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Curlew: Meet the Curlews!

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The Knitting Factory chose wisely when it selected Curlew’s kinetic, tuneful “St. Croix” to open the first of its Live at the Knitting Factory releases back in 1991. The brainchild of Mississippi-born saxophonist and composer George Cartwright, Curlew was among the most distinctive bands to arise from the primordial soup that bubbled in the Knit’s caffeinated cauldron. Unlike most of the other bandleaders of that day, however, Cartwright has kept Curlew going long after the Downtown scene dissipated. Despite numerous personnel changes-most notably the departure of the late, great cellist Tom Cora-Curlew has quietly continued to make a series of consistently satisfying recordings for the Cuneiform label for more than a decade.

Recently, however, Cartwright left New York, spending time in Memphis before settling in Minneapolis. The bigger skies and slower pace have obviously affected the music on Meet the Curlews! The title’s obvious allusion serves to announce a kinder, gentler version of the band, less frantic and edgy than its New York-based predecessors. Alongside Cartwright and longtime guitarist Davey Williams, Curlew now boasts the bass-guitar virtuosity of Fred Chalenor, a Seattle-based musician known for his work with Wayne Horvitz, Hugh Hopper and Amy Denio. Two comparatively unknown musicians, pianist Chris Parker and drummer Bruce Golden, complete the lineup.

Parker in particular gives this Curlew a jazzier voice than previous versions, grabbing ample space for his gospel-tinged chording and Tyner-powered vamps. Too often, however, the new rhythm section marches, stomps or simply plods where their predecessors would dance and race. While still the primary composer, Cartwright’s saxophone frequently fades into the background, only truly coming to life on Parker’s “Cold Ride,” which alternates between turbulent free-jazz roiling and a boisterous groove, and Williams’ “Sensible Shoes/Proper Fit,” where his tone threatens to shatter into Pharoah Sanders-style sanctified shouting.

The MVP of Meet the Curlews! is Williams, whose Downtown expressionism bears a distinctly Southern accent. From skittering noise fragments to greasy slide, Williams consistently enlivens a disc that otherwise marks a period of transition.