Andy Summers has always been a jazzman. For a brief time from 1977 to 1985 he was sidetracked into a rock and roll band. Mind you the band was The Police and is considered one of the greatest rock bands ever.
After they disbanded not even the fame and fortune that comes with being a rockstar excited Andy enough to stay with the genre. He went back to jazz content with making his favourite style of music.
His former bandmates have all excelled in their own fields since the break-up. Stewart Copeland is one of the world’s premiere soundtrack producers and we all know the story of Sting.
So back to Andy … His new album Earth + Sky was produced with a crack team of session musicians and he wants to take it on the road.
Andy Summers spoke with Paul Cashmere.
Paul Cashmere : You’ve put together a brilliant band for Earth + Sky. What is your process for selecting musicians?
Andy Summers: I don’t think there is much of a process. It is who is around at the time and if you can find someone like Vinnie Colaivta (Frank Zappa, Michelle Branch, Joni Mitchell) or Abraham Laboriel (Miles Davis, George Benson, Herb Alpert) they are going to be as good as it gets. Both of them I have worked with before. I was thinking about it this time. They are obviously one of the premium rhythm sections in the world. They happen to live locally here in Los Angeles so I was lucky. It just worked out. I was able to find them and get them.
PC: I see Abraham has an Australian connection. He once played on a Peter Allen album.
AS: Is that right?
PC: It is and looking at the list of artists he has worked with like Herb Alpert and George Benson, it is an amazing list.
AS: He is one of the world’s greatest bass players. He is a very sweet man and everybody loves to work with him. I played with him years ago and it was great to have him back on this record. Those two are amazing together.
PC: Vinnie has played with everyone from Frank Zappa to Duran Duran and Celine Dion.
AS: Again, the reputation when you are that good gets out there so they are guys for hire. They are superior players.
PC: John Beasley on keyboards.
AS: I don’t know much about him. I think he played in one of Miles Davies later bands.
PC: That’s collect. Miles Davies and then he blew it all and went and worked with Michael Bolton.
AS: There you go (laughs). That is going from the sublime to the ridiculous.
PC: Do session musicians bring in their resume when they come in to meet you?
AS: Definitely not. Not at this level. You assume they are going to play incredibly well. It is all much more subtle than that. When you see what they’ve done you know. When you are in the scene, musicians know musicians and these guys are all well known. They are absolutely stellar players. They have a style. If you want someone who plays electronic keyboards or whatever, at this level there is not much quibbling going on.
PC: Katisse Buckingham, your sax player played with Dr Dre.
AS: Katisse did? I didn’t know that.
PC: I’m thinking of all the people in your band, if you took all the albums they have played on and lined them up you would have an amazing record collection.
AS: But what are they going to do with my music, in my case? They may come out differently. Of course the playing is important but writing and the establishing of what you are going for is prime too. A lot of guys, great as they are, if you don’t direct them will start to play clichés. They will play grooves and things that don’t necessarily suit the music you want. It works better when there is a strong direction. Most of the musicians respond better to that. If they are real artists they will go for what you are after and not a cliché. That’s what one tries to achieve. There is an inherent danger in going with guys like this who are incredible and let’s say ‘guns for hire’. They play with so many people and do so much stuff that they can fall into playing clichés. That is over-written by the fact they are so talented and have the brains to understand what you are doing. It is a double-edged sword.
PC: Was there a lot of preparation and rehearsal that went into the Earth + Sky sessions?
AS: I worked all the music out and had everything in place. I had the charts before we got started. With guys like this they are expensive and you can’t have them sitting around rehearsing for too long. It doesn’t really work like that. You have got to basically hope there is a level of talent there and you can play with them for about three days and get the record, at least the rhythm tracks. That is the basic. Get that and then you have time to stretch out altogether after they have gone. It is always a telling moment when they aren’t there anymore. You hope you have at least the beginnings of your album. You try and get as much done as you can in three days but it doesn’t always work out like that. It is a bit of a minefield. The way to work it out is to really prepare for it, make sure you have charts and a very basis to start from. It is different as a solo musician trying to bring in other people, especially with the recording industry so weird now. If you are in band you can be there together and go along and all be in the same vehicle together. This is a different situation. You can’t get guys like this and have them sitting around for weeks and weeks unless it is a Celine Dion record. For a jazz profile you have to go somewhere else and get it quick. But then they love to do it.
