Andy Summers: Sometimes it's hard to swing both ways

Rock stars love to swap the stadium for the smoky jazz club. Andy Summers tells Sholto Byrnes why he is following Debbie Harry and his former bandmate Sting into the cellar
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The Independent Culture

Mention the name Andy Summers, and two words inevitably follow - The Police. It may surprise some that a guitarist who once lorded it over packed stadiums is now, on his British visits at least, to be found playing in cramped basements in front of audiences that barely stretch to three figures.

But when his trio take a week's residency at Pizza Express Jazz Club in Soho, in London, as they will in April, it will be no comedown. A man who wears his fame lightly, like a discreet but expensive overcoat, Summers is quite at home in a jazz venue; a place where rock status is, if anything, a hurdle to be overcome among those suspicious of the famous dipping their toes in the jazz pond.

"My first big influence was jazz," explains Summers, on the phone from his home in California. "I had an older brother who was a fanatic. I used to listen to Kenny Burrell, Barney Kessell, Wes Montgomery, Miles. I started to figure out what they were doing, slowing the records so I could take the solos down." He describes the process of learning to play jazz as "taking it into your body physically, a kind of musical meditation". Today, he still regards the ultimate achievement as being able to solo over chord changes without the breaks being audible.

In recent years, Summers has recorded albums concentrating on compositions by Charles Mingus and Thelonious Monk. "I did think of doing a Miles one - keeping it all Ms," he jokes. Instead his new album, Earth+Sky, consists entirely of his own music. "As a composer I'm fairly lyrical. I try to be harmonically interesting, melodic but not saccharine. It may not be Schoenbergian, but that's because that tires too."

That Summers has not been overly influenced by the Second Viennese School is something for which the listener can be grateful. What the album has - and the outstanding title track has in spades - is that distinctive, dark-edged guitar that elevated The Police above other rock bands of the period. "Earth and Sky" invites comparison with the group's best work: ominous power chords followed by punctuated arpeggio rhythms, the drums handled, with as much clarity as Stewart Copeland brought to the kit, by Vinnie Colaiuta.

Whether such a track is strictly jazz or whether it is instrumental rock may be beside the point for the listener. It is powerfully stated and convincing, allowing what Summers calls "a looser time that I can float over". If anyone does want to accuse him of not really being a jazz musician, one can retort that his music operates in much the same territory often inhabited by the revered jazz guitarist John Etheridge, and that the two are considering playing a week at Pizza Express and making an album together later in the year. "This is what I call jazz," he says simply.

As a musician always respected for his individuality and for not being overly eager to embrace that temptress, commerciality, Summers perhaps faces less difficulty than some in being accepted by the jazz world. In his pre-Police days, he played with The Animals and Soft Machine, and there were many around that time who blurred the lines between jazz, blues and rock. Georgie Fame is one such, still liable to intersperse "Yeh Yeh" with a standard or two during a set at Ronnie Scott's (where his horn section always consists of two of Britain's top players, the trumpeter Guy Barker and the tenor saxophonist Alan Skidmore), and Fame's old partner and another former Animal, Alan Price, switches from a shouting blues to a bravura performance of Weather Report's "Birdland" quite comfortably. Price is often to be found at another London club, the Bull's Head in Barnes.

But for others, breaking away from how they are perceived to be into a different musical genre can be tougher. The American singer and saxophonist Curtis Stigers, currently touring Britain, knows this well. Stigers enjoyed great pop success in the early 1990s, opening for Elton John, Prince, Eric Clapton and Bonnie Raitt. Jazz was always his first love: his early mentor and friend was the pianist Gene Harris, who in the late 1970s was living in semi-retirement in Boise, Idaho, Stigers' home town.

"We used to go along to these jam sessions on Tuesday nights, hosted by a man we later realised was an international jazz star," recalls Stigers. But when he wanted to return to the genre, he couldn't do so without a bruising battle with his record company and several years when, for contractual reasons, he could not go out and perform. "My success as a pop singer was heaven, meeting all my heroes," he says. "But I wanted to grow. Trying to chase pop whims is a pitiful game to play. But the guys in suits didn't love me for my art, they just wanted my hits. I realised that I would have to dismantle my career to do what I wanted to do. Once I let the lure of the hit record go, music was music again."

But there was still the stigma of his pop career to overcome. "There was a preconceived notion of what I am, that middle-of-the-road, long-haired, Michael Bolton Jnr image that I got bagged with. I know I'm a great jazz singer, but it's taken three records for a lot of people to listen, and I'm still fighting that battle." On one occasion when he got up to sing at a late-night jazz session at the Blue Note in New York, a saxophonist took one look at him and walked off stage, shaking his head. "The jazz community was slow to accept me," he says.

One way that the likes of Stigers have gained respect is by doing something different. "There have been so many people doing that vanity project - 'Oh I'm going to sing standards,'" he says. "But if I hear another tribute album to Ella Fitzgerald, I'm going to scream. We need to do what she did, taking the pop tunes of the day and turning them into jazz numbers."

While that is an old tradition in jazz, it is not without its dangers, especially for singers. Even Sinatra's greatest admirers would have to concede that his swung big-band arrangements of "Mrs Robinson" and "You Are the Sunshine of My Life" were awesome only in their wrongheadedness, achieving the seemingly impossible feat of making the chairman of the board, Ol' Blue Eyes himself, come across as a pumped-up stiff, the pensioner playing the pop star.

On his latest album, Stigers takes classic Sixties pop songs such as The Beatles' "I Feel Fine" and The Kinks' "Tired of Waiting for You" and puts them in the context of a low-key jazz group. Whereas versions of such songs by, say Tony Bennett or Shirley Bassey, both of whom have recorded George Harrison's "Something", seem dated by the grandiloquence of their orchestration, Stigers' sideways look, underpinned by a raw, unadorned double bass and altered chords on the piano, swings along in a way that marries the timeless form of the jazz rhythm section with the contemporary.

It is a formula that works - as long as the singer has the right set of pipes. It would be beyond a syrupy-sweet stylist such as Stacey Kent, for instance. But Stigers does - as does Lea DeLaria, an American lesbian comedian who describes herself as being so butch that she's mistaken for a man by her gynaecologist. It may be hard to imagine Blondie's "Call Me" as a jazz tune, but DeLaria carries it off, just as Claire Martin has managed to breathe new life into Michael MacDonald's "I Can Let Go Now", an example of why she stands out from the crowd of British jazz vocalists.

What is it that lures stars in the pop firmament away from the bright lights - for Deborah Harry to perform with The Jazz Passengers, or for Sting to turn up at a Soho club and take a guest vocal with the US double-bassist Christian McBride's band? This is the world of the small back-room, where the royalty statement is replaced by the "poke in the chest" (cheque's in the post) and the glamour quotient is low. Harry says: "It's more about real singing. It gave me a bigger perspective and greater technique."

For Summers, it's about "freeing yourself from music that panders to the commercial". Stigers says: "I've passed away the opportunity to be on Top of the Pops, but what I do is more important to me." Perhaps it's put best, and in the most gratifying way to jazz lovers, by DeLaria. "I've never made so little money in my life," she says, "or had so much fun."

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