A Marathon Displays the Many Ways to Trick a Guitar

Strings, neck and resonator. Those are the basic elements of a guitar and the sole unifying factor for the 17 soloists and ensembles that performed at the Guitar Marathon on Sunday at the 92nd Street Y, the closing event in the six-day New York Guitar Festival.

The nine hours of music, which was recorded for WNYC-FM’s program “New Sounds,” offered a proudly eclectic lineup, with representatives from classical, jazz, blues and New Age guitar alongside performers on an international assortment of stringed instruments. There were also recent inventions: Michael Manring’s hyperbass, with electronic sustain and levers that change tunings instantly, and Mark Stewart’s uboingi, an electrified gizmo that suspended a guitar neck from a frame with springs that could also be plucked. The host, John Schaefer, interviewed each performer.

The concert was largely a marathon of precisely calibrated picking. Favoring acoustic instruments over electric ones, the players demonstrated the countless ways that lute-family musicians compensate for the fact that plucked strings don’t sustain notes.

They use sheer speed to create continuity from a streak of pinpoint notes, as the Assad Brothers did in light-fingered versions of music by Astor Piazzolla and Egberto Gismonti, gently pelting listeners with arpeggios, counterpoint and pinging harmonics. They use tremolos to build drama with swarms of notes, as Min Xiao-Fen did in compositions for the Chinese pipa and Simon Shaheen did in a piece for oud that crisscrossed the Mediterranean between Andalusian flamenco and Arabic classical improvisation.

They have developed subtleties of touch and tone to separate lines of counterpoint, as Ronn McFarlane did in 16th-century European lute pieces and his own compositions. They can make guitars mimic other instruments; in Ronaldo Miranda’s courtly “Serious Variations” and an arrangement of a Bach orchestral suite, the Brazilian Guitar Quartet evoked phantom harpsichord, cellos and oboes. And with syncopated picking, a soloist can outline ensemble patterns, as Keba Cissoko, from Guinea-Bissau, did with an incandescent set of griot songs accompanied by kora (21- stringed harp-guitar), Bill Sims Jr. did in his husky-voiced rural blues and gospel, and Alex DeGrassi did in his own blandly symmetrical pieces.

Yet one of the concert’s most striking sets was anything but pointillistic. Bill Frisell on electric guitar and Greg Leisz on lap steel guitar played duets with all edges dissolved. Using electronics to make loops of sound well up around him, Mr. Frisell ambled through melodies (among them Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On”) as if questioning every note before letting it waft into the air. Meanwhile Mr. Leisz surrounded his lines with a penumbra of echoes and harmonizing afterthoughts.

Ben Verdery led the largest ensemble: 16 guitars (including his own) and three woodwinds in his “Scenes From Ellis Island,” which had too-obvious debts to Steve Reich and Philip Glass. The New World Guitar Trio aimed for more serrated, dissonant sounds in “The Insects Are Coming” by Chiel Meijering.

Brad Shepik played a drone-centered piece on Turkish electric saz, one of the few instruments with a fretboard divided into microtones. And the guitar duo of Bucky Pizzarelli and Frank Vignola played swing jazz — “nothing after 1946,” Mr. Pizzarelli promised — with suave affinity, meshing Mr. Pizzarelli’s springy chords with Mr. Vignola’s Django Reinhardt-inspired sprints and somersaults.

The guitarist Andy Summers, formerly of the Police, led a jazz trio, with Ric Fierabracci on electric bass and Anastasios Panos on drums. He used Thelonious Monk and Charles Mingus compositions to stage a battle of wills between composer and improviser. The trio’s arrangements pealed through Monk’s deliberate silences and sailed across Mingus’s craggy contrasts, instead letting Mr. Summers toy with his own leisurely, glassy-toned lines and harmonic convolutions.

Rock was all but absent. There wasn’t a power chord all day. The solo electric guitarist Russell Donnellon, who uses elements of jazz and flamenco, put Radiohead’s “Karma Police” on the program, teasing out inner harmonic lines and encrusting the melody with ornaments. And Mr. Summers, in a glimpse of his Police days.


Guitar For the Practicing Musician

Andy Summers · Wiltern Theatre, Los Angeles

By Lawrence Payne

The deep darkness punctuated only by distant eyelets of red and royal blue lay at rest like a cooling asteroid before the cloaked, chrome backdrop. It was as if those in attendence were meant not to see, but only hear, the event as it unfolded, The voice of an Indian chanteuse danced all around amid the chiming of sarod, santoor, violins, drums and cymbals, Then the boyish man, clothed in the brilliant white of his voluminous long-tailed coat pleated pants and tennis shoes, stepped from out of the black into the spotlight at center stage. He stood there with his guitar a cranberry-red Strat. The whole scene had an unsettling appeal, like becalmed solitude, as it set forth upon the heels of that buoyant introduction.

It was then that Andy Summers restated his musical motives and position as one of the world’s most successful musicians. He began with a brief melodic statement, sculpted with idiosyncratic tremolo jabs and delayed transpositions, His tone was cool and echoic, blessed with a slight rasp. The nature of his entire performance was, in fact, so much like speech. It in turn reflected the breadth of his musical experience. for like the similarly inclined Norwegian genius, Terje Rypdal, Summers pursued the dialogue of the moment. Displaying a penchant for the linearity of Asian musical forms, he spoke through his guitar phrases that rose in subtle crescendi, then quivered with character and painterly detail. The effect was immediate and welcoming, like the hand of a musical father figure.

