ANDY SUMMERS SIX-STRING SHADOW PLAY
by Bradley Bambarger
Since 1986, when the Police left the stage as the biggest rock band in the world, Andy Summers has followed his own muse, cultivating the ambient and improvisatory streaks always evident in his distinctive soundprint. In fact, Andy’s solo albums resonate with a spirit and invention only hinted at by his Police work. Embracing strains of jazz, classical and world music, his records reveal him as an enterprising artist, resolute in his aim to reconcile the accessibility of his pop past with the thrill of the unexpected.
On his eighth album and debut for RCA Victor, The Last Dance of Mr. X, Andy delves into trio territory for the first time since his Police days — although he’s making a jazz noise here. It’s not a neo-trad blowing gig or a power trio fusion thing or “smooth jazz” ear candy, it’s electric, improvised music in a mixture of modes, with a set of original tunes and apt evergreens. Andy’s past solo outings have always spotlighted his own inspired compositions and their characteristic conflation of the sublime and the absurd, the visceral and the cerebral — and there are several instances of such handy work on the new disc. But Andy, bass guitarist Tony Levin and drummer Gregg Bissonette also recast such standards as Charles Mingus”‘Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” and should-be classics like Wayne Shorter’s “The Three Marias” with forward-minded flair.
In all, The Last Dance of Mr. X is a seductive affair, conceived and delivered with style and taste. But to all those who ask, “But is it jazz’?” Andy replies, “It’s my own skewed view of jazz; I suppose. But more than anything’ it’s just contemporary music, or rather contemporaneous’ music. My past albums have tended toward the conceptual, but lately I’ve rediscovered the joy of just playing the guitar in a stripped-down setting, improvising in pure space with an of the moment vibe. The Last Dance of Mr. X is the most ‘jazz’ of my records, but it’s of a piece with the other things I’ve done in that I’ve always tried to work beyond assumptions and preconceived notions — mine and those of others.
PAST AS PROLOGUE
In the Police, Andy’s solo predilections were presaged not only by the shimmering guitarscapes and pointillistic solos evident to all, but by the odd album track and b-side he penned as foils to Sting’s brand of pop genius. Most ardent Police fans know Andy as the band’s voice of wry dementia, from the synthetic romance “Sally” on Outlandos d’Amour to the Oedipal wigout “Mother” on Synchronicity. But he also penned the apocalyptic power pop of “Omegaman” on Ghost in the Machine and the warped instrumental travelogue “Behind My Camel” on Zenyatta Mondatta. And he was responsible for the fitting flipsides to some divine singles, with “Invisible Sun” backed with this future-tense instrumental “Shambelle” and “Wrapped Around Your Finger” paired with the plangent wit of “Someone To Talk To,” complete with an affecting Andy vocal.
Continuing in the vein of “Someone To Talk To,” Andy cut solo pop record in 1987, XYZ (Worth searching out In LP shops, just for the spooky sprechstimme of “The Only Road”). Prior to that vocal experiment, though, he recorded two idiosyncratic duet albums with King Crimson fretboard sage Robert Fripp — I Advance Masked and Bewitched – that helped set the tone for his first solo effort, Mysterious Barricades, the initial entry in a series of searching ,albums, for Private Music. Evoking the epigrammatic ambience of French composer Erik Satie, Mysterious Barricades is string shadow play, with the evanescent shapes and colors revealing more than would be thought on first encounter subtle shifts and pastel keyboard accompaniment often got the album pegged as New Age, but it is too engaged emotionally and intellectually for that.