PC: Is there any improvisation with you in the studio?
AS: It is improvised music but essentially there is more going on than that. There are all these melodies that I wrote, it is a piece of music. They are vehicles on which to place solos, to improvise on. There is a written chart. We are going to play this song with these chords and these melodies but what I tend to do with people like Vinnie and Abraham is to see what they are going to come up. We run them down a few times and indicate the feeling. There was one tune I didn’t like. We had to redo because they just didn’t go in the right place with it but we got it the second time with a bit of direction. They are going to basically improvise their parts. There is no point in writing out a bass part for Abraham Laboriel. He plays something with such and incredible feel.
PC: So how do you take this on the road?
AS: I don’t have this band. I suppose I could have tried to have gotten them but I have an incredible bass player called Ernest Tibbs and a drummer I have worked with for two years called Toss Panos who came with me last time. I’ll do it as a trio. We’ve done a few gigs already to rehearse this up finally and without keyboards it sounds great. I have managed to pull it off.
PC: You just can’t get away from those trios Andy.
AS: I wouldn’t mind getting away from them (laughs). It is not very practical in today’s world when you tour all over the place having a big band. I would like to play with electronic keyboards again. There is a sound I like with it but it is expensive, it is cumbersome, you have more gear. In a trio we can pretty much do it all. Anyway in my case most people really only want to hear the guitar. I enjoy the space anyway.
PC: Was Earth + Sky then an expensive album to make?
AS: That depends from which standards you are talking about. Reasonably expensive, yeah. There is some production value in there you can hear. It look a while to put the whole thing together as I wished.
PC: That first Police album ‘Outlandos D’Amour’ is said to have only cost $7,000 to make.
AS: That’s about right but that was a long time ago. It was also because we just borrowed time and did it on odd weekends. We didn’t really pay for it. That came out incredibly cheaply. This came out a lot more expensive.
PC: So as you get more experience and more professional does the recording price go up for an artist?
AS: I think rock records tend to be very expensive. Jazz records tend to be less expensive because with the playing ability involved with them you can get through a lot faster. It depends what you really want to go for. With this record I wanted state of the art. There is a large scale to it. In today’s world where everyone seems to be going right now with downloading you need to make albums which are less expensive. I would try to make the next record for about a quarter of the price of this one. It is possible. The way to do it is to rehearse longer up front and not take so much time cutting and pasting and editing and mixing. When I first started out making records that was how it was done. Remember The Beatles made an album in an afternoon, like in three hours. I think we are coming to a new era where people will record much faster. We are in an amazing period right now.
PC: What was the quickest album you ever made?
AS: The second Police album Regatta D’Blanc was made in 10 days. The Police records were all really fast. We were such a playing band that we would start with the songs and have them together within the week. We didn’t need to spend a huge amount of time on it because we were constantly performing so we were always ready. We were a working band. We knew our style. We didn’t need 10 years to work things out. When they gave us 6 weeks to go to Montserrat and record Ghost In The Machine we were done in 10 days and would then just sit around. Personally I think people spend too long on records and try to make them too perfect. There is a certain rush of energy that you get. You shouldn’t take too long because I think you get a better feeling on the record. People take too much time and detailing and it ends up sounding a bit dead I think.
PC: Eddie King has co-produced this record with you and he worked with you on the Police live album. Does he have the same values as you for production?
AS: Eddie for me is a brilliant engineer and a good musician and he is a guy who lives on the technical edge. He was into Pro-Tools and the processors before anyone. I first started making records with him on tape fairly early on. I realized how good he was and working with him is a safety net. He’d push things out and will find the technical means to save a recording. He is a brilliant mixer and great for me. He can even get solos out of me that I couldn’t get if I wasn’t looking at him while I was playing. There is a certain psychological thing about playing guitar solos. He will stand there and critique me until I find the right feeling. We have been through many tracks and all kinds of music. I think we have developed a trust. I have a little team that I have developed over the years to make recordings with. It is a big moment psychologically making these things. You have to tough it out.
