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George Cartwright: The Memphis Years

Saxophonist and composer George Cartwright developed his reputation for making music both nonchalantly multifarious and elegantly considered while leading Curlew, the superb new music troupe that’s included musicians like Davey Williams, Wayne Horvitz, Fred Frith, Samm Bennett and the late Tom Cora during its 20-year history. While its work has clearly been representative of New York’s po-mo downtown aesthetic, Cartwright’s excellent compositions and inventive arrangements guaranteed that the group never traded in beauty and musicality for hipness and irony. Rock, new music and R&B all collide in Curlew, but Cartwright also has a deep background in free jazz; he studied with musicians like Leo Smith and Anthony Braxton, and he was an active participant in New York’s edgy improv scene during the late ’70s and early ’80s. The Memphis Years, a nod to his recent five-year residence there, finds him exploring that area with undiminished energy and verve.

While pop and R&B elements remain palpable in his writing-most tellingly in the tunes that feature the elliptic lyrics of Canadian poet Paul Haines, the librettist for Carla Bley’s Escalator Over the Hill, and the singing of Amy Denio, the same combination that made Curlew’s A Beautiful Western Saddle such a success-it’s been years since Cartwright has showcased his formidable skills as a freedom-seeking soloist. Even while clinging to the scrappy and soulful groove of something like “Coffee and Pie,” he unspools an arresting string of knotty melodic embroidery, high-flying harmonic squeals and exhilarating power, all of it assembled with breathless logic and design. Despite the mediocre recording quality-Chris Parker’s piano sounds like a crappy upright model-and a somewhat clunky rhythm section, the leader’s tight conception and hooky writing prove wonderfully transcendent.

Originally Published