|L2R: Adam Linz, Alden Ikeda, George Cartwright|
Legendary free-jazz saxophonist George Cartwright and his group GloryLand PonyCat made a rare appearance at the Cedar Cultural Center on Thursday, November 29. I tried to prepare (as much as one can prepare for a free-jazz show, which isn’t much) by listening to Black Ants Crawling, the CD they recorded at the Clown Lounge and released on Innova in 2003. (Note: You probably won’t find Cartwright’s CDs at your local record store, especially not if it’s Best Buy, but you can find them at the Innova Web site and on iTunes.)
What kind of name is GloryLand PonyCat, and where did it come from? Cartwright explained: “I was living in Memphis and glancing through the yellow pages (sometimes when I need a title I quickly scan books and stuff to ‘mis-read’ what I see and get a name that way to get some idea for one) and saw a Glory Land Cleaners and like that my little brain connected that with ‘Bear Cat,’ a song by Rufus Thomas and Pony Cat came into my head. So I paired them together with some liberty with the grammar and liked the oblique references and now you know. Rufus referred to himself, if you didn’t know, as (1) The World’s Oldest Teenager and (2) The Funkiest Man Alive, and he was true on both counts.”
We came out of the cold Minnesota night into the warm Cedar to find a big sound and a small crowd. It eventually grew to about 30; when we ran into drummer Alden Ikeda the following night at Café Maude, he told us the audience numbered five when they first started to play.
As I listened and watched the musicians on stage—Adam Linz at the left, working his bass; Ikeda at the back and mostly hidden from view behind music stands and the other musicians; Cartwright at front center, alternating between alto and tenor saxes; guitarist Andrew Broder at the right, a small and fiercely energetic figure, hunched over an electric guitar from which he drew buzzes, wails, moans, screams, and soft caresses—I was inexplicably happy.
Broder, former hip-hop DJ and founder of indie rock group Fog, joined GloryLand PonyCat after Black Ants; the CD features the original threesome of Cartwright, Linz, and Ikeda. Broder adds dimension and a whole new sound. “[Broder] comes from such a broad background,” Linz said, “that he evokes present memory. That’s good for me when we’re improvising. He also doesn’t come from the same place as Alden and me. So it forces us to deal with the space in a different way. I do so much trio playing that I’m always liberated by the idea of having some chordal help on the front lines.”
I followed the music into unexplored territory—unexplored by me but clearly mapped out ahead of time by the band, who knew where they were headed every second. More than once, a beat or rhythm or groove or whatever you want to call it suddenly shifted and they all headed off together in a new direction, slowing down or speeding up together or changing everything (beat, key, mood) simultaneously. I watched very carefully but could never tell who decided they should do it or gave the nod.
For much of the time, it seemed that Cartwright was in charge, but then he picked up his saxophone and looked at Linz and Linz said something with his face or his hands or sent a brain wave Cartwright’s way or whatever, and Cartwright put down his horn and waited. Some sort of negotiation had just occurred. Or Broder played something on his guitar and that train left the station with everyone on board.
At one point the music shifted and Broder started singing “Oxford Town,” a song about racism. Bob Dylan wrote and recorded it on The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan in 1963, long before Broder was born. With Cartwright’s saxophone weaving in and out and over and through, it was very exciting.
They moved into a sequence of three tunes by bass player Henry Grimes: “Fishy Story, For Django, Saturday Night What Th’?” You can hear it on Black Ants Crawling, but it won’t be the same. Then they played something else, took a break, and came back for a brief encore. At one point, it seemed to me that the music had turned to a liquid. The instruments had become liquid. They weren’t making sounds I expected to hear; the notes fell somewhere in between notes I thought I knew. And this was on nothing stronger than a cup of the Cedar’s coffee.
It’s fun to read what other people have written about Cartwright and GloryLand Pony Cat. Reviewing Black Ants Crawling for All About Jazz, Frank Rubolino wrote: “Deep, husky, sonic vapors rise from the tenor of George Cartwright… Cartwright lassoes a surging bull and purposefully proceeds to lay down an ultra-plush carpet of sound having a meaty core….” That part I don’t get (and it sounds moist and messy), but I like what Rubolino said later on: “The logical flow of [Cartwright’s] phrasing makes the message fully coherent…. The program combines great strength with a gentle-giant persona that precludes it from being intimidating.” That was my experience as well. The music made sense. It invited you in. Sometimes it got very big and filled the room; other times it was quiet and small and friendly. I liked it a lot.
Writing about Cartwright for One Final Note, the Jazz & Improvised Music Webzine, Scott Hreha began by considering Andrew Broder & George Cartwright, an LP-only live set out on Roaratorio. He moved from there to Black Ants Crawling, which he described as “a much more straightforward affair, though not with the negative associations that term generally implies.” Apparently “straightforward” is not a compliment in the world of improvised jazz. Besides that, Hreha liked the CD (I think).
To learn more about George Cartwright, visit his Web site (and be sure to read the liner notes in the Discography section; most are written by Mike DeCapite, and they’re not like any liner notes you’ve ever read before). Better yet, go see and hear Cartwright play live. The calender on his site is sorely out of date, so check the Acadia Café’s performance calendar first; he seems to turn up there with some frequency. Cartwright and percussionist Davu Seru are scheduled to play the first set of the Acadia’s Tuesday Night Music Series for Free Improvisation on December 4 (8:00 p.m., $3). Be there or be square.
Photo by John Whiting. Not shown: Andrew Broder.
Originally published on JazzPolice.com, 12/7/07.