Review: Gwilym Simcock does King Crimson

Roger Farbey sees the London première of Crimson! - rearrangements featuring Gwilym Simcock and The Delta Saxophone Quartet of music by the famed prog-rock band King Crimson

For a former progressive rock fan now rehabilitated to appreciate jazz (which arguably is the true “progressive” music) this was potentially a dream concert. The evening, held at St John’s Smith Square in London on 1 May 2015, comprised two parts. The first set, titled Dedicated To You and a paean to Soft Machine, featured music drawn from the 2007 album Dedicated To You But You Weren't Listeningn by the Delta Saxophone Quartet and the late Hugh Hopper. The second half, Crimson!, showcased A Kind Of Red, a new work for saxophone quartet and jazz piano by Gwilym Simcock, plus five other numbers taken from the great King Crimson songbook.

The historical relationship between prog rock and jazz probably needs no further expansion, but there was always a passive inter-relationship between both Soft Machine and King Crimson. Both bands had “shared” a coterie of musicians from the original Keith Tippett Group. Elton Dean, Mark Charig and Nick Evans had played and recorded with Soft Machine whilst others from the Tippett ensemble including Tippett himself, recorded with King Crimson. But a newer relationship was revealed by Gwilym Simcock, chattily informing the audience of his time in ex-King Crimson drummer Bill Bruford’s band Earthworks when these bewildered jazz musicians were plagued by audiences of prog rockers shouting “Crimson!” at them.

A concert of Fripp’s music played by a jazz group is undoubtedly an intriguing proposition and so it proved to be. This is the 31st anniversary of The Delta Saxophone Quartet, who although not exclusively jazz musicians, are no strangers to the genre. Alto saxophonist Pete Whyman, for one, has played in various Mike Westbrook ensembles. The concert of Crimson music happened purely by chance when baritone saxophonist Chris Caldwell met Gwilym Simcock at a Stoke City Football Club Europa cup match game against Dynamo Kiev and the Crimson! project was born.

The quartet is completed by Graeme Blevins on soprano and Tim Holmes on tenor and for the first three numbers the quartet (minus Simcock) was accompanied by drummer Simon Pearson. Dedicated To You was, perhaps unsurprisingly, the opener, a pastoral version of the Hugh Hopper classic. This was succeeded by an excellently petulant version of Hopper’s Facelift, Chris Caldwell’s baritone tracing the essential bass line. The third Softs piece, a lugubrious version of Kings And Queens (from Soft Machine’s Fourth album) was expertly arranged by Issie Barratt and Pete Whyman’s alto was veritably channelling the late Elton Dean’s saxello soloing. The final part of this half was an extended version of Everything Is You, arranged by Paul Englishby, initially performed by the quartet, but later joined by Gwilym Simcock who proceeded to give an unaccompanied bravura solo performance lasting around 20 minutes.

The second half commenced with Simcock’s own composition A Kind Of Red which included the quartet and showcased Simcock’s prodigious talents. Next up was the first actual Crimson track, a medley of Vroom Vroom and Coda: Marine 475 from the album Vroom Vroom. The Night Watch from the album Starless And Bible Black was given a faithful interpretation with Tim Holmes on tenor accurately reproducing the vocal line, whilst with Dinosaur from the album Thrak, it was possible to discern a ghostly subliminal voice of Adrian Belew within the sax parts, ekeing out his original plaintive vocal. Despite the employment of an electronic rhythmic pulse in Two Hands from the album Beat, this number didn’t fare quite so well. However, the finale, the feisty, rocky The Great Deceiver, again from Starless And Bible Black, was along with Facelift probably the most successful tune of the evening. The audience rightly demanded an encore which was delivered with alacrity, a short unnamed non-Crimson piece with Ellingtonian overtones.

We really need more imaginative concerts like this and especially in the marvellous St John’s Smith Square which benefits from such fantastic natural acoustics that the announcements by Caldwell and Simcock needed no microphone to be audible. A rare treat.

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