Holding court with King Crimson

KING CRIMSON 2018 (L-R): Robert Fripp, Jeremy Stacey (sitting), Bill Rieflin, Tony Levin (sitting), Gavin Harrison, Pat Mastelotto (sitting), Jakko Jakszyk and Mel Collins.
Photo by Dean Stocking.

By Howard Whitman

It’s a daunting prospect to replace an iconic singer in a legendary rock band — just ask the revolving door of singers who’ve been in and out of such groups as Yes or Journey over the years. But imagine having to replace not one but five unique vocalists in a band with a 50-year history and one of the most expansive, eclectic repertoires in rock music.

That’s the challenge that Jakko Jakszyk faced when he joined a reconfiguration of pioneering progressive rock band King Crimson in 2013. Five vocalists (Greg Lake, Gordon Haskell, Boz Burrell, John Wetton and Adrian Belew) have manned the mic in various lineups throughout the band’s existence, and as this version was going to touch upon virtually all phases of the band’s catalog, Jakszyk was going to have sing songs originated by each of them, all while handling the band’s crazily complex guitar parts alongside founder/guitarist/sonic architect Robert Fripp.

Fripp couldn’t have chosen a better person for the job. Jakszyk effortlessly covers all phases of the band’s music — from Lake-era classics such as “The Court of the Crimson King” and “21st Century Schizoid Man” to Wetton-sung songs including “Easy Money” and “Starless.” The band recently added a reinterpretation of “Indiscipline,” a song on which a vocal originally spoken by Belew now features a melody line sung (and played in tandem on guitar, George Benson-style) by Jakszyk.

The current eight-piece Crimson lineup (which features, along with Jakszyk and Fripp, bassist Tony Levin, saxophonist Mel Collins, keyboardist Bill Rieflin, drummer/pianist Jeremy Stacey, and drummers Gavin Harrison and Pat Mastelotto) can be heard in its full glory on a recently released 3-CD set, Live in Vienna (Note: Turn to Page 52 for detailed info). In an email interview with Goldmine, Jakszyk discussed what sets this set apart from the band’s other recent live albums, how he came to join the band, the creation of new Crimson music and what it’s like to perform with these prog-rock giants.

GOLDMINE: King Crimson has a new 3-CD set out, Live in Vienna, which is billed as an “Official Release” rather than an “Official Bootleg.” What differentiates this set from the “bootleg” ones?

JAKKO JAKSZYK: The main difference, apart from the set list and band lineup, is that Vienna is mixed from a multi-track (recording) of the show. So it took a while. Chris Porter (who was a big pop producer in the 80’s and 90’s) mixed it. He then, almost by default, became the band’s live soundman too. Live In Chicago has been called a ‘bootleg’ because it’s basically a board tape. (That album) isn’t mixed; it’s taken straight out of the mixing console on that evening. This mix is courtesy of Chris Porter too, of course.

GM: Live in Vienna features a new live recording of the song “Fracture,” which hasn’t been performed live by the band since 1974. What is the significance of this song in the King Crimson catalog?

JJ: I think it’s a piece that’s become significant to both audience and band alike. It’s certainly a difficult and challenging thing for Robert to play. He was keen to address it, having not played the piece in so long. It requires a great deal of concentration, so we don’t always play it — particularly if some of the audience are taking pictures, which, of course, we ask them not to do.

GM: The current incarnation of King Crimson plays music from all eras of the band, from the Greg Lake era to Gordon Haskell, Boz Burrell, John Wetton, and even a new take on “Indisclipine” from the Adrian Belew era. As main vocalist in the crucial lineup, I was wondering which era, if any, resonates the most for you; which is your favorite to sing/play?

JJ: Well, when I first saw the band in ’71, I’d already lived with and loved Poseidon, Lizard and the album they were promoting, Islands. So I have a particular soft spot for those albums, as that was Crimson to me. Robert on one side of the stage and Mel Collins on the other.

GM: Along those lines, which material do you find most challenging? What are the challenges of singing pieces originated on record by five previous vocalists?

JJ: The funny thing is, because Crimson was one of the main things I was listening to as a novice singer, it of course informed how I sang. So most of that material is not only familiar, but if I sing it in a way that fits, it’s because that’s how I learned to sing in the first place. As for challenging, there are a few things that I have to play and sing at the same time that are tricky.

GM: The current Crimson lineup features three drummers at the front of the stage. What, in your view, are the benefits of this unique approach?

JJ: Well. I remember when we turned up to rehearsals at Elstree (a large film studio just outside London) and saw the three kits set up for the first time, with the rest of the gear up on a riser at the back. It looked pretty amazing. The other thing that became apparent was the focus. (The) standard band lineup is lead singer down (in) the front, with the rest a supporting cast. This flips that idea on its head, and as such, is a very egalitarian thing. It says, “we are all as important to the music,” like a mini-orchestra.  Anyone seeing Crimson over the years will know that Robert historically hides in the shadows (both virtual and real). Not this time. He’s as lit and as visible as anyone else in the band. The drum arrangements, by Gavin Harrison mostly, are amazing. Technically, musically and visually. There’s a real sense of drama to it. Plus, Pat Mastelotto takes the “Jamie Muir” role often, and has the “electronics,” whilst Jeremy Stacey plays keys too, and is a great piano player. (That is) particularly useful on the likes of  Islands and other moments.

