Curlew – A Beautiful Western Saddle/The Hardwood (2010) – (2 discs) DVD: 4:3 color, PCM Stereo – Cuneiform 303/304, CD: 57:23, DVD: 134:72 ***1/2:
(George Cartwright – alto and tenor saxophone; Tom Cora – cello; Ann Rupel – bass; Davey Williams – guitar, effects; Pippin Barnett – drums; Amy Denio – vocals)
Cuneiform continues its reissue series with A Beautiful Western Saddle/The Hardwood, a two-disc CD/DVD package featuring Curlew, the New York City art-rock/experimental jazz outfit. The expanded configuration melds the 1993 Saddle studio album with a live DVD of two previously unissued 1991 concert films. There is a one hour, 22 minute show at New York City’s The Knitting Factory and a 53-minute performance at Washington, D.C. venue D.C. Space.
The genre-cracking instrumental ensemble Curlew, formed in the late 1970s, was part of New York City’s downtown art/music scene. Former members included Bill Laswell and Wayne Horvitz, although by 1991 the band consisted of bassist Ann Rupel, drummer Pippin Barnett and guitarist Davey Williams alongside founders George Cartwright (saxophone) and cellist Tom Cora. Even by Curlew standards, A Beautiful Western Saddle is an odd variation from the norm: a collaboration with non-traditional poet Paul Haines, best known for contributions to Carla Bley’s 1971 jazz opera Escalator Over The Hill. On this hour-long effort, Haines’ negligible poetry is sung by guest vocalist Amy Denio, who attempts to elevate Haines’ non sequitur lines into something more astute than they warrant. The lyrics often have a mantra-like characteristic, especially when different voices are overlaid, such as during “Paint Me!,” where the refrain, “I’m a dog playing cards,” is sung and chanted over and over. This kind of repetition can become overbearing over the course of sixty minutes.
The obvious appeal to Curlew aficionados is the DVD material. The Knitting Factory video contains eight pieces from Curlew’s 1992 undertaking Bee, which evidently had been recorded but not yet released. This club setting reveals strong group playing and a defined structure to most selections. Cartwright is openly free with shrieking sax runs and bursts of sound while Cora’s interfused sharp cello is challenging and unconventional. Guitarist Williams shows off his varied realizations and styles, from low-down blues licks to noise-rock to abstract jazz. During the clamorous prog-rocker “Saint Croix,” he throws out wild fret runs, and renders a distorted solo during the melodically meditative “To the Summer in Our Hearts.” Rupel’s traditional bass gives a rhythmic underpinning that counteracts the quintet’s otherwise impertinent improvisations. Throughout, the band offers a mixture of avant-prog, unencumbered jazz-funk and a modernist creative mood. The group does not flow out in all directions as it might have in prior years and there is less of a chaotic nature. The remastered film footage uses multiple angles and has satisfactory color balance, although some soft focus shots, light streaks and video scratching is noticeable. The remastered audio quality is excellent to good.
The D.C. Space section has eight cuts from A Beautiful Western Saddle and thus affords viewers the opportunity to compare live renditions to studio versions. Interestingly, the musicians do not stretch out the songs in the live environment, instead staying close to the arrangements subsequently produced for the studio recording. The D.C. Space video is slightly worse for wear. There is some washed out color saturation: Denio’s face looks bleached out. There are some irritating, low-tech video effects thrown in that quickly become an annoyance. The sound is fine, though the cello is occasionally mixed below other instruments and the bass is a bit too hot. A short second set comprises lengthy interpretations of two tunes from the Knitting Factory show, enabling fans the chance to hear reworked forms of “To the Summer in Our Hearts” and “The Hardwood.”
There are no DVD or CD bonuses. Viewers cannot use the DVD menu to play specific songs but this can be done manually once the DVD has started. The accompanying booklet has brief liner notes with Cartwright and Haines’ lyrics.
— Doug Simpson