Curlew were formed in 1979 by George Cartwright, who has served as the group's leader, saxophonist, and main composer for nearly three decades. Although Curlew have been viewed as pioneers of New York City's so-called "downtown scene," Cartwright was born in Mississippi and has consistently brought a roadhouse R&B swagger — not to mention the influence of early hero Ornette Coleman — to the band's sound. Throughout the '80s and '90s, Curlew served as something of an incubator and showcase for N.Y.C. avant jazz and rock talent. The group's eponymous first album, recorded in 1980, featured Cartwright on alto, tenor, and soprano saxophones along with cellist Tom Cora, guitarist Nicky Skopelitis, bassist Bill Laswell, and drummer Bill Bacon. (In 2008 the album was re-released by Downtown Music Gallery paired with a live disc recorded at CBGB [also in 1980] and featuring Denardo Coleman on drums.)
By the mid-'80s and the release of North America on the European Moers label (later re-released by Cuneiform with live bonus tracks), the bandmembers included guitarists Fred Frith and Mark Howell along with drummer Pippin Barnett. Barnett was a founding member of the Orthotonics and later performed with Cora in the Swiss group Nimal; Cora was also a founding member of Skeleton Crew with Frith and played with many downtown artists of the era, including Eugene Chadbourne and John Zorn. Maverick keyboardist Wayne Horvitz played on Curlew's third album, Live in Berlin, a release that also saw the arrival of guitarist Davey Williams, who — along with Barnett (and of course Cartwright) — would remain a mainstay of the band for a number of years.
Curlew's first album of the 1990s (a studio recording released by Cuneiform) was Bee, and marked the first appearance of bassist (and vocalist on a fine rendition of Cream's "As You Said") Ann Rupel, who also played in the group No Safety. One of Curlew's more experimental releases, the 1993 A Beautiful Western Saddle, featured singer Amy Denio and lyrics by poet Paul Haines. By 1996's Paradise, drummer Barnett had been replaced by Samm Bennett, also a member of Third Person, a trio that included Cora. Bennett was also leader of the N.Y.C. jazz-rock band Chunk. In addition, Paradise featured Chris Cochrane, another member of No Safety, on second guitar. By 1998's Fabulous Drop, Bennett was gone from the drummer's chair, replaced by Kenny Wollesen, one of the most prolific drummers in New York creative jazz.
By the new millennium, most vestiges of the downtown scene had moved from the geographic center of Lower Manhattan, with punky CBGB and the late-arriving avant jazz-centered Tonic soon to disappear and the Knitting Factory long having hitched its wagon to more mainstream rock (the Stone remaining one of the few venues consistently serving up adventurous creative fare on the Lower East Side). While Brooklyn (where a lot of "downtowners" lived anyway) in many ways took over as the locus for what might have been termed downtown music in earlier decades, by then George Cartwright had moved to — somewhat surprisingly — the Twin Cities of Minnesota, while still fully immersed in avant jazz and keeping the Curlew story alive and ongoing.
The ironically titled Meet the Curlews (released in 2002, again on Cuneiform) featured Cartwright and Williams with a band whose members lived in places that would make the prospect of weekly rehearsals exceedingly difficult: drummer Bruce Golden (who Cartwright says is his "oldest [and] longest...musical pal") is a lifelong Mississippean, keyboardist Chris Parker lives in Memphis, and bassist Fred Chalenor (Wayne Horvitz, Hughscore) is from Seattle. In 2003 this lineup, with Minnesota guitarist Dean Granros replacing Davey Williams, appeared on Mercury, the eighth Curlew album to be released by Cuneiform. Regarding Williams, Cartwright vowed "he'll be back," suggesting the possibility of a two-guitar lineup with both Williams and Granros at some point in the future. The diverse energy of Curlew's various bandmembers has kept the group continually on the creative cutting edge throughout its history, and any particular version of the band is filled with surprises and dynamic musical interactions. ~ Bill Tilland & Dave Lynch