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In the Court of King Crimson: An Observation Over 50 Years: Level Five, VIII

Sid Smith By

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On November 15, 2019, as part of King Crimson's 50th Anniversary Celebration, Panegryic will be releasing Sid Smith's significant revision and expansion of his critically acclaimed bio, In the Court of King Crimson (Helter Skelter Publishing, 2001). More than merely adding what has gone on in the nearly 20 years since the original book was published, at nearly double its size, the 2019 edition of In the Court of King Crimson: An Observation Over 50 Years is a major revision to the original book, with Smith not only revising its structure, but reshaping its entire narrative. Fans of the original will find plenty more in-depth information about King Crimson, from its early pre-KC days as Giles, Giles & Fripp right up to its current 50th Anniversary activities.

This excerpt from In the Court of King Crimson documents the recording and release of A Scarcity of Miracles (Panegyric, 2011), an album attributed to Jakszyk, Fripp & Collins but, with the participation of bassist Tony Levin and drummer Gavin Harrison, foreshadows the reformation of King Crimson in 2013 (with its first tour in six years taking place in the fall of 2014), the seven-headed "Beast of Krim" that, in addition to guitarist/vocalist {Jakko M. Jakszyk}}, Crimson co-founder/guitarist Robert Fripp and saxophonist/flautist Mel Collins, Levin and Harrison, also included drummers Pat Mastelotto and Bill Rieflin but, currently, has Jeremy Stacey in place of Rieflin—who turned from third drummer to the band's first full-time keyboardist in 2017, before taking a second sabbatical from the band last year.

Level Five: VIII

In January 2010, Jakko Jakszyk (pronounced Jack-Chick) found himself sitting opposite the guitarist who had inspired him so much back in 1971 at Watford Town Hall. That 13-year old boy would never have believed anyone who told him that 39 years later he'd be improvising in a studio with Robert Fripp. The pair spent a day at DGM's sound studio trading ideas. Jakszyk confesses he felt a degree of trepidation at Fripp's invitation. "When I drove down to Broad Chalke that afternoon I had no idea what Robert had in mind, I had no idea what he was going to play or what he'd want me to play, but we sat there, hit record and we improvised. At the end of our day together, we'd improvised four or five pieces and Robert suggested I take the hard drive away and do something with them, though he didn't tell me what to do."

When Jakszyk was growing up in Croxley Green, near Rickmansworth, he could have had no inkling that stumbling upon his first King Crimson album, In The Wake Of Poseidon, in 1970 would change his life. Hearing it immediately made him want to pick up and play the guitar, something he did professionally upon leaving school. "When I first heard Crimson I didn't have many reference points, but even at that age I could tell it was coming at things from a completely different point of view. It wasn't coming at it from the same place as everyone else, you know, the blues and pentatonic scales. It was coming from a whole other place."

In an incredibly varied career—which includes a period in the late '70s signed as a solo artist to Jake Riviera's Stiff label and to Chiswick Records—Jakszyk has collaborated with a diverse array of artists including Mick Karn, Richard Barbieri, Tom Robinson and Slapp Happy's Peter Blegvad, as well stints in bands such as Rapid Eye Movement (along with ex-Hatfield stalwarts Dave Stewart and Pip Pyle), The Lodge with ex-Henry Cow bassist John Greaves and Golden Palominos' Anton Fier and, in the '90s, Level 42, where he replaced Allan Holdsworth.

Jakko's presence at Broad Chalke hadn't come out of the blue. Fripp made contact when the guitarist and singer was fronting the 21st Century Schizoid Band, which featured Ian McDonald, Peter Giles, Mel Collins and Jakszyk's father-in-law Michael Giles. Fripp recognised that handling such a diverse group of players, not to mention taking a tour on the road—all tasks which had fallen to Jakszyk—was no easy feat. Nor had the fact that Jakszyk was playing fiendishly complex guitar parts and singing, often at the same time, gone unnoticed by Fripp. He'd occasionally ring Jakszyk to find out how things were going. "Now someone else understands what I went through in Crimson," Fripp would laugh upon hearing about some of the tensions that had surfaced in the Schizoid Band.

