The Crimson Jazz Trio’s second album, King Crimson Songbook Volume 2, represents a step forward and a terrible setback at once. Jazz Trio members pianist Jody Nardone, bassist Tim Landers and drummer Ian Wallace recorded the first Crimson Songbook in the spring of 2005, and I had the opportunity to speak with Wallace about Volume 1. I recall our chat fondly and must say that Ian was one of the nicest people in the music business I ever communicated with. Upon hearing that I, too, was a drummer, he immediately said, “If you’re ever out in California, let me know and I’ll give you a drum lesson.” And had I been able, I believe he would have kept good on his promise. Unfortunately, less than two years passed when I learned Ian was battling cancer, and he died Feb. 22, 2007. If any good news comes from that, it’s that he, Nardone and Landers had the chance to lay down the tracks for the second songbook in June 2006, before illness overtook him. Thus, the King Crimson Songbook Volume 2 represents the next and final development of this trio’s explorations of the King Crimson catalog. It’s also Ian Wallace’s swan song – a stately, graceful and oh so musical stepping out.
Where Volume 1 features more straightforward interpretations of Crimson tunes including “Starless,” “I Talk To The Wind” and “Red,” this collection is a broader beast, with more open arrangements and veering off into lesser-known territories – “Pictures Of A City,” “Sailor’s Tale” and “Lament.”
Volume 2 opens with Crimson’s epic “The Court Of The Crimson King,” with Nardone painting the piece with blocks of chords as Wallace flitters across the cymbals with a jeweler’s precision. Landers’ deep bass notes anchor this majestic tune. The whole thing feels so live and loose that at the end of “Crimson King” I fully expected to hear an audience’s response. “Pictures Of A City” runs from the very Crimson-ish intro riff into a half-time swing that sounds like Vince Guaraldi if he had Jaco Pastorius (or Landers) laying down the bass lines. Mel Collins – longtime Crimson contributor – guests on “Frame By Frame” and plays Adrian Belew’s “vocal” part through saxophone. Nardone’s piano takes the role of rhythm guitar and its asymmetric lines. Wallace’s solo in “Heartbeat” demonstrates his chops and restraint at once, with a touch so light that it seems effortless, but we know that’s not the case.
The “Islands Suite” gives each member a chance to step out and solo, between two songs from the namesake Crimson album, “Formentera Lady” and “Sailor’s Tale.” Wallace’s solo,“Press Gang,” is a stormy piece of percussion, with an orchestral feel. Nardone’s “Zero Dark Thirty” is a peaceful nocturne somewhere between Keith Emerson, Claude Debussy and George Winston. Landers’ bass workout titled “The Plank,” will find favor with fans of Charles Mingus, Pat Metheny or Frank Zappa. Mel Collins’ sax on “Formentera” is mesmerizing, the piece reworked at the beginning into something that could have come from John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme. Arguably, the best was saved for last, as the Trio dip into “Lament,” from the darkly tinged Starless And Bible Black. This plaintive reminisce moves through a series of moods, from the gentle opening to the savage middle – given a Latin, jazz-funk treatment here, like a cross between Santana, George Gerswhin and Thelonious Monk. Don’t hit the stop button too early, though, as a few seconds of silence near the 8-minute mark are interrupted as the trio marches in for the coup de grace. Listen to Landers as he makes his bass groan!
The King Crimson Songbook Volume 2 is another masterful achievement from a trio whose time was cut too short. Surely the spirit of Ian Wallace lives on in these recordings and so many more. He is, and will continue to be, greatly missed.