CD – Jazz: The Crimson Jazz Trio

“The King Crimson Songbook Volume 2” (Inner Knot)

By Fernando Gonzalez

Standards in jazz have become what they are, in part because of their harmonic and melodic possibilities, but also because of the shared language they represent between players and audiences. Only when both are familiar with the music — be it a Cole Porter song, “Someday My Prince Will Come” or “My Favorite Things” – does the dialog between improvisers and listeners (and the understanding of the art and craft of improvisation) truly take place and flourish. And so, for the past 25 years, jazz musicians have been looking to remain in touch with their audiences by updating the repertoire — with various degrees of success. Consider Miles Davis’s remake of Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time,” Herbie Hancock’s take on Kurt Cobain’s “All Apologies,” or more recently, and most notably, the efforts by Brad Mehldau or The Bad Plus.

The Crimson Jazz Trio, on the other hand, is Crimson Jazz Trioa jazz group specifically created to explore a rock group’s repertoire (the art-rock cult band King Crimson) with a jazz sensibility. It’s an intriguing proposition with some obvious challenges.

Formed in 1969 and still somewhat active, the original King Crimson has been reassembled from time to time, featuring different lineups, by its guitarist, composer, and creative mastermind, Robert Fripp. But even as it changed members and instrumentation over the years, King Crimson consistently informed its music with elements of rock, European classical music and jazz. Still, the changes in the sound of its music over those decades might have given even some brave souls pause — but they didn’t seem to faze the Crimson Jazz Trio.

Led by drummer Ian Wallace, a King Crimson alumnus (1971- 1972, appearing on “Islands”), and featuring Jody Nardone, piano, and Tim Landers, bass, the Crimson Jazz Trio (or CJ3) began by approaching the music not as a tribute project (something Nardone explicitly address in his notes) but rather, as a true re-imagining of the material. The group’s first album, “King Crimson Songbook Volume One” (Voiceprint, 2005), brimmed with an insight, imagination and why-not? attitude usually missing in other rock-to-jazz reinterpretations. And oh yes, by the way, it was a very rewarding jazz record.

Sadly, Wallace died in February 2007, but not before recording a Volume 2. To the Trio’s credit, they took the concept even further. Volume 2 offers a mostly instrumental set (all but one song), drawn from Crimson’s book going back as far back as “The Court of the Crimson King” (1969), and “In The Wake of The Poseidon” (1970) and up to “THRAK” (1995). The CD also includes original contributions, brief solo pieces, by Wallace, Nardone and Landers as part of an “Islands Suite.”

Throughout, the trio manages to convey the elegant design and brilliant neurosis of Crimson’s music, while also offering surprising alternative readings, finding hidden melodies, and blowing up small rhythmic gestures from the originals into fresh grooves.

No doubt, this in part reflects the range and musicianship of Wallace who, in his life after his King Crimson tenure, became a busy studio hand and sideman while holding on to his love of jazz. He sounds at ease and in control here at every turn.

The trio seems to mock the faux majesty of “The Court of the Crimson King” by arranging it instead as a playful, high-energy, Latin-tinged piece — a king’s court set not so much in royal crimson as in a warm Caribbean mango-orange. “Inner Garden” gets a smart rethinking that turns the almost morbid original into a luminous, open-faced ballad. (Extra credit here to pianist Nardone whose voice and delivery sound not just expressive and effective but, well, Crimsonian.) “Frame by Frame,” from “Discipline,” (1981), features another Crimson alumnus, saxophonist Mel Collins, and emerges as a hard swinging post-bop piece. And “Pictures of a City,” from “In The Wake of the Poseidon” (1970), smoothly alternates a sort of heavy metal rock jazz (those doubled lines) with driving swing, down to the almost-sinister ending.

Still, you don’t need to know the originals to enjoy “King Crimson Songbook Volume 2.” This is, after all, a jazz record and it works as such. Still, perhaps one of CJ3’s most obvious contributions will be to work as both a window for jazz musicians and fans into the music of King Crimson, while serving as an introduction and enticement to jazz for fans of Crimson and art rock in general.

And if you are already a fan of both, you’ll probably find yourself smiling, nodding in recognition at the smarts and musicianship of these players – just what listeners 40, 50 years ago must have felt when they heard their Cole Porter songs or their favorite Broadway tunes turned into jazz standards. Aging has its privileges.

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