MUSICIANJuly 01, 1985
The following interview with Vic Garbarini appeared in the July 1985 issue of Musician magazine...
Sting's swing shift - A Policeman becomes a private eye...
"Hey, are you awake yet? Is anybody there...?"
Aaarrgghh! I groan inwardly and make a feeble attempt to roll myself to the other end of the bed, desperate to escape from the squawking voice in my answering machine. What kind of an asshole would call at 9am on a Saturday morning without...
"Look this is Sting in London, and I need to talk to you about..."
"Okay, I'm awake, I'm awake. I leap out of bed and grab the phone . "Hi, I'm here. What's up?"
"Hope I didn't wake you". (Me: "Nah, you kidding?") "I've got a job for you, if you're interested. Remember in the fall when I told you I wanted to work with some jazz musicians on my solo album? Well, do you think you could help me get a band together?"
"I'll give it a try. How many pieces?"
"First of all a keyboardist. That's the foundation. And I'll need a drummer, saxophonist, and maybe a trombone...and a bass player. I'll play guitar and dabble with the Synclavier a bit. I guess what I'm looking for are jazz musicians who'd be willing to play pop - and maybe stretch the boundaries of both."
"Okay", I decide, clearing my throat and putting on my critical perspective, "I think you're looking for some of the younger generation of black jazz musicians who've grown up listening to funk and rock. They have a lot of the same cultural signposts as whites the same age. The trick is for them to acquire the sophistication to move easily through the culture without losing the passion and spontaneity that made earlier black music so vital."
"You think guys like that will want to play with me?" he asks doubtfully.
"I don't think that's a problem. The jazz community feels the Police are hip. One person I'd recommend off the top of my head is Branford Marsalis. Remember I played his and his brother Wynton's album for you this summer. Wynton gets all the acclaim, but Branford is just as brilliant. Miles called him the 'greatest saxophonist since Coltrane."
I loved that album," enthuses Sting. "But you don't audition someone of that calibre. Go ahead and ask him if he's interested."
"I think he will be. He told Andy the Police were his favourite pop group. Knew all the tunes. If you'd like, I'll set up an audition/workshop thing and bring in a few people for you to hear."
"Sound's great," offers Sting. "I'll be over in mid-January. Do you think you'll get any negative reaction from people thinking I'm being the imperialistic white rock star? Or from racists?"
"I'm not sure. Why, you worried?"
"Yeah", he laughs, "I'm worried it won't cause any trouble."
"What kind of music should I tell them they'll be playing ?"
"The same stuff I played for you when you were over here this summer. God bless and thanks."
"One more thing. Do these guys have to supply their own blond wigs?"
(long pause) "Goodbye, Victor..."
Late Summer 1984, London
I follow the music through the kitchen of Sting's north London home, and past the billiards room. I find Sting sitting in a small cubicle. The tiny, closet-like space is crammed with various guitars and basses. Yellow legal pads filled with lyrics-in-progress spill across the desk. A lilting, offbeat waltz - all, piano, bass and drums - pours forth from the Yamaha Portastudio in front of him. As I come up behind him he grins wryly and pretends to hide the hefty, bright yellow book he'd been engrossed in.
Filled with a sudden journalistic Lust for Truth, I snatch the book from his hands. Walkers Rhyming Dictionary of the English Language. Sting cheats! "Okay, okay," he laughs boyishly. "I confess. I use a rhyming dictionary 'cause it's a great tool." He turns up the music and reaches for some notes. "I'm working on juxtaposing these two sets of images, one about the First World War and the other about heroin addiction in the '80's, with the poppy as the unifying image. And I'm trying to make it all fit this reggae waltz." I look sceptical.
I know he's a wiz at reconciling and blending disparate musical and lyrical ideas . But a pop song linking World War 1 and smack? And in waltz time?
"Look, you've got to trust me on this. It'll come together. Nobody uses waltz time anymore in pop music, except in a cliched sentimental way, which is a shame. There's real tension in the way that three pushes against the four." I remind him that the First War isn't remembered as vividly in the States as in England, where almost an entire generation was lost in the trenches.