For all their charms, the above efforts were mere scene- setting for the 1989 album The Golden Wire, a gorgeous, Grammy-nominated alchemy of novel electric guitar textures and world music influences. The record features a host of sterling players, including Oregon reed virtuoso Paul McCandless and Indian vocalist Najma Akhtar as well as a set of moody, masterful compositions. But as the tide suggests, it is the guitar that is the focus: Within the ensemble penumbrae of “A Piece of Time” and “Earthly Pleasures,” Andy’s serpentine solos writhe like a muezzin’s call, while. such guitar-only pieces as the rage-tinged “A Thousand Stones” and ghostly “Imagine You” are deep, dark evocations of some timeless, phantasmal otherworld. Akin to Nothing But the Sun… for Sting (where, by the way, Andy lent his guitar to “The Lazarus Heart” and “Be Still My Beating Heart”), The Golden Wire is the work through which Andy found his true solo voice.
Andy followed up his artistic epiphany with two more albums for Private Music. From 1990, Charming Snakes is a warm-hearted jazz-rock blend with captivating tunes and an all star assemblage of players, including trumpeter Mark Isham, drummer Chad Wackerman and saxophonist Bill Evans (who solos with aplomb throughout). Sting puts in a cameo as well, lending his dubwise bass to the title track, and the peerless Herbie Hancock adds keyboards to several tracks and a Iyrical solo piano intro to the monolithic “Big Thing” It’s an irresistibly grand and equally accessible to Police fans and admirers of such super-jazz bands as the Pat Metheny Group. Produced by vibist Mike Manieri, World Gone Strange is more of a rapprochement with the cool-toned world of contemporary jazz radio, although the disc’s peaks represent some of Andy’s most beautiful music. The title track and “Bacchante” are disarming duets with Brazilian pianist/vocalist Elliane Elias, while “But She” recalls the entrancing atmospheres of The Golden Wire.
Leaving the increasingly pastoral confines of Private Music, Andy paused for an acoustic interlude On the Mesa label: 1993′s Invisible Threads, a duet disc with fellow British guitarist and longtime friend John Etheridge. Comprising extrovert originals and affectionate takes on Django Rheinhardt and Thelonius Monk, the album puts a charge back into the unplugged format. Next, Andy turned to the intrepid (and now defunct) German imprint CMP for 1995′s Synaesthesia, his most ambitious work to date. The erudite yet earthy collection saw Andy ascribing to the spirit of such turn-of-the-century futurists as the painter Kandinsky and composer Scriabin, who strove for an ecstatic union of the senses in their work, a “synaesthesia.” With the likes of former Cream drummer Ginger Baker in tow, Andy juxtaposed various allusions cut-and-paste style, with minimalism and the modes of India abutting Latin rhythms and grunge guitar. The whole is involved and involving, especially on such majestic numbers as “Meshes of the Afternoon,” Cubano Rebop” and “Umbrellas Over Java.” The guitar playing itself is alternately lush and lapidary, and always uncommon.
THE LAST DANCE OF MR X
Recorded in Hollywood over a week in January ’97, The Last Dance of Mr. X was produced by Andy with engineer Eddie King. King Crimson and Peter Gabriel alum Tony Levin and L.A. session star Gregg Bissonette were Andy’s partners for 10 tracks, with an 11th number added at the 11th hour. The album kicks off with “Big Thing” (or “Very Big Thing,” as Andy likes to say), a one-take thrashing of the Charming Snakes track cut live in New York with Watts and drummer Bernie Dresel, who make up Andy’s touring trio. From that new twist on an old original, the album segues to a batch of fresh tunes and reinterpretations of past masters.
One of the highlights of The Last Dance of Mr. X comes early: “The Three Marias,” a song composed by Wayne Shorter that originally appeared on the saxophonists 1985 album, Atlantis. “I worked up a version of The Three Marias with Larry Coryell and Trilok Gurtu acoustically, and the whole time I was thinking how suited it was for electric guitar,” Andy recalls. “It’s just such a fantastically rich piece of writing. in the liner notes to Atlantis, Wayne talks about how he viewed the music cinematically, and it really is very imagistic. His original is so great, so pristine, that the only way you could approach it is by trying to make the piece your own. I think our trio rendition is more visceral, while hopefully retaining that cinematic feel.” “Footprints” is another Shorter composition that appears later on the album. The tune became a jazz standard straightaway after its dual debut in ’66 on Shorter’s Blue Note LP Adam’s Apple and the great Miles Davis quintet’s Miles Smiles. It’s a willowy abstraction of the blues in the original conception, although Andy’s trio puts its own spin on the song by casting it as a fiery songo. “Gregg had the idea for that Latin rhythm, and Tony really warmed to that — he can play anything,” Andy says.
