When looking back at the heydays of New York City's so-called "downtown scene," it seems surprising that Curlew aren't mentioned more frequently, but perhaps this tremendous two-disc set issued by the Downtown Music Gallery will help remedy that situation. Although downtown music of the '80s and '90s was always about erasing musical boundaries (among other things), Curlew might have erased musical boundaries too well; after all, it's never been too difficult to assign Sonic Youth to the "rock" box and Dave Douglas to "jazz" (John Zorn is one person who blew up the box from the get-go) for marketing purposes. But what about a band that combined elements of free jazz, avant rock, and interludes of textural improv with saxophonist/leader George Cartwright's Mississippi-bred R&B/funk sensibility and down-home friendly tunefulness? Where does that fit, exactly? Well, how about right in your ears. Bill Laswell is probably the most "famous" musician on Curlew's eponymous debut LP reissued here, and it's interesting to note that not only had he not fallen into his more well-known ambient dub persona at the time of this 1980 recording -- but the first Material album had not even been released, nor his first solo effort, Baselines. On tracks like the opening "Panther Burn" his slippery, rubbery bass is all over the place and far from deep and dubby. Laswell is more interested in playing in-your-face funk-jazz than in building up layers of "atmosphere" (although there is atmosphere of a different sort on the collective improv "But Get It," spacious but disturbed more than calming), and the same goes for guitarist Nicky Skopelitis, a future ongoing partner in Laswell's sonic universe who emerges as a fleet-fingered fusoid six-stringer here ("Bitter Thumbs"). Drummer Bill Bacon from Material alternately nails the groove and rolls and tumbles along, and cellist Tom Cora makes every effort to transport his instrument as far as possible from the world of "chamber music" -- his earthy and abrasive tone and jagged interjections are as wonderful on this disc as they ever would be (and his "Rudders" is a great Curlew tune).
Then of course there is the leader, with his sax staking out territory somewhere between R&B, funk, harmolodics, and free jazz/improv, screaming with passion one moment and then rolling out a melody so insistently catchy and good-natured that you might wonder if downtown avant types were thrown into a conundrum at Curlew gigs: "Will we still be hip if somebody catches us dancing the Funky Chicken to this stuff?" And while Cartwright can wail with the best of them, he is more interested in a group sound than in hogging the solo spotlight, as he would continue to prove through numerous Curlew incarnations on Cuneiform albums up to and including 2003's Mercury. The DMG reissue of Curlew is nicely digitally remastered with a slew of unreleased live bonus tracks recorded at CBGB in February 1980, plus an entire second disc of previously unreleased live tracks also recorded at CBGB in October of that year and featuring none other than Denardo Coleman on drums. The second disc -- also digitally mastered -- presents two complete live sets (nearly all the tunes therefore appear twice) of often raucous and funked-up Curlew with fiery soloing by Cartwright, Cora, and Skopelitis over the skittering Laswell-Coleman rhythm section. With informative historical liner notes from DMG's Manny "Lunch" Maris and featuring the original album artwork from James Flournoy Holmes, Curlew 1st Album + Live at CBGB 1980 amply proves Curlew's status as a downtown band of historic proportions. A big thank you to DMG for helping to set the record straight.