Sure, you liked Andy Summers’ guitar playing in the Police – the spiky punk/reggae inflected licks colored by jazzy chords and atmospheric effects – but where to start with his solo albums? He’s got albums a-plenty, and if you count his duo records with other musicians, the number climbs higher. His playing is always unique, often identifiable by his signature guitar tone.
He’s long been versatile in many styles and, even before he joined the Police in 1977, was a veteran of the rock, prog and blues-rock scene going back to the mid-60s. He played with Clapton and Hendrix, and spent the first part of the 1970s studying classical guitar in California (his autobio One Train Later covers all that ground and more.) The Police were a band all about combining the energy and attitude of punk and new wave with the textures and sophistication of jazz, with a generous dose of reggae. The guitar sound Summers achieved with them ended up being very influential, and you can hear it in many places, one being Rush guitarist Alex Lifeson’s change in sound and style in the early 80s – the Grace Under Pressure album, in particular.
Summers’ tenure in the Police gave him the financial bed and notoriety to be more exploratory and unconstrained with commercial considerations in his recorded output after the group imploded. In part, he returned to one of his first loves, jazz, and has released a few straight-ahead jazz albums. But to call him a “jazz guitarist” would be very inaccurate and only part of the picture. Many influences appear in his work, from the expected rock, to new age and music of non-western cultures including Asian and South American. Often there’s a touch of the exotic and cinematic.
Importantly, he’s a musician whose sense of fun still shines through his music. One never gets the sense that he’s jaded or going through the motions. He’s always reinventing himself.
“I’m trying to create almost a new genre of music, which I think is all my own.”
– Orange County Register, March 22, 2017
All his post-Police albums have been instrumental, apart from the odd guest vocalist, except for XYZ, Circus Hero and Fundamental. You wouldn’t be out of line in starting with one of the two primary compilations: 1998’s Retrospective (also called A Windham Hill Retrospective, as they bought out Private Music, Summers’ label for four albums) or The X Tracks: Best of, which covers 1997-2002, but by nature those releases only paint a partial picture.
What follows is an overview of his solo and duo (collaboration) albums. I’ve tried to be fairly neutral in my write-up’s, but my opinions do pop up occasionally…
Summers’ first recorded forays outside the umbrella of a band (though both were recorded while he was still in the Police) were duet albums with old friend King Crimson guitarist Robert Fripp. Summers has said that I Advance Masked was the more Fripp-centric of the two, while Bewitched was more Summers-centric. Both range from ambient pieces to high energy fusion excursions. Both also feature similar striking album covers evoking folk or tribal/ritualistic art.
I Advance Masked, with Robert Fripp (A&M, 1982):
A sense of urgency permeates the album, a hectic blur of colors and ideas in motion. “In the Cloud Forest” reminds of Fripp/Eno’s “Evening Star,” while “Under Bridges” features shimmering bells and cymbals with very faint impressionistic electric guitar sounding like it’s coming from over a hill. “Lakeland Aquarelle” utilizes volume pedal/knob for a singing tone and “Girl on a Swing” (named after the psychological thriller movie in theaters at the time?) is tender and wistful, while “Hardy Country” prefigures his later solo direction, with a repeating pattern style like he would do in future compositions.
Bewitched (or, Hechizado, as it was called in Argentina), with Robert Fripp (A&M, 1984):
This one is more accessible and more poppy than I Advance Masked, overall. One half (or, side 1 on the vinyl) is upbeat and vaguely dance-oriented, the other is darker and dreamier. “What Kind of Man Reads Playboy,” however, is a strange 10-minute jazz-rock dance hybrid Summers has said was inspired by James Brown’s “Mashed Potatoes USA.” “Forgotten Steps,” with its eerie effects and echo, is akin to the intro to the Police’s “Secret Journey” and “Guide” also shares some of that etherealness. “Begin the Day” is made up of exciting guitar flights and “Train” is anchored by funk bass. The title song uses signature guitar effects that appear often in Summers’ playing, solo and with Sting/Stewart Copeland. Effects that help make him an intriguing guitarist to listen to.
