A Beautiful Western Saddle / The Hardwood CD + DVD - Cuneiform

A Beautiful Western Saddle/The Hardwood is a two-disc CD and DVD reissue package featuring New York City art-rock/experimental jazz group Curlew. This expanded release unites the 1993 Saddle studio album with a live DVD of two previously unissued 1991 concert films. There is an approximately 90-minute appearance at New York City's The Knitting Factory and a nearly hour-long performance at Washington, D.C. venue D.C. Space.

For those unfamiliar with Curlew, the multi-genre instrumental combo formed in 1979 as part of New York City's downtown art/music scene. Although the band never found as much fame or notoriety as likeminded artists such as John Zorn, Eugene Chadbourne, and others, early Curlew incarnations included Wayne Horvitz, Bill Laswell, and guitarists Nicky Skopelitis and Fred Frith. By 1991, the ensemble consisted of founders George Cartwright (saxophone) and cellist Tom Cora along with newer members drummer Pippin Barnett, bassist Ann Rupel, and guitarist Davey Williams.

Even by Curlew's skewed standards, A Beautiful Western Saddle was an unusual departure, a collaborative effort with lyricist and poet Paul Haines, acknowledged for his contributions to Carla Bley's 1971 jazz opera Escalator over the Hill. Here, Haines' trifling poetics are sung by guest vocalist Amy Denio, who endeavors to lift Haines' conversational and absurdist verse into something incisive. The mantra-like characteristics have a mannered repetition which can become tedious, especially when voices are dubbed during "Paint Me!," where the refrain "I'm a dog playing cards" is sung-chanted over and over.

Curlew fans will probably gravitate to the live material on The Hardwood DVD. The 10-song Knitting Factory video - which includes eight pieces from Curlew's 1992 project Bee - reveals strong organizational playing and an orderly structure, although Cora's cello is defiant and unorthodox and Cartwright's screeching sax is overtly liberated. Williams shows off various styles from nominal blues guitar to abstract jazz. All throughout the band presents a mixture of avant-prog, jazz-funk, and alternative tunings. The D.C. Space section has 10 tracks, with eight cuts from A Beautiful Western Saddle. Curlew does not stretch out as much as expected in the live environment; instead the musicians rely on the arrangements subsequently produced for the studio recording. One caveat: the D.C. Space video is slightly worse for wear. There is some bleached color saturation and irritating, low-tech video effects that rapidly turn aggravating. The sound is fine, though, on both filmed gigs. There are no DVD or compact disc bonuses. The accompanying booklet has brief liner notes by Cartwright, plus Haines' lyrics.

By Doug Simpson



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