Thursday, February 11, 2010

King Crimson and Improvisational Jazz

King Crimson (Current Lineup)
Robert Fripp (guitar, soundscapes)
Adrian Blew (guitar, vocals)
Tony Levin (bass)
Pat Mastelotto (drums)
Gavin Harrison (drums)

To many music fans King Crimson is the quintessential prog-rock band, and rightfully so. Since they exploded onto the scene in 1969, the on-again/off-again band -- led by guitar wizard and mastermind Robert Fripp -- has made beautifully sinister music together by melding rock distortion with jazz-inspired improvisation. Yes, some of their early work can sound dated (anyone up for 11 minutes of mellotron misery in "The Devil's Triangle"?). But even some of their most gargantuan numbers (the sublime "Starless" for example) deliver jazz-rock bliss to your ears. If you've ever had the punishing pleasure of hearing Crimson perform live then you can attest to the near telepathic power of the band's ensemble playing and the impressive improvisational gifts of many of its members.

King Crimson's lineup has changed numerous times during the past 40 years. In its early years, the changes happened with virtually every album, with Fripp as its mainstay. It all began with Crim's groundbreaking psych-prog debut In the Court Of The Crimson King (DGM) and its most jazz-like track "21st Century Schizoid Man," which takes some stylistic cues from the free jazz and fusion styles that were fashionable at the time.

Crimson's studio and live recordings from 1969-74 (their most prolific, tumultuous and interesting period) frequently demonstrate the band's improvising jazz model with quasi-spiritual overtones that would normally be associated with the work of Pharaoh Saunders (e.g. The Creator Has A Master Plan) and Miles Davis (e.g. Bitches Brew). A live Crimson album recorded in '72 and available on through the band's website even features a beautiful version of a Saunder's piece that you should definitely seek it out.

The band's improvisational direction strengthened during the '73-'74 period when Fripp was joined by drummer Bill Bruford, bassist/vocalist John Wetton, violinist David Cross and (temporarily) percussionist Jamie Muir. The albums Larks Tongues in Aspic and Starless and Bible Black (all now available on Crimson's own label DGM) clearly demonstrate how Crimson evolved from psych-prog experimentalists to a peerless performing group. This is best heard on the 1974 album Red (DGM). It features some stellar ensemble performances from the core unit of Fripp/Bruford/Wetton with outstanding guest spots from Mel Collins and Ian McDonald on sax, Marc Charig on cornet, and Robin Miller on oboe. The album begins with the title track, which served as a template for later Crim lineups, and is followed by one of my personal favorites "Fallen Angel," and the completely improvised "Providence." Throughout the album, Bruford in particular displays his spectacular drumming chops with true jazz feeling, particularly on "One More Red Nightmare."

Turmoil and disagreements between band members led to Crimson disbanding after Red. However, they reformed at the early '80s, armed with a new lineup featuring Fripp, Bruford, the versatile, inventive Adrian Belew on guitar/vocals and Tony Levin on bass/stick. This lineup focused more on Belew's songcraft and a twin-guitar sound than progressive jazz-rock chops. Although improvisation wasn't the focus during the '80s, the band's music still demonstrated each member's musical gifts. Readers who attended college during the '80s may remember the modest hits the band had with "Elephant Talk," "Heartbeat" and "Sleepless."

After breaking up in the mid '80s, Crimson returned in the mid '90s with a six-piece, but its lineup continued to morph over the next two decades. I remember asking Adrian Belew at a concert during the '90s if the reunion rumors were true and he remarked that "Robert hasn't called me yet. But I'm in if he calls." Shortly thereafter they had recorded THRAK (DGM), an album that married the hard-hitting sound of the mid '70s with the songcraft of the '80s, and in concert the band didn't shy away from improvisation.

With dozens of studio and live recordings available, the King Crimson novice has a wealth from which to choose. It would be a silly and monumental task to acquire each and every one. (I'm still trying to do that from the live perspective.) If you are new to Crimson, I suggest starting with The Condensed 21st Century Guide To King Crimson 1969-2003 (DGM). This rewarding collection was compiled by Fripp himself and is a great way to become acquainted with the band. For those who want a taste of the band's live improvisational chops, try the mid '90s live collection Thrakattak, which is 100% improv.

(This instalment presented by both editors and King Crimson fanatics Vern and Kristopher)

1 comment: