is good fellas, but there’s a reason bands hire vocalists. Apparently both have learned their lessons though. No one outside of their immediate families has heard either sing recently.

All and all NORTH AMERICA is a fascinating document of a band gradually figuring out how to forge an individual sound. One could expect the ends to be tied a bit tighter and the instrumentation to move more towards improvisation than rock. But that’s the way Curlew was nearly 20 years ago. Appealing to rock fusion fans, the disc will definitely on many Curlew fans’ holiday wish lists.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. Ray!= 2. Oklahoma 3. Knee Songs 2@= 4. Person to Person~ 5. Time and a Half 6. Mink’s Dream$ 7. Two-day Till Tomorrow^= 8. Light Sentence 9. First Bite 10. Moonlake$ 11. 12a. Agitar= b. The Victim&= 13. Feelin’ Good* 14. Oklahoma 15. Shoats 16. Moonlake 17. Mink’s Dream 18. The Ole Miss Exercise Song 19. First Bite

Personnel: Butch Morris (cornet)@; George Cartwright (alto and tenor saxophones, vocal); Fred Frith ([tracks 1-13] guitar!, bass, violin&); Polly Bradfield (violin)$; Mark Howell (guitar [tracks 1-13]); Nicky Skopelitis guitar [tracks 14-19]); Tom Cora (cello, cello resonated objects, accordion^); Otis Williams ([tracks 14-19]bass); Martin Bisis (fake bass drum)~; Rick Brown= , J. Pippin Barrett [tracks 2,4-6,8-11,13]; Anton Fier [tracks 14-19](drums)