A lifelong musician such as he might not, for all the confusion of industrialized entertainment, ever win an opportunity to tell his own story. Yet there he was, a former mainstay of the 80’S most popular band, the Police, improvising over a fabric of sequenced patterns, And that he was able to do so without pretense to superiority by virtue of his popularity was all the more impressive. Summers even joked amiably with his audience between numbers and was funnier than most. But his playing was very compositional: it conveyed distinct sense of structure, direction. pacing and emotion. That it was based on music from Summers’ new solo album, Mysterious Barricades, was evident in the guitarist’s relaxed control as both leader and accompanist. And if there was at times too much density and too little continuity, is was surely due to an abundance of ideas rather than a lack thereof.

So, there he was one man who proved that the fiber of music, as well as its purpose, lies at the heart of the individual, not in the prefabricated contrivances of modern marketing, And when Andy Summers again chooses to ally himself with other musicians, his musical voice will ring clear and true, as it always has.


Why the Ulster Orchestra will have a POLICE man on duty?

Andy Summers of Police and Animals fame will be performing on guitar in the final, classical, concert of the Queen’s Festival. Here he tells Eddie McIlwaine why, despite the nerve-wracking challenge of going on stage ‘cold’, he still loves making music


Guitarist Andy Summers smiles when I inform him he will be the first Animal to be a star guest with the Ulster Orchestra. “Right enough. I was with Eric Burdon and the Animals once upon a time in my younger days when I was a bit of a musical waif,” he confirms, “but I was always into classical music as well as rock and even earlier on skiffle.”

In fact, Summers, now 62 and living in California for the past 15 years with his wife, Katie, and their 18-year-old twin sons, spent most of his music career with the Police.

“So, I’ll also be the first Policeman to play with the orchestra,” quips the man responsible for that sensitively-fingered lick on Every Breath You Take.

But it will be as his classical older self that Summers, along with friend and fellow musician Benjamin Verdery, of Yale University, will join conductor Thierry Fischer and the orchestra on stage at Belfast’s Waterfront Hall for Queen’s Festival’s closing concert on Sunday, November 6.

Summers and Verdery, who recorded an album called First You Build a Cloud, will link up again – Summers on electric and his mate on acoustic – in the double-guitar concerto Dark Fluorescence by Ingram Marshall in what will be its European premiere.

Marshall is best known as a minimalist composer of pieces like Fog Tropes, which mixes a Balinese flute with the roar of San Francisco Bay, and Alcatraz, which incorporates the rippling waves of the Bay with the slamming of cell doors on the infamous prison island, now closed down.

“He had never heard of the Police before he met me and started to write for Ben and myself,” reveals Summers.

Dark Fluorescence, admits Summers, is going to be an exhausting experience – and when it’s over he might be tempted to relax with a glass or two of wine.

“In the old days I might have been persuaded to imbibe a little more energetically than a couple of glasses,” he confides, “but I’ve grown up and matured a lot since the Police days and thankfully Katie is still with me. We married in 1974 and she’s just as beautiful as ever.”

He admits that flying in to Belfast to play Dark Fluorescence without a rehearsal is a “daunting” prospect. “It is definitely a tricky way to make music. I will be telling Thierry Fischer how we would like certain things to be played and we will get on very well.

“But it is going to be a nerve-wracking occasion with Benjamin and me putting our faith completely in the hands of the conductor and the professionalism of the musicians. We keep one another right and spot on and Thierry will have an essential role to play so we come in at exactly the right time.

“It sounds simple, but let me tell you it isn’t easy to make perfect musical sounds without a previous set of practice sessions.”

Dark Fluorescence is a beautiful contemporary classical piece and there are moments when the guitars blend into an almost violin sound with the orchestra.

“We introduced Dark Fluorescence in public for the first time in public at a gig in Carnegie Hall, New York and it was a special, if hectic, occasion,” adds Summers.

“Why do I do it? Well, yes, it would be easier to sit back in California and enjoy the sun and the family and give up travelling. There is a temptation to take things easier and coming to Belfast is no big financial gain for me.

“I’m not looking at the venture in that light, though. The truth is I still love music, playing and writing, and I’ll go travelling with it to wherever it is appreciated.

“Perhaps in Belfast with the Ulster Orchestra we will attract in people who otherwise would shy away from classical music. That would make the exercise worthwhile.”

And the man who had some involvement in the early days of Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells, and whose screen themes include the movie Down and Out in Beverly Hills, says he still gets a lot of fun out of his music.

He picked up his first guitar at 14 and, after that spell with Burdon and “the Animals, studied classical music in America.

“I joined the Police in 1977 with their blend of punk, rock and reggae,” says Summers. “I still see Sting occasionally and I used to keep in touch with his first wife Frances Tomelty who, of course, is from Belfast.

“I embrace a bit of jazz, some classical and the critics talk about my improvisatory streaks. I am called an enterprising artist and that is a true description. I enjoy the thrill of the unexpected and composer Marshall certain provided both of us with music fitting that description with this concerto which Belfast is bound to adore.”

÷Closing concert: Ulster Orchestra (conductor Thierry Fischer, with Andy Summers and Benjamin Verdery on guitar), Waterfront Hall, Belfast, at 8pm on Sunday, Nov 6. Tickets, tel: 9097 1197 or