XYZ (MCA, 1987):
Summers’ first solo album, and his first album after the dissolution of the Police, is the outlier in his catalog. He seemed to be testing the waters to see if he could make it as a pop singer/guitarist. His deadpan, conversational vocals are not bad, just adequate; not a lot of emotion is conveyed, and it was pretty much the last time we’d hear him sing on any album. The single, “Love is the Strangest Way,” is similar in style to the Police b-side “Someone To Talk To” and is strengthened by guest vocals from singer/actress Nan Vernon (who went on to contribute songs to Rob Zombie films, of all things) which makes it almost a duet, or at least a dialogue. There’s a bit of a Peter Gabriel sound in “How Many More Days.” Overall, it’s an enjoyable collection of songs, though it plays it safe with no surprises, and some parts sound dated now. In short, he wasn’t gonna be giving Sting a run for his money. Interesting (weird) trivia: the album is titled after the middle names of his three kids (X, Y and Z).
The memorable cover shot, by Anton Corbijn, shows Summers retained his sense of humor even if the songs here are a far remove from offbeat Summers-penned Police songs like “Sally,” “Friends,” or “Mother.”
Mysterious Barricades (Private Music, 1988):
And so we come to Mysterious Barnacles…um, Barricades – the album that would set the template for Summers’ future solo career. On one hand, it’s a very different beast than XYZ or the tracks he contributed to the Police, but it also builds on the subtleties and textures and “mysterious” guitar effects he explored on Police songs, though here they are allowed to flourish. Barricades is an assured and mature sounding album, also very mellow and dreamlike (in that respect like the music of Erik Satie, who the album is dedicated to.) Summers is joined by keyboardist/producer/engineer David Hentschel (who’d also worked with Elton John and Genesis and would partner with Summers again), and his synths provide an enveloping lushness. Melodies wrapped in suspended notes and light echo give a feeling of floating, particularly on the aptly titled “Red Balloon.” “Luna” is achingly beautiful, both contemplative and sensual.
You catch a glimpse of the cover painting, “The Blue House” by Anne Seelbach, on the wall in Summer’s house in his documentary Can’t Stand Losing You: Surviving the Police.
The Golden Wire (Private Music, 1989):
For me, this is Summers’ most exotic album, a refining of what he began on Mysterious Barricades. It’s also his least guitar-heavy record. It’s cinematic and atmospheric, music to discover lost civilizations by. Sequenced impeccably, there’s a great flow from song to song which includes evocative titles “Imagine You,” “Rainforest in Manhattan” (featuring Paul McCandless playing, say the liner notes, “two wooden flutes together”), “Island of Silk” and “Journey Through Blue Regions.” “Vigango” sounds like it could have been a Police backing track or outtake instrumental. “Piya Tose” is a rare Summers album vocal track, with British/Indian singer Najma Akhtar’s ecstatic cadences, and it all comes to a close with “A Thousand Stones,” which leaves an unresolved feel, like the journey is still not complete, but to be continued in the listener’s mind.
Charming Snakes (Private Music, 1990):
Charming Snakes continues the processed guitar sound and melodicism of his previous album, as well as the sense of intrigue, and the guitar comes back to the front some more. Noted accompanists include Herbie Hancock, plus Bill Evans who shines on sax on “Rainmaker” and “Innocence Falls Prey, and on “Charis,” where Summers plays sparse, mellow chords as a foundation. The title song, featuring Sting on bass, harkens back to the reggae dalliances of the Police. “Passion of the Shadow” is another of Summers’ patented moody, exotic compositions. “Monk Gets Ripped” (not to be confused with a future song of his called “Monk Hangs Ten”) portends his later album devoted to the music of Thelonious Monk (Green Chimneys), and “The Strong and the Beautiful” is a triumphant closer.
World Gone Strange (Private Music, 1991):
World Gone Strange is perhaps his smoothest album, fusing some new age, some jazz, and various world music influences into a well-rounded chill-out collection. We even hear his vocals make a subtle comeback on the title song, where he, along with Eliane Elias, provides some wordless melody lines (at least, it appears to be Summers, as no male vocalist is credited on the album.) “Bacchante” is peaceful and carefree and “Dream Trains” is a gentle, haunted lullaby. “Ruffled Feathers” is toe-tapping lite funk/jazz and the percussion-heavy “Oudu Kanjaira” sends us continent-hopping, a distant, more upbeat cousin to Summers’ “Behind My Camel” from the Police’s Zenyatta Mondatta. “But She” and especially “The Blues Prior to Richard” are late-night-in-the-city-at-the-underground-jazz-club tracks which provide some nice diversity.
