Andy Summers

At the time of writing, it’s rumored that The Police will reunite later in 2007. If my Police reviews page didn’t make it clear, I am a big fan of the group. However, I don’t think huge rock concerts are conducive to enjoyable musical experience, and I’m afraid the tour, if it happens, will mostly take place in enormodomes and stadiums. I’ll just wait for the inevitable DVD, thanks. (Should the group decide to make a new album, it could be a good one, provided they each compose their share of the music.) Notice I said “The Police will reunite” and not “Sting will reunite with his old bandmates,” which is how a lot of news sources spin it, what with Sting being the celebrity, and the other guys just being, er, the other guys. It’d be foolish to belittle Sting’s creative role in the group, but the Police would hardly have been as interesting were it not for Andy Summers and Stewart Copeland.

Andy Summers has long been one of my favorite guitarists, mostly for his textural combinations of sound and chords. Not a lot of rock guitarists have this sensibility, or if they do, they likely got a clue from Andy himself. He made many valuable contributions to The Police and often took Sting’s songwriting the extra mile. One solution to the “rock guitar trio” scenario is to fill up space with plenty of volume and notes, either in punkish assault or bluesy jamming. Another solution, which The Police chose, was to celebrate space, let the chords hang, let the rhythms cut through, leave some ambiguity and economy. Summers played a large role in this with his chord voicings, sensitive touch on the strings, and certain modulation effects. Summers is often associated with the popular chorus effect of the 1980s, and while he did gravitate towards it over time, a lot of his modulated Police sounds actually come from a flanger. Instead of the extreme “jet plane” effect, Summers often used the flanger for a tight warble. On later tracks, such as “Every Breath”, Summers employs the typical Roland/Boss chorus effect.

Rhythm-guitar skills notwithstanding, Summers is sometimes critiqued as not having been a very good lead player in The Police. This puzzles me, because I don’t think explosive chops soloing would have fit into very many Police songs. I guess you could point to Adrian Belew bringing some off-the-wall guitar solos to Talking Heads, but even that would have been inappropriate for The Police. Besides, Andy got off a few good ones, like “It’s Alright for You” and “Miss Gradenko”. A lot of times, his solos focus on repetition (“Omegaman”, “Bring On The Night”) or texture (“Don’t Stand”), not for lack of technique but because these ideas happened to accentuate the tracks well. Sometimes he uses the instrumental break to create a new rhythmic part, or he may do some pentatonic wailing (“Demolition Man”, “So Lonely”) that isn’t marvelous but isn’t destructive, either. Maybe one could complain about the one-note solo in “When the World Is Running Down”, but something more active may have upset the track’s sleekness.

After the Police broke up, Summers started down the solo path in 1987 with XYZ, a vocal album. I heard it only once a long time ago, so I can’t comment on it except to note that being both guitarist and “singer” was not Andy’s post-Police calling. He dove into the instrumental realm on 1988’s Mysterious Barricades, an album of ambient guitar-keyboard tracks. Weightless, dreamy, and occasionally transcendent, the music seems a product of Summers’ painterly instincts rather than an appeal to the new age crowd. The keyboards come from David Hentschel, who would remain Andy’s producer and keyboardist for a while. The textural masterpiece The Golden Wire from 1989 puts Andy in more substantial territory. Supported by keys, bass, drums (and programs), and some wind work from Paul McCandless, Summers constructs a gallery of hypnotic, worldly vignettes. The digital equipment and algorithms summon warm, vast imagery, his sonic library by this point being much more sophisticated than it was with The Police.

Charming Snakes (1990) features guests like Herbie Hancock, Bill Evans (the saxophonist), Mark Isham, Chad Wackerman, and Sting contributes bass to the reggae-flavored title track. Neither rock nor jazz, the music contains elements of both and resonates with real band energy. The tracklist is bookended by melodic anthems (“Mexico 1920”, “The Strong and the Beautiful”) and has some interesting detours such as “Passion of the Shadow” (a dreamtime drift) and the chromatic twists of “Innocence Falls Prey”. Summers steps into a lead/melody role on this album and handles it well, especially in the solos of “Big Thing”, “Innocence”, and “Mickey Goes to Africa”. Tasty chord ideas and a few stingers lurk in the background, too. Not an album that would appeal to everybody, but for Summers fans, it’s a must.

World Gone Strange (1991) echoes parts of its predecessor and also introduces acoustic components and decorative percussion. The title track, one of Andy’s best tunes, has a lovely descending theme done in part with wordless vocals. Later on, the exotic “Oudo Kanjaira”, pumped along by bassist Tony Levin’s funk fingers, serves as another standout, and the closing “Dream Trains” makes a wonderful case for Summers as solo guitarist. The rest of the album is pretty slight, to be honest. The melodies aren’t poor, but some of them come off as background music, and the keyboards (Mitchell Forman) are a bit cheesy in places.

In 1993, Summers hooked up with guitarist John Etheridge for an album of acoustic duets called Invisible Threads. At best, the music exploits the players’ jazz interests or sets up angular tension (“Heliotrope”, “Little Transgressions”). Other times, it’s just a couple of guys strumming big chords in tandem. In any case, it demonstrates that Summers could certainly get by without a Bradshaw rack.