"You grow up with it over here," he responds quietly. "One of my first memories as a child was of living very close to the war memorial in my hometown. There were two statues of soldiers with their rifles turned towards the ground, and a plaque with the names of hundreds of the local young men killed in the Great War of 1914-1918. It looked as if the whole male community had been wiped out - which wasn't far from the truth. It's all really a function of the ignorance of the people who sent them over there. In England, we have Remembrance Sunday," he continues. "Everyone wears a poppy in their lapels on that day, which I think is a reference to the poppy fields of Flanders where a lot of those battles took place. Of course, the poppy is a symbol of death in that heroin comes from poppies, and so in the third verse a link is built up with the ghastly industry built up around people's addiction to heroin.
Sting pauses, lost in thought for the moment. Suddenly he's up out of his chair and bounding towards the kitchen. "C'mon, " he calls. "I'll play you the rest of the demos." Midway through the sunny kitchen we spot Sting's six-month-old daughter Mickey, playing on the floor. Sting hands me an acoustic guitar and suggests I play something for her. I awkwardly pick out an old folk tune. Mickey stares blankly at me and drools. "Not like that," he grumbles, grabbing the guitar, "like this." He knocks out a chugging Chuck Berry rhythm and stomps a steady four with his right foot. Mickey rises unsteadily to her feet and commences a wobbly but enthusiastic dance, a look of sheer delight plastered across her tiny face. "That's my rock 'n' roll baby," Sting coos. He gently scoops her up and plants a tender kiss on her nose. "The new album is just crawling with kids," he says.
The living room is cozy and comfortable, all light, muted earth colours suffused with the cheery glow of the working fireplace. Sting pops a cassette into the tape player and curls up on the couch like a sleepy lion. "See if you can catch the references in this one." It's a haunting ballad called 'Moon Over Bourbon Street' - a melancholic melody sung over a synthesised orchestral arrangement. The song's protagonist seems to be harbouring some dark, terrible secret.
"Bertolt Brecht," I suggest. "Or Kurt Weill. 'Threepenny Opera'?" Sting seems pleased. "Yeah, I've been studying Brecht and Weill the last few years. They're master storytellers. But can't you guess who the song's about?" I shrug, mystified.
"A vampire." Sting smiles wanly. "It's told from his point of view. I wrote the song very late one night in the French Quarter of New Orleans. It was a full moon, the streets were empty, and I remembered very vividly a book by Anne Rice called 'Interview With The Vampire'. It's about a well-educated gentleman who becomes a vampire. But he's been left with a conscience, which is tragic for a vampire because he has to do all these terrible things. It's basically a song about loneliness and alienation. But it's also about being pulled toward things you know you should stay away from." "Just like most of your songs," I add.
Now we're into 'Set Them Free'. It's more up-tempo than the others, very catchy. Seems the most likely single. The song's theme is intriguing and paradoxical at first glance: having to let go of people to come into contact with them in a deeper and more satisfying way. I remark that, for me, this song is the antidote to the enervating paranoia of 'Every Breath You Take'.
"You're right," Sting agrees. "It is a paradox and a companion piece to 'Every Breath You Take', which I consider to be really a quite evil song about surveillance and controlling another person. The fact that it was couched in a seductive and romantic disguise made it all the more sinister for me. Having lived through that feeling in quite a real way and seen the other side, I think the highest tribute you can pay another person is to say, 'I don't own you-you're free.' If you try to possess someone in the obvious way, you can never have them in the way that really counts. There are too many prisons in the world already; we don't need a prison in every home." He pauses for a few moments, then sits up as if to emphasise what comes next. "It's not just a clever, thought; it's a genuine feeling. I've lost the emotion of jealousy, I really have. Some people may see that as being cold..."
"It could," I suggest, "be just an excuse to avoid making commitments." Sting stretches out on the couch, staring at the ceiling; "Well, I do seem to be the type of person people like to trap... "Trap how?" I wonder.