Invisible Threads, with John Etheridge (Mesa, 1993, rereleased by Favored Nations, 2002):
His first all acoustic album, this one’s a duet with John Etheridge. Etheridge had played with Soft Machine and Stephane Grappelli and was a guitarist Summers had known since the 70s. There are Spanish flavors on the mysterious “Moravia,” a darkening twilight mood on “Stoneless Counts,” and a tribute to Django Reinhardt on a cover of his classic “Nuages.” The other cover, “Monk’s Mood,” is another dive into the music of one of Summers’ idols, Thelonious Monk. It’s not all sensitive jazz; “Counting Days” is clothed in bright, clear arpeggios and “Radiant Lizards” is fast strummed 12-string chords, recalling Yes’ Steve Howe or the solo works of Genesis guitarist Anthony Phillips.
Synaesthesia (Times Square, 1996):
Synaesthesia is (in part) the visualizing of sound in colors. One could say Summers is translating those colors back into sound here. Ginger Baker drums, which is reason enough to check this album out. Summers also reunites with David Hentschel as producer for the first time since Charming Snakes, but the results are less relaxed than might be expected. The short “Chocolate of the Desperate” is appropriately tense and the ante is upped on the suspenseful “Meshes of the Afternoon” where Summers’ guitar cries out imploringly (“more chocolate!” it may be screaming…) In fact, there’s a low tension in much of the music here, relieved by a crazy surf rock excursion in “Monk Hangs Ten” and “Umbrellas Over Java,” which is the most he’s dabbled in Asian themes since The Golden Wire. It works as a good centerpiece. “I Remember” finds Summers playing an introspective melody on nylon string guitar to wrap things up. All in all, a very exploratory and questing album, a pushing through walls to see what’s on the other side.
The Last Dance of Mr. X (RCA Victor, 1997):
Though my iTunes says this is a New Age album, they’ve been wrong before. Last Dance of Mr. X was the most straight-ahead jazz album of Summers’ career thus far, a natural extension of Synaesthesia. Breaking away from the moody cinematic atmospherics of his earlier work, it was the first of a trilogy of jazz records for RCA Victor. A strong, bold album which leads off with “The Big Thing,” a reworking of the track of the same name from his earlier Charming Snakes. It’s beefed up here and even playfully quotes from Cream’s “Sunshine of Your Love.” A testament to Summers’ composition skills is that his originals fit nicely among the choice selection of covers sprinkled throughout (Thelonious Monk, Wayne Shorter, Charles Mingus, Horace Silver, Mongo Santamaria.) Drummer Greg Bissonette and bassist Tony Levin, who are exemplary throughout, make this a jazz power trio album.
Strings of Desire, with Victor Biglione (RCA Victor, 1998) [alternate cover art]:
This is where those five years of classical guitar lessons pay off for Summers. The first of two duo albums with the Brazil based, Argentinian born guitarist and composer Biglione presents intricate acoustic guitar duets, sympathetic players in communication with each other. I’m reminded at times of the Dimeola/De Lucia/Mclaughlin trio albums of the 80s, but this collaboration is a little less show-offy, a little less flash. Their version of Egberto Gismonti’s “Frevo” has flamenco runs and is bright and happy. There are sensitive, introspective pieces such as “In Your Sweet Way,” and the lightly swaying “Stolen Moments.” A jazz vocabulary informs this album, but the language is versatile, moving through Jobim (“Stone Flower”) and Joao Gilberto (“Un Abraco No Bonfa”) before settling into the epic 20-minute final song, and the only Summers original here, “Samba for the Counting Days.”