A Latin tinge informs “Afro Blue” at its core, of course. The piece was written by Cuba’s Mongo Santamaria, although it owes much of its fame to John Coltrane’s epic rendition on Live at Birdland from ’63. “That’s such a great, exotic tune, and It sits really nicely on the guitar,” Andy says. “We changed keys on it and opened it up, adding more space and a bit more dissonance.” The rhythm section shines on this one, particularly, with its most colorful performance on the album. Another key cover is “We See,” a Monk tune from the the classic Straight, No Chaser. Andy has always shown a special affinity for the bent beauties of Monk, paying off-kilter homage to him with “Monk Gets Ripped” on Charming Snakes and “Monk Hangs Ten” from Synaesthesia. “I love Monk dearly,’” Andy says. “I’ve listened to so much of him over the years that I find myself paraphrasing him all the time. His music has this piquant flavor, a blend of sweet and bitter that I find very appealing. It never grows old.”
The other jazz standards present are ballads, Horace Silver’s “Lonely Woman” (from Song for My Father, ’64) and Mingus”‘Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” (from the epochal Ah Um,’59). Andy had worked up a version of “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” long ago acoustically, but had never braved committing it to disc. “It is such a monumental piece that it’s daunting to play,” Andy says. “You’re always thinking, ‘Can I really add anything to this?’ ” Andy’s contribution has his electric guitar spinning out that endless Mingus melody luxuriously, with the lamenting legato lines paired with just the bass until the brushes come in softly for final statement of theme. Likewise for “Lonely Woman,” where the aim is true to the original’s smoky ambience and Andy’s fretwork illuminates the essence of the tune’s melancholy grace.
Andy’s compositions on The Last Dance of Mr. X complement the classics while each creates a tiny cosmos of its own “Strange Earth” is the album’s most enigmatic tune as well as one of the most abiding, with a lilting Caribbean air that takes odd, otherworldly sums. The sanguine, Monk-like “Rumpelstiltsken” bounds along with a sun-burst melody and one of Andy’s jazzier solos (although, as usual, clouds darken the horizon). “The Somnambulist” is a dreamy’ darkly lyrical ballad that floats on sensual rhythm play and opulent harmonies until Andy’s slow-burn solo ushers in one of the album’s most penetrating passages. Finally, the title track showcases Andy’s humor at its loopiest. “The Last Dance of Mr. X” is a droll melange: A noirish intro leads into a spaghetti Western section with a fandango flourish and onto a sort of twisted tango- the song then veers into country-and-western with a rock n’ roll break and back again “On paper, that song doesn’t seem as if it would work, but live, people really love it,” Andy explains, a bit bemused. “It’s a real crowd-pleaser, that one.”
AIMING FOR THE GRAY AREAS
Years ago, Andy Summers refined the art of backing a singer to its highest level, with his fistful of “plush chords” (as Sting would say) and finely sculpted eight bar solos leading him from CBGB to Shea Stadium. Since then, his venturesome spirit has compelled him to create gray-area music in a black-and-white world, which has in turn led him back to the clubs. (Andy will be touring the U.S. and Europe with his trio on behalf of The Last Dance of Mr. X.) I I’ve had an intense playing life over the past few years with different people, here and in Europe, Japan, South America,” he says. “It’s all been about trying to develop as a player, to develop a deeper, more unique voice with my instrument.” And he grins as he adds, “Really, it’s been very healthy. I’ve been striving more and more to play without that intense desire to be liked.”
Bradley Bambarger is a senior writer with Billboard magazine in New York.
Copyright, Bradley Bambarger 1997