THE VERY THOUGHT might well make prog rock fans see red… but the connections with and reinterpretations of King Crimson in new piano and saxophone quartet work Crimson! are not as distant, nor as incongruous, as you may first imagine.
Delta Saxophone Quartet are immersed in commissioned, contemporary classical environments which include the typically propulsive music of Steve Martland, Steve Reich and Gavin Bryars, as well as the work of jazz composers such as Mike Westbrook; and they have previously arranged and recorded Soft Machine (their Aubade and Tale of Taliesin transcriptions – from original 1976 album Softs – are especially fascinating). But a chance encounter between pianist Gwilym Simcock and Delta’s baritone saxophonist Chris Caldwell (at the home ground of Stoke City FC, beloved of both musicians) netted this new project centred around seminal prog band King Crimson’s albums Starless and Bible Black, THRAK and Beat. A notable link for Simcock is that he joined the line-up of ex-Crimson drummer Bill Bruford’s Earthworks project, which included saxophonist Tim Garland (and I recall a live gig which certainly threw the pianist’s fledgling career into the spotlight).
So, how does a saxophone quartet (not just any old sax quartet, I might add) and a jazz pianist adapt, say, the dry vocals and punchy electric bass playing of John Wetton and specific guitar/electronics style of maestro Robert Fripp? Well, it’s quite a revelation, especially when it’s accepted that this is not a straight covers album – far from it. Recognising the powerful, unrelenting riffs and restless, dark colours associated with King Crimson, Gwilym set about identifying pieces which might best translate into this new arena, for quartet with or without piano, choosing to reimagine rather than copy. The key to its success has to be the combined vigour of all five players: Delta for their precision and dynamism; Simcock for his characteristically percussive, rhythmic energy across the piano keyboard.
As a prelude to five expansive arrangements, Simcock’s own A Kind of Red folds lyrical beauty and sprightliness into driving momentum, with upwardly spiralling soprano sax and leaping piano grooves cavorting together across lithe chordal sax textures (the writer alludes to the challenge of writing for only “four notes at any one time”); a masterly piece of contrapuntal composition thrown into sharp focus when the horns go it alone. Hitting the ground running, with recognisable shadowy mystery, Vrooom and Coda: Marine 475 swap the menacing Belew/Levin electric guitar/bass landscape for baritone-throbbing promenading and Simcock’s jazz inflections (with even a whiff of Henry Mancini’s Baby Elephant Walk); and the original wistful vocals of The Night Watch are translated into lush sax harmonies and buoyant piano, shifting in so many directions.
Dinosaur possesses an audacious swagger (Simcock particularly bluesy), as opposed to the urgent siren-like drive of the original, and portrays its central serenity quite magically; and Two Hands, quietly popping to mechanical sax ‘percussion’, feels so lyrically far-removed from Crimson territory, yet owns a delightful jazz delicacy. To close, perhaps the show-stopper – Starless and Bible Black‘s unmistakable The Great Deceiver at full tilt, reinterpreting the familiar ’70s electric riff and vocal with panache. OK, it’ll never replace the original, but that’s not the intention – its Crimsonesque verve, wailing sax improv and pianistic sparkle are infectious.
Whether or not you were ‘there’ through the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s, Crimson! is a stylish and rattlingly good experience. Released on Basho Records on 26 February 2016, the album can be purchased from Jazz CDs.
Delta Saxophone Quartet:
Graeme Blevins soprano saxophone
Pete Whyman alto saxophone
Tim Holmes tenor saxophone
Chris Caldwell baritone saxophone
Gwilym Simcock pianoforte
Basho Records – SRCD 50-2 (2016)