In 2002, in a bizarre case of history repeating itself, Michael Giles unexpectedly quit after the band's final performance on a Japanese tour. But this time Ian McDonald was in no hurry to join him. Instead Ian Wallace joined the group and in some ways the band was better for it. "It meant people could stop treading on eggshells," says Jakszyk.

Away from the band, in 2005 Jakszyk invited Fripp to guest on his fourth solo album, The Bruised Romantic Glee Club (2006). Back with the Schizoid Band, the addition of Wallace gave the band a greater fluency and the drummer's unalloyed enthusiasm at being reunited with the music was palpable. Released in 2006, Pictures Of A City—Live In New York is the definitive account of the group's ability to carry the tunes with an astonishing authority. Record Collector was just one of a number of publications to be surprised and delighted.

"This album's title track is often dismissed as a poor man's "Schizoid Man" ... by the same token, it's probably legitimate to enquire whether 21CSB can ever amount to anything more than a glorified King Crimson tribute. Happily, they're very much more than that. Robert Fripp's recent incarnations of KC left this repertoire behind, but there are still plenty of us who appreciate hearing it ... drummer Ian Wallace, bassist Peter Giles, horns and keys men Ian McDonald and Mel Collins, are all evidently qualified to play it, and frontman Jakko Jakszyk makes light work of filling in simultaneously for Fripp on guitar and Lake (or Wetton) on vocals. Nor is this the KC legacy set in aspic featuring as it does one new composition ("Catleys Ashes") and an item from McDonald's solo career ("Let There Be Light"), plus re-workings of the classics. "Epitaph" sounds more pertinent than ever as a piece of social commentary, though on this form, it's way too early to be writing one for 21CSB."

Mel Collins was especially satisfied with the results. "I think with this live album we got somewhere close to playing with the same amount of passion and ability that I was hoping for when we put the band together in 2002."

Whatever the differences or circumstances that had led each member of the group to leave King Crimson, by playing parts that in some cases they hadn't touched in over 30 years they were at least reconciled with the music. The acrimony of the split with Fripp meant that for many years Collins, for example, turned his back on his time with Crimson. Back in August 2002, Mel was at home in Germany transcribing music for 21CSB when, in a moment of extraordinary synchronicity, his telephone rang. It was Robert Fripp calling from Nashville where he was in the middle of preparing material for The Power To Believe.

"We were offering each other congratulations on the various things we'd done since playing together," says Mel. "I told him how good I thought what we were doing back then was, and in the course of this he apologised for the hurtful things he'd said to me 30 years ago. He felt he could have put it all in a different way and that he wished he had. I'm glad we made our peace."

At the time, Fripp mentioned to Collins that they would perhaps work together in the future but the saxophonist hadn't truly expected it to happen. However, the call did come, albeit several years later when Jakszyk was working on the improvisations he and Fripp had produced in January 2010.

Sifting through several hours of material was a daunting but exciting task for Jakko. "I approached it like a sculptor, really. The obvious thing to do would have been to have gone through it and found sections that had a cohesiveness and then chop them up and create compositions in a cut-and-paste fashion. I decided against that and to follow the improvisations we'd done wherever they went. I divided them into sections and worked on them bit by bit creating a kind of musical Consequences. After spending a week working on each little section, it was only when I played it all back that it revealed itself. I wasn't using it as source material to chop up into an arrangement. I decided that what was already there was the arrangement and I'd follow where it goes."

As each piece came into clearer focus, Jakszyk then improvised vocal melodies, scat-singing words and phrases in free association then listening back and surprising himself by the unexpected themes that emerged from his subconscious. Some titles came from those vocal improvisations and others were supplied after the fact by Fripp.

Mel Collins, playing with Fripp for the first time since 1974's Red, delivered a series of takes of breathtaking lyricism, delving deep into the scales within the chords to tease out new melodies. While the young Collins had channelled John Coltrane's spiritual howl in his early '70s work in Crimson, several decades later he sought his way to the heart of the music, focusing on concise but telling commentaries rather than obvious soloing. Playing back the tracks, Jakszyk's ears picked up on a descending line Collins improvised on "The Price We Pay." Struck by the way it inadvertently provided a new transitional bridge, he doubled the melody on guitar and had Collins return to play what was now a fixed part adding alto harmonies to the original soprano. The use of the soprano sax was largely determined not by Collins or Jakszyk but Fripp, who was especially keen on the sonic space and frequencies the instrument occupied in relation to the Soundscaping, echoing his approach when working with Theo Travis.

