Under the clearheaded leadership of composer-saxophonist George Cartwright, Curlew is a tight, exciting jazz-rock ensemble with ideas bursting out of every corner. The typical number consists of a fairly catchy melody that periodically explodes into a burst of improvisation and demonstrates that putting serious ideas on top of a beat doesn’t mean having to sacrifice subtlety. Davey Williams’s electric guitar playing, by turns spiny, loopy, and manic, reaches hungrily in several directions at once. Cellist Tom Cora attacks his instrument with a crazy energy, breaking down just about any preconception you might have about cellos (or cellists, for that matter). Though Cartwright, too, can get raw when he wants to, he’s just as likely to “sing” in conventionally melodic terms, counterpoising the band’s more jagged tendencies with his exceptionally warm–even occasionally romantic–tone. This front line is balanced on top of a pulse that bassist Ann Rupel and drummer Pippin Barnett pump forth with the kind of tight warmth that I’m still convinced no mere beat machine will ever match. It all makes for a chewy blend of the work of several musicians who sound like they truly belong together, and it’s offered with a disarming openness that contrasts nicely with the elitism of much of the new-music scene. For all its challenging sophistication, Curlew plays music accessible enough for its distinctive merit to be obvious to just about anybody. Saturday, 9 and 11, Lounge Ax, 2438 N. Lincoln; 525-6620.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael Macioce.