"In relationships I feel very susceptible to entrapment. I see the bars go up and I try and escape, usually in the most violent and vicious way. I've destroyed one person totally; I've left people in a bloody pulp as I've felt the bars go up. If anything, Set Them Free is a kind of warning. I'm not really into the idea of permanent relationships. I find that phoney, shallow and unrealistic in many ways. That's not to say the relationships I have are in any way inferior. I think they're more intense because of that belief."
Like many of Sting's positions this one reflects both his strengths and weaknesses. Might as well pursue the point with him in another arena. "Well, I assume this applies equally to your relationships with Andy and Stewart?"
"I have to be honest about this," he answers with just a hint of irritation. "There's no point in being in a group just for the sake of being in a group - in carrying on forever just for sentimental reasons and getting to be an old man and always a member of some f***ing gang. That's not my way. The only reason to be in a group is if you have a unified musical idea. The old idea that the Police had has been taken to its logical, monumentally successful conclusion. The temptation is to sit in that rut and carry on and get all the acclaim and all the money - and that's wrong. I'm not saying that we're breaking up. But this time away is very important so that we can not be in the group. If there were a fresh way of presenting the Police and creating music together, then the Police would play again. But I don't want to become like all the other ageing rock groups-bonded together by panic. I'm not fearful of losing success or not being in the limelight."
"Yes, but being one of those rare artists who can get across to vast numbers of people while still maintaining your artistic integrity, you almost need to sustain a certain level of popularity. Not for egotistical reasons, but because having a wide impact is part of your artistic purpose."
"The real pull is between needing to stretch yourself as a musician and needing to stretch your audience at the same time, and yet being held back by inertia. And you're right, if it is important to communicate to a lot of people then you can only hope to stretch so far. But that's where the creative tension is for me. I like the challenge of writing songs that are both accessible and stretchy. Speaking of which..." In an instant he's up and heading for the stereo. "Here's another one I put together on the Synclavier." "In Europe and America / There's a growing feeling of hysteria...." A Slavic, minor-key melody trudges through an almost nineteenth-century classical orchestration. The theme is the growing tension between the US and the Soviets. What saves the song from being a mere rhetorical exercise is the way he delivers the line, "I hope the Russians love their children, too." I admit that, at first, the song struck me as didactic.
Sting agrees: "That line about them loving their children, too is self-evident, isn't it? Of course the Russians love their children, but I don't think we're meant to think that. If we're to consider them our enemies it would be easier if we thought of them as being unfeeling, robotic, insects almost. I'm not defending the Soviet model at all," he insists. "I'm just saying that if we're going to save ourselves we have to learn about them and they about us. I don't know how they'll react. Maybe they'll think, 'Who the hell is he to even imply that we don't love our children !' That might piss them off. But really, the song's neither pro-Western nor pro-Soviet...it's pro-children."
Sting flips on the TV and we settle down to watch 'Top of the Pops', Britain's weekly pop extravaganza - and obligatory, viewing for everyone under twenty-five. "I forgot something, I'll be right back." Sting bounds off into the kitchen and quickly returns with a bowl of orange rinds, bits of banana and other week-old fruit. On TV a well-coifed wimp bleats out some pseudo-Motown over a whining synth. Thunk. The first orange rind hits the screen. Sting's girlfriend Trudie Styler joins us. Trudie is currently starring in a West End play entitled 'The Key to the World', in which she plays a degenerate rock critic. In real life, she is bright, sensitive, and gutsy enough to tell the old man off when he needs it. Sting throws on a heavy tweed jacket and we head out to walk his dog. Sting's hair is still quite long from his role as Dr. Frankenstein in The Bride. I ask about the picture as we amble through the cobbled backstreets of Hampstead. Sting explains that as Frankenstein, his character deteriorates until he emerges as the true monster. Not this again. "Look, why do you find evil so seductive?"
"Because I feel it's one of my potentials to be evil. If you don't become aware of that part of yourself it can control you from behind the scenes, so it's good therapy."
"Sometimes I think you also fall in love with your own melancholy."