PC: Do you find that because of your heritage and background people are hesitant to critique you?
AS: They could be. Someone going in usually has the wrong idea who I am but with Eddie we have worked together over the last 7 years so we know each other. We have got to a very comfortable place. He knows my playing very well. He can push me if he thinks there is more he can get out of me. We work very good in an interactive way. We have gone from big brown tape to small brown tape into DATs and on to the digital domain. This was all recorded on Pro-Tools.
PC: Have you always been a jazz man who at one time got sidetracked into a rock band?
AS: I guess I just really love music but no question. I was totally into jazz in my teens. My formative years as a teenager were all about trying to be a jazz improviser on the guitar and soaking all that up. Later on when I moved to London I got into rock bands and started taking on board more stuff. Then ultimately I was in a band called The Police by which time I played a lot of classical guitar, studied classic music, played jazz, rock. That was one of those magic chemistries with people. We were able to synthesize a lot of things. Essentially we were a rock band playing rock songs but I was able to bring in some much more unusual guitar stylings as had been previously heard. Real specific (after The Police broke up), I wanted to go out but I didn’t want to find another singer and start another rock band. I felt I had been in one of the all time greatest rock bands so anything else would have been second division. This is going back into the late 80s. What I wanted to do was play the guitar but I don’t like instrumental rock. I think it is tripe. That thrust me back into basically where I started which was playing much more jazz informed music but my own version of it. I don’t like to play straight ahead stuff too much. I don’t like playing standards. I like to do my own cutting edge work.
PC: What about your old Police songs like ‘Behind My Camel’ or ‘Omegaman’, do you ever resurrect them live?
AS: No. I can’t actually. We should leave them for the right moment.
PC: Would you like to take those old songs and reinvent them?
AS: Not particularly. I think that was an era then. I don’t have a great nostalgia for the past. I am pretty embroiled in moving on and moving forward with music. We are about to play at Birdland in New York which is extremely tough and has some of the coolest musicians in the world. I am going to play this album and take it all away. I will be as cutting edge as anybody. It is a full frontal assault when we play this shit. Just the track Earth + Sky alone is a killer live. I pull it off exactly like the record. It is tough to do but it is fun. We practiced and I like the challenge of being able to do it. Mentally being able to get on top of these pieces and get the sequences right is in your hand to be able to play. If you can get through it in a live performance you feel comfortable because it pushes you on. It helps you grow and that is what it is all about.
PC: You said you don’t feel a sense of nostalgia. How comfortable where you when The Police performed at the Hall of Fame this year?
AS: I felt like okay, it was three days, I would indulge in it and enjoy it. Stuart (Copeland) lives near me in LA. He and I got together and had a great couple of weeks. We ended up playing everything by The Police together because we felt like it. I went over to his house a couple of times and we got it all together. We met Sting in New York and rehearsed for a couple of days and then it was the show. It was a nice feeling all around on the night. We were in the Waldorf Astoria. There were about 3,000 people there. Everybody I had ever known in my life was there. Of course, the American thing, everyone was telling us we were the greatest thing since sliced bread all night long. Of course the icing on the cake was when we got on stage and took it home as the headliners. That was that, then it was back to reality.
PC: And you thanked your accountant on the night.
AS: I did? Oh, yeah I did. You know how it is in this country. Everyone is so pompous and ridiculous and everyone thanks God. It is a very American thing to be worshipping of celebrity and success. I can’t help being a Brit and at least trying to take the piss out of it because it is so stupid. It is only about the fucking music.
PC: Did it spark any interest to do something in the future?
AS: I don’t think Sting has any interest. Of course it would be great but no-one is going to ask him and I don’t think he has any interest. I think he has gone to another place.
PC: I’m in Melbourne, Australia. Isn’t this the city where the band broke up?
AS: Yeah it was. It was sort of the official end because we did get back together and do those six dates with the Amnesty tour in ’86. We did like a covert appearance where we appeared two years later. It was sort of the end but it wasn’t. I remember that gig very well. It was a poignant moment because we all knew we were breaking up but the audience didn’t know.
PC: That venue you played at, Waverly Park, doesn’t exist anymore. It was bulldozed down and turned into residential housing.
AS: Oh God, and they call that progress I suppose.
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