The latest Hard Rubber Orchestra album, Kenny Wheeler: Suite for Hard Rubber Orchestra, is gorgeous and rather autumnal in nature—which isn’t entirely surprising, as it contains the last music that Wheeler wrote before his death in 2014. The great jazz composer and trumpet player, who knew his end was coming, seems to have poured his soul into this expansive suite; in fact, he felt so strongly about the commission that he sent John Korsrud the charts even before the Hard Rubber Orchestra bandleader had nailed down the money to pay for them. (Korsrud’s grant application, fortunately, proved successful.)
Kenny Wheeler: Suite for Hard Rubber Orchestra is both a lovely epitaph for the Toronto-born Wheeler, one of the greatest melodists of the 20th century, and a good indication that the A-list players in the Hard Rubber Orchestra are as comfortable playing pretty music as they are wrestling with difficult listening. So what are they going to do next?
Why, tackle a whole night’s worth of King Crimson covers, of course.
“Well, it just kind of shows our diversity,” Korsrud explains in a telephone interview from his girlfriend’s Kitsilano apartment. “We can do a fairly straight-ahead jazz project, and we can do new music projects, like pieces by people like Howard Bashaw and Linda Bouchard, and also do heavy-metal projects as well.”
Korsrud’s been an admirer of King Crimson for even longer than he’s been a professional musician. “I guess I originally discovered them in my late teens, roughly around the time I discovered Mahavishnu Orchestra and all those kinds of bands—Weather Report, and things like that,” he says. “We did a Mahavishnu project, like, four years ago, and it ended up being one of our more successful concerts. We’ve always done original compositions—that’s the mandate of this band—but it was so successful that, of course, I started thinking about what other band we could do. And King Crimson was the natural band to do next.
“The cool thing about them is their groundbreaking compositions, which combine heavy metal with classical influences and some jazz influences. Out of all the prog-rock–type bands, including Genesis and Yes and things like that, they seemed to have the most interest for me. And it’s funny: when I started revisiting their pieces again, I realized how much influence they had on me compositionally. I can listen to my stuff and go, ‘Oh, yeah, there’s definitely some King Crimson influence in there for sure,’ which I’d kind of forgotten about.”
With the help of arrangers Fred Stride, Bill Runge, and Eric Wettstein, Korsrud has chosen to work with pieces that span the first third of the long-running band’s canon, from the title track of its 1969 debut, In the Court of the Crimson King, to four numbers from its more pop-oriented 1980s incarnation. He’s also tapped Erik Severinson, from the band Whelming, and Powell Street Festival artistic director Leanne Dunic to do the singing; the latter, he notes, is a die-hard Crimsonista, who’s currently finishing a book on the band. So you can expect a show that honours its inspiration, but that’s more than just a faithful tribute.
“There’s always a danger when you do things like this,” Korsrud allows. “So we don’t want to just ‘jazz it up’: we’re really trying to make each piece more exciting and bigger in scope and add more colour. The idea is to make things better than the originals; otherwise what’s the point of doing it?”
The Hard Rubber Orchestra presents A Tribute to King Crimson at the Rio Theatre on Thursday (November 15), with opening act Peregrine Falls.