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The Memphis Years

Avant-jazz saxophonist George Cartwright returns to the Delta for a little soul.

by Mark Jordan

don't care," says the bespectacled man sitting across the booth in a Midtown tavern. "We can talk about anything you want. I just love talking about music."

Though well into middle age, married with a 5-year-old boy, George Cartwright has lost none of his youthful enthusiasm for music. It comes across not just in conversation but in the avant-garde saxophonist's live performances and records. As he alternates his sharply syncopated, melodic lines with squawks and tweaks that defy uninitiated listeners' idea of what music is, you can hear Cartwright grappling with his instrument like a wondrous child who has just discovered a new world of possibilities. The genius is that he has been able to maintain this "anything's possible" attitude and still grow as a skilled and knowledgeable player. For Cartwright, music is not so much a discipline to be obeyed but a lump of clay to stretch and squeeze into an infinite variety of forms.

George Cartwright: Exploring all the possibilities
Born in the tiny Delta town of Midnight, Mississippi, in the '60s Cartwright's early musical tastes ran toward Cream and the Rolling Stones. For the deep South that was revolutionary stuff, and it signaled a tendency in the young Cartwright that persists today.

"Whatever I saw as the mainstream, I'd go as far away as possible," he says.

After stints studying music at Mississippi State and the University of Memphis and a few years he describes as a "blur of nothing," Cartwright landed at Karl Berger and Ornette Coleman's Creative Music School in Woodstock, New York. There Cartwright was exposed to the leading voices of the young movement of free and improvisational jazz players.

"That was when the black avant-garde was at its peak," Cartwright recalls. "And that was who they brought in to teach. Guys like Anthony Braxton, Dave Holland, Leo Smith. It was a radical rethinking of music. In the mornings we had basic practice, where you'd practice tuning by singing and rhythm by hitting your knees. You'd sing a single note for an hour, and then you might beat out the same rhythm for an hour on your knees. It really made you think about each note, each beat."

Following his stint in Woodstock, Cartwright headed to New York, where he quickly fell into that city's celebrated downtown scene of avant-jazz players. With the Knitting Factory as their headquarters, Cartwright and collaborators such as Bill Laswell, Fred Frith, and John Zorn were exploring the radical fringes of jazz -- free-form, punk jazz, and avant-garde.

In 1979, Cartwright joined with some other Knitting Factory regulars to form Curlew, a group created "just to deal with Ornette Coleman and dance music. [Curlew] was always meant to be dance music. It might take a little more imagination to hear it, but it's there. There's a rhythm, and there's a melody."

Five years ago, however, Cartwright returned to Memphis to raise his newborn son, though the city's musical reputation held powerful sway over him as well.

"If you could measure the music per capita, Memphis is the richest city in the world musically," he says. "What city has had more weird music come out of it? New Orleans, maybe. But a lot of weird stuff has come out of Memphis, stuff that couldn't have happened anywhere else. Howlin' Wolf, Al Green, all the Stax stuff. I thought it'd be really interesting to put myself in the middle of all that and see what happens."

A lot has. Since moving here, Cartwright has teamed with a host of local jazz players, suddenly inspired to break out of the Sunday brunch mode for regular shows at Marshall Arts and the Parallax Theatre. Never the same from one night to the next, these shows have opened local ears to new sonic possibilities. In a city where the current of simple, melodic blues runs deep, not everyone has found those possibilities agreeable, but at least they're aware of them.

And it's possible the city has had some influence on Cartwright as well. Recorded here, Cartwright's next release on the Cuneiform label will be half made up of songs set to poems by Canadian beat poet Paul Haines, with the rest consisting of instrumentals. The album, called George Cartwright: The Memphis Years and due out next year, will also veer far away from the saxophonist's usual New York-influenced work. Joining him on the album will be a mostly Memphis band that includes saxophonist Jim Spake, bassist Tim Goodwin, trumpet player Scott Thompson, and keyboardist Chris Parker.

"There are some incredible players here in Memphis who unfortunately aren't as recognized as they should be," Cartwright says. "[Jim Spake] is one of my favorite players of all time. The way Jim plays is extremely 'factual.' But it's all the best facts. If I had control over judgment day, I'd say, 'Jim, we're going to do five records with you and put them out.' And it would be unlike anything that has come out of Memphis."

Music Notes

edited by Mark Jordan

Big Day For The Blues

Despite the auspiciousness of the occasion, the 20th Annual W.C. Handy Blues Awards presentation, held Thursday, May 25th at The Orpheum, seemed as if it would pass without recognition of the milestone until co-host Rufus Thomas took the podium toward night's end.

"The blues was, blues are, and blues will always," Thomas told the record crowd of 2,000. "The roots of the blues are strong and deep, and the branches are reaching for the sky."

It was a powerful and succinct state-of-the-blues address, and it was nearly the highlight of the almost four-hour show. Few winners or big-name nominees were in attendance, a problem that frequently plagues the show because so many artists are touring this time of year. Notably absent were B.B. King, who won entertainer and contemporary blues album of the year, Susan Tedeschi, winner of best new artist and contemporary blues artist honors, and Keb' Mo', who won three awards, including best contemporary blues male artist.

The live performances varied widely in quality. A strong Memphis strain ran throughout, with Reba Russell replacing the irreplaceable Irma Thomas (and holding her own) in a blues diva trio with Marcia Ball and Tracy Nelson. Scotty Moore teamed with co-host Joe Louis Walker on an only vaguely bluesy take of "Mystery Train." And Shemekia Copeland, daughter of the late Johnny Clyde Copeland, nearly took the night fronting a band that included Jim Spake on sax and Steve Potts on drums.

Oddly, the night's supposed highlight, teaming Kenny Wayne Shepherd with Stevie Ray Vaughan's rhythm section Double Trouble, was the biggest disappointment. Drummer Chris Layton and bassist Tommy Shannon seemed totally uninterested in Shepherd's Vaughan derivations, while the young guitar phenom's vocalist Noah Hunt delivered with all the soul of a lounge act.

The winners at the 20th Annual Handy Awards were:

Blues Entertainer of the Year -- B.B. King; Blues Band of the Year -- Rod Piazza and the Mighty Flyers; Contemporary Blues Album of the Year -- B.B. King Blues on the Bayou; Contemporary Blues Female Artist of the Year -- Susan Tedeschi; Contemporary Blues Male Artist of the Year -- Keb' Mo'; Best New Blues Artist -- Susan Tedeschi; Blues Song of the Year -- Keb' Mo' "Soon As I Get Paid"; Instrumental-Other -- Gatemouth Brown; Harmonica -- Charlie Musselwhite; Keyboard -- Pinetop Perkins; Guitar -- Ronnie Earl; Bass -- Willie Kent; Drums -- Willie Big Eyes Smith; Soul Blues Album of the Year -- Etta James Life, Love and The Blues; Soul Blues Male Artist of the Year -- Bobby Blue Bland; Soul Blues Female Artist of the Year -- Etta James; Acoustic Blues Album of the Year -- Rory Block Confessions of a Blues Singer; Traditional Blues Album of the Year -- Robert Jr. Lockwood I Got to Get Me A Woman; Acoustic Blues Artist of the Year -- Keb' Mo'; Traditional Blues Female Artist of the Year -- Koko Taylor; Traditional Blues Male Artist of the Year -- Robert Jr. Lockwood; Comeback Album of the Year -- Peter Green Robert Johnson Crossroads; Reissue Album of the Year -- Luther Allison Hand Me Down My Moonshine; Most Deserving Wider Recognition -- W.C. Clark.

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