Across the rumbling grooves of "Secrets," Collins turns in mocking soliloquies and some spectacular soaring choruses. The sombre mood of the album is matched by a restraint which only breaks cover for the explosive paranoia of "The Other Man" and the discursive atonalities of "The Light Of Day," on which an especially bleak Fripp/Jakszyk improvisation is adorned by multi-tracked voices and gouging scrawls of acidic sax. It's dark and powerful stuff.

The addition of Tony Levin, who flew his parts in via the internet, and Gavin Harrison, working on the pieces in his own studio on a vintage jazz kit, gave the tracks a substance and presence that hadn't been planned or anticipated. A precedent might be found in the song "Forgiving" from Bruised Romantic Glee Club which features Fripp and Harrison and, in some respects, foreshadows the brooding quality of this album—which was eventually credited to Jakszyk, Fripp and Collins with Levin and Harrison and dubbed "A King Crimson ProjeKct."

In December 2010, Fripp mastered the finished album with Simon Heyworth with whom he had worked on all of the King Crimson remixes. "JFC is a superb album. I have not heard stereo quite like this since the early 1970s, and much of that was not of this quality," enthused Fripp in his online diary. "Our stereo-positioning & balancing is exquisite. If the sonic & musical pattern/picture is not rightly placed and positioned, it hurts, I twitch, I cannot settle. Dealing with this, I impose on the patience of others—recently Jakko, Steven Wilson and Simon Heyworth ... JFC is one of my favouritest albums, of those where I am a determining element. It has the Crimson gene, but is not quite KC. It is a Crimson ProjeKct, although this was not the intention. Given the gene pool, I suppose this counts as evolution. If JFC were named as a ProjeKct, which would be legitimate IMO, then all manner of expectations, categorisations, limitations and dopey commentaries would be launched to deter the ears of innocent audients."

At other points in Fripp's career, Frippertronics and its digital successor Soundscapes had been used within the context of a song. The emotional rawness of the stripped-back version of Peter Gabriel's "Here Comes The Flood" from Exposure is subtly complemented by the "Water Music" prelude and Fripp's delicate shadings within the verse and chorus. Daryl Hall's "Babs And Babs" from Sacred Songs has a more dramatic use of Fripp's loops as the vocal track drops away leaving the drums and bass adrift in washes of notes. In later years, Fripp would often respond to a request to collaborate or appear on an album by gifting bespoke or pre-existing Soundscapes. Future Sounds Of London, FWWD, The Beloved, Robert Miles, John Wetton, Porcupine Tree, Ten Seconds, Iona and Cheikha Rimitti and many others had benefited from this approach. The Wine Of Silence, released in 2012, took the orchestral personalities of Fripp's evolving approach to Soundscapes to their logical conclusion. In the summer of 2000, California Guitar Trio and one-time League Of Crafty Guitarists member, Bert Lams, handed over his painstaking transcriptions of Fripp's soundscapes to composer Andrew Keeling who then worked up fully orchestrated renditions with Keeling's own compositional extrapolations of the source material.

After they were performed by the Metropole Orchestra in Amsterdam in 2003, a further eight years passed before the pieces were deemed ready. Just as Keeling himself used the original soundscapes as a starting point for further melodic and harmonic exploration, Crimson manager and producer David Singleton took the Metropole concert recording and generated multiple layers of the orchestra in much the same way as Fripp might manipulate his guitar during a Soundscapes concert.