Green Chimneys: The Music of Thelonious Monk (RCA Victor, 1999):
If you like your jazz straight, with no chaser, this is the album for you. A crack band featuring Peter Erskine on drums, Dave Carpenter on bass, Joey DeFrancesco on Hammond B-3 organ, plus guests on trumpet, sax and clarinet results in a faithful and inspired homage to one of the legends of jazz. Summers has said discovering the music of Monk as a teen changed his life and so this is an album he’s been gestating since then, as also evidenced by other Monk tribute songs he’s penned before this. He reunites with Sting for a smoky take on “Round Midnight,” Sting’s vocals perfectly fine but not revelatory. Green Chimneys swings, it squawks (on “Shuffle Boil”), it sometimes reflects pensively and wistfully and in the end is a life-filled introduction to and representation of classic jazz at its best.
Peggy’s Blue Skylight (RCA Victor, 2000):
This collection of Charles Mingus covers is an odd album, moving from cosmopolitan jazz in “Boogie Stop Shuffle” to fusion in “Tonight at Noon” to Django Reinhardt/Stephane Grappelli territory in “Opus 3.” “Remember Rockefeller at Attica” is a swing band romp with New Orleans horn flourishes. The title song is a bittersweet stroll along the River Seine in Paris. Two vocal tracks figure in: Debbie Harry guests on the noir of “Weird Nightmare” and “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat / Where Can A Man Find Peace?” has a rap about peace, guns and violence by Q-Tip. A rap on the average Andy Summers album would be out of place, but on the schizophrenic collection that is Peggy’s Blue Skylight it’s not too jarring. That track merges into “Free Cell Block F,” a nutty song that veers from fusion to Dixieland to lyrical jazz with dynamic guitar. The needed come-down arrives in the closing moody pairing of “Self Portrait in Three Colors” and the chamber classical of “Myself When I Am Real,” featuring Summers with the Kronos Quartet.
Earth + Sky (Golden Wire, 2004):
This one is a return, in some senses, to the sound of the four albums he did for Private Music in the late 80s/early 90s. Only now, he’s brought a larger helping of the jazz he immersed himself in after those albums, resulting in a more jazz fusion / new age creation. It’s not a perfect album (few are); taken in the context of his whole solo discography some of the tracks feel like ground he or others have walked before. “Return” floats by on a smooth AOR jazz breeze, “Circus” and “Red Stiletto” on a late period Steely Dan tide. “Earth + Sky” has a bit more bite (bits and bytes?) and “Now I’m Free” is almost jaunty in its bouncy, addictive melody. In summary, this is one of Summers’ most tasteful albums, closing with “I Choose You,” a lovely jazz meditation between guitar and piano.
Splendid Brazil, with Victor Biglione (R.A.R.E., 2005, reissued 2008) [alternate cover art]:
The second collaboration with Biglione, this entry sounds more influenced by Biglione than Summers, though both guitarists are very present. The jazz covers are mostly ditched, and the concentration is primarily on Brazilian composers, heavily weighted towards Jobim songs, but also some Edu Lobo and a studied take on Laurindo Almeida’s “Brasiliance.” Jobim’s “Inutil Paisagem” (“Useless Landscape”) provides some bluesy licks and is where the jazz lurks, interestingly the only track on the album Summers plays solo (after all, this is an Andy Summers album – jazz is always there somewhere!) “Fotografia” is autumnal and almost folky, and “O Ovo” is fast Steve Howe-style playing.
First You Build a Cloud, with Ben Verdery (R.A.R.E., 2007):
An unusual idea comes into play rather nicely on this album: electric guitar soloing over acoustic classical guitar backing. Summers teams with classical guitarist Ben Verderey on these improvisations, mostly recorded in one take. There’s plenty of spark and wide-ranging feel throughout and Summer’s alternately fuzzed or soaring electric guitar colors most tracks in waves of shifting light over Verdery’s complex fingerpicked patterns. “Skywalking Woman” and a new version of “Now I’m Free” (originally on Earth + Sky)stand a bit apart, with the first an all acoustic duet and the second a showcase for tasteful slide guitar playing by Summers, a rarity in his catalog. If you ever wanted to hear Police songs taken to more adventurous places musically, an instrumental version of “Bring on the Night” here should satisfy (though it’s marred slightly by a detracting spoken word intro recorded from radio or TV of somebody pontificating about Satan and religion.)