GM: How did you come to be involved with Robert Fripp and the current formation of King Crimson?

JJ: Long story, really. I became involved with a band called 21st Century Schizoid Band, which featured ex-Crimson members playing the earlier material that the then-current Crimson never played.

I received a phone call from Robert — whom I’d never spoken to — at the end of the rehearsal period, asking me how it was going. I told him, and he became a kind of private “Crimson Samaritan,” enabling me to get through the twisted politics that still remained decades later. He then played and co-wrote a tune on my solo album (The Bruised Romantic Glee Club) he saw me sing “Islands,” accompanied by Mel, at (ex-Crimson and 21st Century Schizoid Band drummer) Ian Wallace’s memorial. I offered my services as a 5.1 re-mixer, which he took up and then we ended up making an album together with Gavin, Mel, and of course, the great Tony Levin.

GM: When that album, A Scarcity of Miracles, came out in in 2011, it was described as “A King Crimson Projekct.” In your view, how does this CD — excellent work, by the way — differ from a full King Crimson release?

JJ: Well, when we started, it was just a day of Robert and I improvising. At the end of it, Robert gave me the hard drive of what we’d recorded together, with the idea that I might do something with it. What exactly, neither he nor I was quite sure of. So I found myself in my studio playing this stuff back and improvising vocals over the top. I tried to keep it spontaneous, in keeping with how we’d started it, improvising lyrics as well as notes. I then edited bits out, and making parts out of what was left. Robert responded, as he liked where it was going. He removed a great deal of the heavier stuff and rhythmic stuff I came up with, until it started to developed a kind of sound of its own. He suggested bringing in Mel. Again, Mel improvised and I edited bits. I doubled bits, wrote harmonies, and got Mel back to overdub additional parts I’d made from his original improvising, so it all sounded like deliberate yet highly organic parts. It slowly began to sound like a record. I suggested getting Gavin in to replace the drums I’d programmed, and of course Gavin came up with some really original stuff and approaches. I also suggested replacing my bass playing with a “proper” bass player, and of course Robert suggested Tony Levin. What Tony did was really magical, and the next thing you know we have a finished album. But it wasn’t a band, and it largely had this laid-back, hypnotic feel that remained from the original improvisation on which the whole thing was based. So (it was) not a Crimson album at all, in terms of intent and the way it was created. But I guess Robert felt it had sufficient Crimson DNA to legitimately call it a “Crimson ProjeKCt.” Whilst the finished thing may not sound obviously “experimental,” that’s certainly how it was created.

GM: I had the good fortune to see the current KC lineup in Philadelphia in November 2017. It was a wonderful show, but it almost felt like an orchestral performance, a recital, due to the absence of a front man speaking to the audience and things along those lines — the trappings of a typical rock concert. Do you feel this is an apt description?

JJ: Well I think I expressed some of the advantages in an earlier answer. The deliberate avoidance of the standard band lineup, making this an egalitarian one. But I would go on to say that this version of Crimson, above all others, is capable of playing anything from the vast 50-year catalog.

King Crimson “The Elements Tour Box” 2-CD set now available

GM: Since King Crimson’s re-emergence in 1981 with Discipline, the band had rarely performed “classic” pieces, opting instead to focus on newer material. Since reforming in 2011 as “the seven-headed beast” and later the double quartet, the band has focused strongly on all eras of the vast KC catalog. What, do you feel, brought about this choice? How does the current lineup keep its performances of the classic songs fresh?

JJ: I think there’s a mixture of talent and approaches involved. Someone like Gavin has no history with Crimson, so he doesn’t slavishly copy original parts and of course can’t when he’s writing for three drummers, so he comes at it as he does the new original pieces we play. Tony, too, has little or no knowledge of the earlier material, so he sometimes stays close to the original parts, if he thinks that’s what’s best musically, but frequently plays what he himself feels works best for that piece — just largely treating all the pieces as if they were new.

GM: The current version of the band has focused on reinterpreting classic pieces rather than developing new studio recordings. Do you foresee new material coming from the band, and if so, in what form?

JJ: Currently in the repertoire we have around 10 new pieces that have yet to appear on a “studio” album. New material is being written and demoed, and some makes it to rehearsal and the stage and, I assume, that will continue to be the case. As for a “new” studio album of this material, well, it’s a different world out there. Bands used to make a new album and tour to support it. Now we tour for the sake and love of it, and a studio album would take time and cost. In a world of piracy, downloads and streaming, it’s a lot harder to make a sensible economic case for doing these things like we used to. But ultimately, it’s not my call. That doesn’t mean there won’t be a new album … but it doesn’t mean that there will be, either.   

Read more about Live In Vienna

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