The results were immensely powerful. While Keeling's sensitive orchestrations emphasise the contemplative reverie of "Pie Jesu" and the elegiac "Midnight Blue," it's the middle of the album where he vividly and persuasively articulates the more challenging elements contained within the soundscapes equation. The pensive atmospheres of "Black Light," "Miserere Mei" and "Requiescat" coalesce into what is in effect a 34-minute suite of impassioned ferocity. Their shimmering tonality encompasses luminous passages of gorgeously transcendent melody, turbulent percussive rumblings, glowering, sepulchral brass undertows and achingly beautiful strings. Perhaps the most impressive passages come from the startling choral sequences, which in part take their text from the Anglican burial service, and provide some truly arresting and awe-inspiring moments found on the album. Occasionally evoking the works of Pärt, Górecki, Tavener and others of the "holy minimalist" school of composition, The Wine Of Silence burns brightly with Fripp's intense musicality even though he does not appear on the recording.

With King Crimson on hold since their short-lived return in 2008, the release of JFC's A Scarcity Of Miracles in 2011 provided a surprise instalment of the ProjeKct series. An album of finely crafted, mid-paced songs rather than the fast-moving, genre-blurring instrumentals that characterised previous ProjeKcts, the collaboration wrong-footed many listeners. But the ProjeKct experiments were never about a given style but about evolving beyond a creative impasse. While Fripp's playing was rightly lauded for its "wild card" properties and the quirky angularity of his soloing, there was always a deeply emotional quality to his work that found its most haunting expression in Soundscaping. Jakszyk's work in extrapolating the material from their initial improvisations was something special indeed. The aching melancholia within the Soundscapes was homed in on by Jakszyk as a springboard for his writing. A Scarcity Of Miracles is an important release, representing the most fully-integrated use of Fripp's Soundscapes in a rock-orientated context. Here, far from an adjunct or mere decoration, they were absolutely central to the finished sound—a tightly woven tapestry of memorable melody and often heartbreaking atmospheres. For some listeners, however, the restraint was a turn-off and it was not uncommon on forums and social media to see the responsibility for what was regarded as an unwelcome blandness laid at Jakszyk's feet.

Ironically, the relative lack of sharp dynamics was something Jakszyk had raised in production meetings with Fripp as a potential concern. For example, "The Light Of Day"'s original bass and drums were removed at Fripp's direction. Ultimately, the responsibility for the downtempo mood and direction belonged to Fripp. Jakszyk, trusting his senior colleague's judgement, happily acquiesced. Fripp later declared the completed album to be "a stunning sonic tapestry, carefully woven and satisfying to the ear."

The album picked up a brace of positive reviews. All About Jazz's John Kelman stated: "A Scarcity Of Miracles returns Fripp to a nearly all-English line-up for the first time since the '70s, and while impossible to define why, possesses the most decidedly British feel of any group project in which Fripp has participated since his 1990s work with David Sylvian. It may lack the sharp corners, jagged edges and harder surfaces of latter-day Crimson, and there's none of the overt symphonic prog of early Crim, but Jakszyk's refined vocals, soft-spoken playing and haunting songwriting, Fripp's searing lines and orchestral Soundscaping, and Collins' soaring melodies make for the best group record—Crimson or no—to come from the Fripp camp in nearly 30 years."

The Sea Of Tranquility website wrote: "A Scarcity Of Miracles is easily the most different release ever put out under a King Crimson-related banner, and also the most intriguing. Who knows whether this line-up will produce anything after this, but let's hope so. I'm sure most folks never thought that Robert Fripp would take KC down into pop and jazz waters, but that's kind of what you get here, and it's quite refreshing. Don't expect this CD to jump out at you on first listen, but give it a few tries and all the rewards will surely reveal themselves to you. Beautiful stuff."

The Prog Rock Music Talk website offered this perspective: "Don't expect speedy payoffs with this album ... I immediately liked it better the second time around, and the pleasure increased with each subsequent spin. I believe this will be the case for most listeners, each time revealing subtle nuances previously missed. Albums like this rarely reach the point of diminishing returns. Though not technically complex or cluttered, there is a lot to take in on these six tracks. More than most should expect to pick up on in one go-round. Be patient—both with this album and with yourself—and the rewards will be comparable to the time you put in."

Excerpt from In the Court of King Crimson: An Observation Over 50 Years:
Copyright Sid Smith, 2019
Revised & Expanded Edition published by Panegyric Publishing

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