1995’s full-band Synaesthesia forgoes pastels for a hard, unrelenting vibe, as heard in “Cubano Rebop” (a pounding minor march drummed by Ginger Baker) and the gnawing “Meshes of the Afternoon”. Summers adopts a correspondingly direct tone for these pieces and also in “Monk Hangs Ten”, a mash-up of surf-guitar and Thelonious-styled melody. Even the acoustic “I Remember” is more realist than impressionist, and the exotic “Umbrellas Over Java” has its own edge. In relief sit the aching expanse of “Low Flying Doves” and the blurry beauty of “Invisible Cities, based on an unresolved piano vamp. Compelling work, and once again on a Summers album, you get to play Spot The Banjo.

In Last Dance of Mr. X (1997), Summers addresses his jazz influences head-on. Half of the album covers tunes by the likes of Monk, Silver, and Shorter, and half is original. Befitting the jazz approach, the instrumentation is stripped down to guitar trio, and only a few pieces are overdubbed, like “The Three Marias”, a Wayne Shorter tune that Summers orchestrates with twangy, silky, fuzzy guitar parts. At the other extreme, the minimalist ballad atmosphere of “Lonely Woman” could have come straight from the 1960s, and Summers is quite adept at voicing jazz chords. Bassist Tony Levin and drummer Greg Bissonette do a good job throughout, especially on the gutsy “Afro Blue”. Andy’s originals serve mostly as “breathers” from the jazz tunes - or is it the other way around? Either way, Summers writes his pieces in a semi-jazz style, not counting the bombastic “Big Thing” redux, or the kaleidoscope title track, where the juxtaposition of spaghetti western melodrama with wilder subthemes rekindles Summer’s bizarre sense of humor.

Summers returned to acoustic duets on Strings of Desire with Brazilian guitarist Victor Biglione, a more active venture than the meeting with Etheridge, especially in the wiry unison parts of “Frevo” (a composition by Egberto Gismonti) and “1+2 Blues” (by Larry Coryell). Jazz favorites include “Night in Tunisia” and a lovely read of “My Favorite Things”. I really like Summers’ own “Samba for Counting the Days”, which has a perfect melody and quiet intensity. Some of the other tracks are more disposable, and Brubeck’s “In Your Own Sweet Way” virtually sleepwalks. Nevertheless, this is a well-played album.

Monk receives full tribute on Green Chimneys, recorded in 1998 with Peter Erskine, Dave Carpenter, Joey de Francesco, and others. Per the subtitle, it’s best to hear this as “The Music Of Thelonious Monk” instead of a purist jazz album, as a few overdubs are strewn throughout. Summers focuses mainly on re-imagining the compositions, although they all contain solos, of course. From the perky twists of “Hackensack” and “Bemsha Swing” to the revisionist angst of “Shuffle Boil” and the doting ballads “Ugly Beauty” and “Ruby My Dear” (on solo dobro), most tracks provide new perspective on the tunes. Solowise, Summers tends to dance on the surface of the changes, although he sometimes penetrates them in interesting ways (“Monk’s Dream”, “Evidence”). Sting returns again for a nice vocal performance of “Round Midnight”. Being a fan of both Monk and Summers, I like this album a lot. Other Monk connoisseurs might roll their eyes at the liberties Summers takes, but they can’t doubt the consideration he brought to this project.

Peggy’s Blue Skylight (2000) tackles the works of Charles Mingus. It reaches some wild extremes, such as a reggae-fied “Boogie Stop Shuffle”, a storming rock rendition of “Tonight at Noon”, “Remember Rockefeller at Attica” dressed in enthusiastic samba, and a guitar-and-strings arrangement of “Myself When I Am Real”. You also get a Debbie Harry vocal on “Weird Nightmare” and rapper Q-tip reading some Mingus text as Summers wails on “Porkpie Hat”. With every track sounding radically different from the next, I don’t think the album completely gels, though most pieces have some merit on their own. (Minus the two vocal tracks, which I could easily ditch.) One of the more exciting entries is “Free Cell Block F”, in which Summers displays his improving solo chops. I also like the dreamy diversions in “Reincarnation of a Lovebird” and the detailed strokes of “Self Portrait in Three Colors”, but for the most part, I don’t think Mingus or Summers are done full justice on this disc.

On 2003’s Earth and Sky, Summers returned to writing his own tunes, and in a lot of ways, it’s his most accomplished album to date. Like Charming Snakes, the music sits somewhere between rock and jazz, but it has a more emotional character than that earlier album. A crack rhythm team (Abe Laboriel and Vinnie Colaiuta) backs Andy’s clever chord labyrinths and melodic rhapsodizing. Some highlights: the Frisell-ish “Now I’m Free”, the poignant “Return” (housing an excellent solo), “Parallels” (with gorgeous nylon string), and the rollicking “Circus”. The most formally adventurous track is “Earth and Sky”, which includes dramatic fanfare chords and an asymmetric arpeggio overlaid with soaring lead lines. This album is a good place to appreciate Summers’ newfound depth as a soloist, as his phrases are more refined and make more use of jazz ideas than ever before. Acknowledging Golden Wire and Synaesthesia as very good, Earth and Sky is the one Andy album I’d want on a desert island.

The punchline to the above recaps is that few if any of Summers’ albums are currently available. Invisible Threads was reissued in 2002, and there might be a compilation or two out there. Last I heard, Summers was trying to buy back his catalog so that it could be reissued. I hope he’s successful in that endeavor because there’s much more to Andy’s musicality than what he did in The Police.

So do you think they’ll play “Behind My Camel”?

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