Tony Levin on King Crimson’s latest bold move: “Truly ‘progressive’ progressive rock”

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Tony Levin is no stranger to the intriguing way that King Crimson refashions itself for different ages. After all, he’s been a part of several exciting new configurations over the years.

In 1981, for instance, he joined a lineup rebuilt around stalwart Robert Fripp and drummer Bill Bruford. More than a decade later, Fripp, Bruford, Levin and early-’80s second guitarist Adrian Belew reemerged in 1994 with a double-trio format featuring Trey Gunn and Pat Mastelotto. In 2008, the returning quartet of Fripp, Belew, Levin and Mastelotto was joined by Gavin Harrison.

This phoenix-like cycle of rebirth happened again last year, when Fripp reconvened with Levin, Mastelotto, Harrison and a trio of collaborators that included Mel Collins (an early 1970s-era multi-instrumentalist with Fripp), Jakko Jakszyk and Bill Rieflin. On a well-received subsequent tour, King Crimson would be configured with three drummers up front — once again, unsettling long-held expectations for the group’s sound.

Now on a separate string of dates with Mastelotto (and Markus Reuter) as the Stick Men, Levin tells us in an exclusive Something Else! Sitdown that he was just as surprised as anyone else by King Crimson’s most recent evolution. He also discusses what fans can look forward to from the band, and how Crimson’s unique songcraft has impacted other areas of the bassist’s work.

NICK DERISO: After all of this time, do you still get some sense of wonder in Robert Fripp’s ability to remake King Crimson into such differing entities over the years?
TONY LEVIN: I am, indeed, very impressed, yet again, with his musical vision. Some of his ideas for this lineup seemed like they’d be tough to translate into a successful show, but, as has happened before, I found that having faith in his vision of what King Crimson is payed off with music that’s not like the last lineup and a show that’s a bit radical in ways — truly ‘progressive’ progressive rock.

NICK DERISO: Describe the difference — for you — between working with a principal soloist who is a saxist like Mel Collins, versus the more guitar-focused sound of Crimson with Adrian Belew.
TONY LEVIN: The sax made a huge difference in the music, and not just when soloing. Mel’s feel gives flavor to the pieces, and he’s a musical wild card, doing different things on different nights, so that inspires me to follow him, and you get sections that are completely different night to night. I’d never played in Crimson with a sax, and to me it made it a completely different band.

NICK DERISO: Should fans hold out hope for new music from this lineup of King Crimson? Any sense yet on whether another tour could follow in 2015?
TONY LEVIN: At this point, we’re still planning what’ll come next, so I can’t accurately say. More, I think, and hope!

NICK DERISO: In the meantime, you’ve included a version of King Crimson’s “Matte Kudasai” — from your debut with Fripp, 1981’s Discipline — on a new jazz-focused project with your brother Pete Levin. What moved you to do that?
TONY LEVIN: I was thinking, with the record being a style my fans are not used to, it might be nice to give them something a little familiar. We also recorded a Paul Simon song (both Pete and I had played with him) but that didn’t make it to the finished album, so it’s all originals with that one Crimson song for fun. It’s a testament to what a good song “Matte Kudasai” is that it holds up, in my opinion, in a jazz context, even without the vocal. Great melody.

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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