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King Crimson at Theatre St-Denis

John Kelman By

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To further demonstrate just how flexible this improvising Crim was, during the first night of its 2014 San Francisco show, Collins took a solo that built to such a frenzied peak that, rather than leading back to the closing verses of Islands' "The Letters" when the dynamics dropped to near-silence, the saxophonist picked it up again, driving the group through a second solo segment that pushed things to even greater stratospheric heights before Jakszyk came in with his final sung verses. Collins said that "It's become a bit staid lately, but it comes down to how I hear everything. You do get locked into certain phrases that work and certain phrases that don't, and it's difficult to get away from that sometimes. But the last thing I want to do to play the same thing twice."

And he doesn't, which is no small challenge. Harrison jumped in: "It's hard to deliberately not repeat what you've done before; it's almost impossible. To some degree there's really no such thing as improvisation; you're always playing something you've played before"; to which Collins added: "One night you might play something that you think is really great and the next night you'll want to try it and recreate it...but you can't. It is difficult when there is so much going on around you; sometimes the most fun I have is on playing flute all by myself in the middle of 'Larks' Tongues Part One.' In the original Crimson you have to consider that when it was an instrumental it was really just three of us playing...which was great fun for me. But I didn't listen to any of that music for years because I really didn't want to. I didn't want to play irregular meters; I just want to play funk and soul; but it's a different approach now. Speaking for myself, I've really been enjoying working with people like Gavin; the standard is so high."

Still, irrespective of what Harrison and Collins suggested, to even the most seasoned listener there was more than enough variation, night-to-night—and now, year-to-year- -to suggest that this version of King Crimson has managed to do what many groups placed in the general rock category could not: make each night a truly unique experience. "I don't think there's ever been a Crimson where it has been this high a standard," said Collins, who first played in the group on three recordings, from In the Wake of Poseidon through Islands before leaving the band, only to be invited back for a guest appearance on Red, where he contributed a soaring soprano saxophone solo on the album-closing "Starless."

"And we all get along," injected Jakszyk, to which everyone responded with laughter. But it's a point not lost on anyone who has followed the band closely over the years that virtually every incarnation of King Crimson has ultimately involved some degree of disagreement and even resentment—even when the groups were performing material that was nothing short of innovative and stellar.

"Sometimes it's hard to actually get Robert to play," Jakszyk said. "Like the traditional thing in "21st Century Schizoid Man" is a guitar solo and then a sax solo. We didn't plan on it being a different approach with Gavin [who takes an extended drum solo], but we talked about Robert taking a solo and he just didn't want to."

And so, what may be the group's most iconic, easily recognized song, "21st Century Schizoid Man"—a curious status, to some extent (or, perhaps, because of it), as it's the only track of that nature on In the Court of the Crimson King—has become an extended drum feature for Harrison...though this year, unlike the 2014 tour, Collins also took longer solos before things dissolved down to the drummer.

One night Harrison played a virtuosic display of more conventional kit work that was a wonder of in-the-moment construction, while the other night the drummer built a similarly motif-driven solo, but this time alternating a Gamelan-inspired set of tuned bells—or, perhaps, electronics (it was impossible to see as he was playing a part of the kit that was hidden by his body, towards the back of the set)—increasingly interspersed with the rest of his massive kit before building to a climactic peak that had the audience roaring. "Solos should be however long you want them to be; they're so mood-dependent, Harrison explained. "Some nights you are feeling on the game, some nights you are not; some nights you are feeling full of humor and jokes, and other nights you feel very serious. But solos should be however long they need to be, 'til you say you've had enough. I never know how long my solo's going to be; I couldn't tell you whether it's going to be one minute or ten."

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