Fundamental, with Fernanda Takai (Ais, 2012):
Fundamental is a contemporary Bossanova / modern pop collection of songs written and produced by Summers. Fernanda Takai, a Brazilian/Japanese solo artist and singer for band Pato Fu, sings on all the tracks and her vocals are warm and well-suited for the material. And the material itself? Primarily beachy and sunny, with the occasional twist. The love songs with lyrics like “You could satisfy me / smile and blue sky me” are idyllic evocations. Never cloying or syrupy, the album sounds fresh and modern. Unfortunately, Fundamental is hard to track down for a reasonable price, having only been released in Brazil and Japan. Half the album is sung in Portuguese and half in English, and the Japanese edition even contains a bonus version of the title song in that language.
Circus Hero, as Circa Zero, with Rob Giles (429 Records, 2014):
This reportedly started life as a solo rock instrumental album after the 2007 Police reunion, but wasn’t finished till Summers hooked up with Rob Giles, lead singer of the band the Rescues, who helped flesh out the music and add vocals. In interviews, Summers is very enthusiastic about the result, as are most reviews. Not to take anything away from it (music is, after all, such a personal experience), but to my ears it sounds like a lot of other nondescript muscular rock. Yeah, the playing is proficient, and Summers’ guitar sometimes rises above (metaphorically as well as literally) but Giles’ vocals and the songs themselves are not very distinctive, and are mediocre in some cases. It is, however, nice to hear Summers in a heavier rock context; “Underwater” has a cool breakneck pace and the shimmering guitar chords on “Summer Lies” are ear-candy, but I keep hearing “I want to lick it up” instead of “I want to lift it up” on album opener “Levitation,” which doesn’t help the song or the album for me.
Metal Dog (Flickering Shadow, 2015):
Is this what guitarists sound like on distant worlds? With Summers’ first solo album in 11 years, he surprised with a left field turn and reinvented himself. Gone are the obvious jazz influences (still there of course, but less recognizable), gone are the Brazilian influences, and apart from the last two tracks, gone are most of the new age / moody textures. The album resulted from an aborted dance project he was working on, which, he says, got him into a different mindset. It’s not a stretch to imagine that the Circa Zero project also helped refocus him. The guitar work here is very progressive (though not “prog” in the ponderous definition of the term) and futuristic. Some tracks, including the title song, have a post-modern industrial edge with fuzzed out tones and otherworldly soundscapes. All instruments were played by Summers, who, it turns out, is a pretty decent percussionist, “Ishango Bone” being a case in point. Loops and technology figure in here, but don’t overpower feel. “How Long is Now” and “Bitter Honey” utilize backwards tracking in places, and in the context of those songs (and the album) it sounds perfectly appropriate and not gimmicky in the slightest. This is a continually rewarding album and an unexpected late career highlight. Perfect for headphones.
Cover photo is by Summers, taken at an indoor acrobatic performance which utilized a pool the audience was seated under.
Triboluminescence (Flickering Shadow, 2017):
There were three, count ‘em, three versions of this album – digital, CD, and vinyl – all with a different amount of songs. The vinyl has twice as many as the CD, the digital in a strange middle-land (we’ll use the vinyl as our reference point here.) They all share the same name though – “triboluminescence” is a physics term meaning the generation of light through the breaking of chemical bonds, or as Summers describes it, “to bring light from dark.” He pulls back some following the pyrotechnics of Metal Dog, with more of a synthesis of that approach and previous work. The collection has an aura of solo guitar experiments and sketches, ideas being developed (some more than others) from noodling (in the best sense of the word) on his own. As on Metal Dog, Summers plays all the instruments (except on one song), adding the psaltery and the latva to his repertoire. Unusual and oft-unearthly guitar sounds continue to be one of his specialities and they always keep things interesting. Luckily, there’s a strong musicality underlying it all. “Elephant Bird” sounds like its title, while “Ricochet” is almost a spoken word dialogue via guitar. The lengthy title song builds on a nursery rhyme-style foundation for a consistently strong, improvised-sounding guitar workout. The one song where he’s accompanied, by cellist Artyom Manukyan, is a return to the backwards tracked guitar that was prominent on parts of Metal Dog. Triboluminescence is a diverse album full of possibilities for future directions.