Curlew – A Beautiful Western Saddle

January 01, 1970



A Beautiful Western Saddle is an anomaly in
avant-jazz Curlew’s catalog, the only one of a string of albums released
between 1979 and 2003 that featured lyrics. For this recording, Curlew leader
George Cartwright adapted Canadian poet Paul Haines’s lyrics to the band’s
difficult, polyrhythmic grooves and invited Amy Denio to sing them.


Haines had collaborated with Carla Bley in the 1971 jazz
opera Escalator Over the Hill, so he had some experience fitting lines
to complicated motifs. Yet there’s no easy way to splice conventional melody
and lyric to Curlew’s intricate, rhythm-centered grooves. Denio’s voice, which
is quite beautiful, often sounds like the only smooth, sustained element in
bristling wire-meshes of complexity.


The vocals work best when they are simplest and most
prominent, as, for instance, on the first and last tracks. Opener “Let’s Sit
Right Down/The Passing” layers multiple voices, not just Denio’s, in a capella
harmonies and counterparts. It is an island of tranquility in a turbulent sea. “Paint
Me,” closing things out, allows quiet group singing to emerge gradually out of
thickets of tom-tom beats. “I’m a dog playing cards,” the chorus intones, over
and over, then, “Paint me.” 


Yet clarity, simplicity, melody…none of these are really
Curlew’s strong suit. The band is most comfortable when executing polyrhythmic
counterpoints, every instrument in the band punching out in slightly different,
but inter-related directions. A scrim of melody only obscures these moments,
sweetening and cheapening their intellectual rigors. “Such Credentials As Have
Become Pseudonym,” the disc’s second cut, is a vertiginous balancing act, crazed
e-bowed swoops skittering over rickety yet precise lattices of bass, drums and
staccato cello. Denio’s voice seems too pop, too conventional, too ingratiating
to really fit into the mesh. She belts more successfully on the swaggering,
avant-boogie “Peking Widow,” one of the disc’s
best cuts, and on the tango-rhythmed, foul-mouthed “The Prince.”  Still, even when they work, her vocals seem
external, ancilliary, and not really critical to the success of the music.


The line-up for A Beautiful Western Saddle was one of
Curlew’s strongest, with Cartwright leading a crew that included cellist Tom
Cora (who worked with Fred Frith in Skeleton Crew and, later, with the Ex),
drummer Pippin Barnett, guitarist Davey Williams and bassist Anne Rupel. This
same line-up appears in the accompanying DVD, The Hardwood, which
documents a concert at the Knitting Factory from 1991. Here, without vocals,
the sheer prickly musicianship of Curlew comes to the fore. You see Cora,
locked in concentration, playing his cello like a stand-up bass, plucking and
slapping in syncopation. Rupel and Williams (playing a curious, head-stock-less
guitar, often with an e-bow) have a furious face-off in one of the pieces,
challenging each other to new levels of frantic, manic syncopation. And Cartwright’s
saxophone, here allowed to be the main vehicle for melody (though also adding
dissonance and rhythm at times), takes its intended place at the center of the
band’s sound.


Actually, it was only after watching The Hardwood that I was able to go back and really appreciate A Beautiful Western Saddle,
which in its attempts to connect through words and singing, seems to remove the
listener slightly from Curlew’s complicated charm. Both parts of this release
(as well as footage of Denio performing with the band, apparently filmed for
TV) are worth experiencing and certainly of interest to long-time fans. It’s
just not clear that odd, anomalous A Beautiful Western Saddle is the
place to start, if you’re new to this band.


Widow,” “Paint Me” JENNIFER KELLY




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