The Crimson jazz trio have just released their latest project recording, CJ3-King Crimson Songbook, Vol. 2. Another effort in the band's reinterpretation of the seminal progressive rock band, King Crimson. In my review of the work, I intend to shine a positive light on how this recording is not a "tribute," but an exploration of some of the King Crimson canon realized through a jazz trio of acoustic piano, drums, and bass.
Perhaps a short primer on the King Crimson band to help frame the jazz trio's intent is in order. King Crimson were one of the early pioneers of the genre of progress in rock from the early 1970s. They had a "powerful impact on the nascent progressive rock movement." They introduced "complex metrical schemes, atonality, and free-form improvisation" to the emerging genre. Led by guitarist, Robert Fripp, the band brought classical voicing (the Mellotron – the first (albeit, analog) sampling keyboard, eastern influenced percussion, psychedelic lyrics and imagery, and classic rock pomp. Their debut album In the Court of the Crimson King, became a milestone in the development of the progressive rock genre as it "just may have been the most influential progressive rock album ever recorded." The band would go on to have many talented musicians on their roster throughout the 1970's. In the 1980's however, the band was reborn with a more commercial style and lineup. Remaining members Robert Fripp and Bill Bruford were joined by new comers Adrian Belew and Tony Levin offering succinct and atmospheric pieces delivered through modern digital equipment and sound.
The Crimson Jazz Trio was formed by one of the early members of the original King Crimson band, Ian Wallace, one of the several drummers to be part of this complex and influential band. Joined by pianist Jody Nardone and bassist Tim Landers, Wallace engaged his band into creating a project recording with the reinterpretation of King Crimson songs. The trio have three criteria for their work: to demonstrate that the King Crimson library is ripe for reinterpretation, that a jazz trio could match the fervor of the original pieces, and to have fun by not taking each other too seriously. They have done well in their devotion to this criteria.
Reinterpretations of original pieces differ from tribute or cover versions. Reinterpretations take the original piece and are made in the voice of the reinterpreting artist. Why is this an important distinction? It separates the "men from the boys" so to speak in that a tribute is merely a facsimile of the original with the purpose being just that. A recent example of this would be a tribute album featuring the works of John Lennon covered by artists such as Green Day, R.E.M., and U2. The songs do not stray from the original piece, merely the voicing is different. A reinterpretation takes much more thought and acumen in order to achieve it's goal. It takes the original piece and uses it as an outline from which the unique characteristics of the artist interpreting to shine through. An example of this can be seen in the musical "West Side Story" being a reinterpretation of Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet." Language, locale, and circumstances are all filtered through a musical theater format. The Crimson Jazz Trio validate this in the track "Frame by Frame." The original piece is completely unrecognizable in the opening track until the original arpeggios and melody appear in the form of a piano and sax. The trio also kick the track into a higher tempo and energy. The project also employs a guest saxophonist, Mel Collins. Collins was another early member of the original King Crimson. With skill, Collins takes the original melody and breaks it down into an improvisational solo with crafty allusions to the original melody line. In "Pictures of a City," the trio keep the skeleton of the original riff and atmosphere and infuse a Latin feel to the verse, dissolving into an essential piano solo that hints at the atonality of the original.
Adding a very unique voice to the music of King Crimson was integral to the project's success. "In the Court of the Crimson King," the trio showcases Wallace's adept and fluid drumming throughout the opening allowing the song to burst into a flamenco style that is both unexpected and refreshing. Originally a brooding number, "Lament," is transformed from a stark, bleak and somber flavor into a cohesive, emotionally filled jam. In a bold endeavor, the trio tackle the "Island Suite." A section of the suite, "Press Gang," again, features a flurry of percussion from Wallace and a fantastic push and pull from Lander's bass. Landers' also shines on "The Plank," a very Mingus like feel is highlighted here. "Formentera" presents a captivating sax passage by Collins, is very reminiscent of Coltrane.
The CJ3 project not only widens the appeal of King Crimson to its current devotees and mavens, It also paves the way into new potential listeners with tendrils into the "lounge and swing"genres, Avant-Gard, pop and traditional jazz enthusiasts. A more recent King Crimson release, "Heartbeat," takes on a free-form swing feel to what was King Crimson's closest popular radio friendly Hit. Those who were drawn to its pop sensibilities will be able to appreciate its retelling through the trio. By far my favorite track is another later release from King Crimson, "Inner Garden." The original vocals of Adrian Belew have always added a haunting effect to King Crimson, however, here, amidst a backdrop of modern jazz qualities and a fantastic bass performance by Landers, "Inner Garden" becomes the most accessible of all the tracks. Jody Nardone amazes us further by lending his vocal talents and does well to keep the essence of Belew while at the same time adding a more learned approach to the performance.
For those familiar with the King Crimson legacy, their qualities of gothic, medieval, dissonance, romanticism, heaviness, and above all complexity are notable throughout their music. However, with the CJ3 project, all of the qualities before mentioned are alluded to sans a heavy hand. The jazz trio environment is an ideal place for the music of King Crimson to mutate it. Unencumbered and unfettered, accomplished and expressive, here, both the original and the trio have affinities, yet the CJ3 project takes those affinities and makes them their own. The purpose of this project is stronger than let's say one of a monetary agenda. It was an experiment with conditions and expectations driven to be achieved. It comes off as a labor of love and admiration giving the project that much more to offer.
Tragically, the founder of this project, Ian Wallace, died of cancer in 2007 and through strength and dedication from his family and band members, his work was finally published. The CD is lovingly and respectfully dedicated to his memory.
1. The Court of the Crimson King
2. Pictures of a City
3. One Time
4. Frame By Frame
5. Inner Garden
7. Island Suite:
Zereo Dark Thirty