Curlew is the name for a series of punk-jazz or free jazz-rock-fusion bands that have comprised saxophonist George Cartwright and a changing cast of friends since 1979. North America originally appeared in Europe as the second of Curlew's eight albums; this reissue is augmented with a live session by a different Curlew. The material begins as mere two- or four-bar riffs-imaginative riffs, though-over rock ostinatos. Usually the clever themes and ostinatos and tempos go on to change, and the fetching set-up of "Mink's Dream" is two bars of theme alternating with spacey rubato moments. There are also plenty of comments on the themes by various instruments and short solos and full-band freakouts-variety is Curlew's one constant. Only Cartwright and electric cellist Tom Cora play in both groups. On alto, the eclectic Cartwright evokes Ornette Coleman's latter-day style here and there as well as plenty of tied-to-the-beat rock sax with climactic squeals; he also has an amusing rubato tenor solo on the studio version of "Mink's Dream." The late Cora, whom I first heard playing free improvisations, sounds constrained here: on the live version of "Shoats," for example, his free, busy lines build to a conventional, long-noted climax.
Guitarist Mark Howell and bassist Fred Frith are in the studio session (from 1984 to '85), which has snatches of Butch Morris' cornet and Polly Bradfield's violin as well. The program features short, bubbly originals by Cartwright and Cora, ending in a J.B. Lenoir blues with a band vocal. The added nightclub quintet Curlew (from 1983) has the many-notes guitarist Nicky Skopelitis and the fine, very busy drummer Anton Fier. Their combined energy and dense textures (and rather poor recording quality) gives a more reckless feeling to their six tracks. Even though the studio session is more closely arranged, it also has more liberated commentary and interjections, so I like the sextet Curlew best. Altogether the album is classy entertainment in which delightful composing and playing mingles with conceptual limitations.