First recorded in 1984-1985 but previously released only on the European Moers label in 1986, North America is an excellent companion to Live in Berlin, which was recorded in 1986. Both discs are highly eclectic, but North America captures a lighter, more whimsical side of Curlew, with most pieces relatively short, and styles range from adulterated swing ("Two-Day 'Till Tomorrow") to skewed, harmolodic funk ("Oklahoma") and a ballad, "Mink's Dream," with a strong Ellington influence. Saxophonist George Cartwright plays both tenor and alto saxes, and while greasy funk might be his specialty, his alto sometimes has an uncanny resemblance to Ornette Coleman's playing (as on the harmolodic piece), and his breathy, soulful work on "Mink's Dream" even recalls Coleman Hawkins. On the up-tempo numbers, Cartwright's sputtering, funky sax (occasionally breaking into free jazz squeals) is complemented by the astringent, sometimes atonal scraping of Tom Cora's cello, Fred Frith's guitar and violin, and Mark Howell's additional guitar. The music is rhythmic but nimble. Frequent, unexpected twists and turns and the unusual timbral elements of cello and violin add an element of novelty, but there's an underlying seriousness and power that elevates the music and commands attention. This reissue of the 1984-1985 studio recording is supplemented with six tracks from a live 1983 date in a small N.Y.C. club, Mort's Place. Curlew's personnel throughout their history has always been fluid, and a year or two earlier, Cartwright and Cora were the only links to the group that recorded North America. Drummer Anton Fier predates J. Pippin Barnett on the club date, and Otto Williams is on bass rather than Fred Frith. Nicky Skopelitis plays guitar. Even allowing for the inferior acoustics of this live session, the sound is much heavier and there is more unison playing -- a contrast that is even more apparent because of the repetition of four songs in both the live and the later studio sessions. Fier went on to form the Golden Palominos at about this time, which also included Curlew guitarist Skopelitis. Fier's preference for a heavier, more edgy style of funk had an obvious effect on the group, with wit and whimsy traded for a sound that is more relentless and menacing. It's an interesting progression, which serves to document the group's evolution into the playful and yet still dangerous beast that they were to become.
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AllMusic Review by William Tilland