"My stage act is hardly morose. I'm far from that. Some people paint me as the Prince of Doom or the blonde Apollo or whatever, and I'm not any of those things. I'm many things rolled into one."
"Sadness is something to work with to enable you to get to something deeper," I suggest. "It's not an end in itself. You sometimes seem to dwell on it a bit much..."
"But there's more to my life than sadness." Sting replies. "There's a great deal of happiness in my life. I don't just mine sadness. I have written happy songs...l wrote a happy song once...now what the f*** was it called." We both laugh, leaving the main road and entering the woodlands of the Hampstead Heath.
"It certainly does me good to excavate my feelings," he admits. "I certainly don't have to dig very deep. I exist in a state of almost perpetual... hysteria. I cry a lot. I'm moved very easily by a chord progression, or a painting or..."
"A movie like Amadeus," I suggest.
"That's easy. it's engineered so you'll cry... God, when they threw his body into that common grave and poured quicklime on it... Things that are beautiful move me. I think life, in many ways, is very beautiful and very sad at the same time. All I'm doing is pulling those things out and expressing them. I haven't really analysed it that much. It just seems to work for me. The Romans had a great word. They'd describe how they felt after meals as 'satis.' It's the root of 'sad' and 'satisfied'; after a meal you feel those two almost conflicting emotions."
Being around Sting you become sensitive to the seeming contradictions in his character. Most striking is the contradiction between his public and private selves. The public image is well known by now: The regal, leonine bearing, the self-assurance bordering on arrogance - the charismatic, golden machine. The outer facade is real, but only a facade.
What's behind the screen? The ghost that inhabits the machine. It is odd how like a ghost he can be at times. Behind the edifice is a surprisingly gentle, reflective soul quietly assessing the world around him. But the polarities between the inner and outer man, between the lion and the lamb are apparent. He is aloof yet dependent. Impervious yet terribly vulnerable. He's a loner who longs for community - for a chance to bring people and ideas together. He is self-directed and self-willed, yet seeks advice, and criticism, from those he trusts. He's devoted and loyal, but fears commitments; sensitive yet oblivious. Behind that cool exterior beats a heart not merely warm, but incandescent. But then, there has to be an invisible sun, doesn't there?
Sting admits that beneath his placid exterior he's often "hysterical." His emotional life is deep and volatile, but rarely breaks through the surface. Yet he taps into those subterranean pools for his work. Like most Englishmen, he's uncomfortable with his feelings; he fears that being open to his emotions will lead to loss of control. Yet like most artists, Sting's feelings control his art. The tension between needing and fearing his deepest emotions is palpable.
In Sting's studio there's a Munch print of the artist's sister standing terrified on a bridge, her mouth a frozen oval of terror. It's called 'The Scream'. With all the attention and adulation directed towards Sting's public image, there's a danger of becoming a persona with no person behind it, a constant temptation to take the path of least resistance and live inside the charismatic, golden Machine. That, to his credit, is Sting's nightmare. He fights the threat of spiritual stagnation by constantly challenging himself, forcing himself to take inner and outer risks.
Back in the forest we've come to an open meadow dominated by an eighteenth-century manor house. I'm reminded that Keats and Shelley lived in this neck of the woods. "I've had another of those strange dreams," confides Sting as we watch the sun dip below the treeline. "There was a wise man in it, and he was forcing me down a well - trying to drown me in it. I was frightened, but I didn't resist because I somehow knew it was good for me. Strange."
We sit in silence for a while. "I've got this idea I want to talk about," he offers. "I've been thinking about working with jazz musicians on the solo album. How about if I just give you the chequebook and you go and hire me a band?"
January 1985, New York City
Sting pops a cassette of Branford Marsalis' 'Scenes In The City' into the limo's tape deck. We are heading downtown to catch Branford's set with Larry Willis. 'Solstice' is the tune. "That sounds like Coltrane," says Sting, amazed. I tell him that Branford's gotten flak for allegedly copying Coltrane and Wayne Shorter." "Why would he want to work with me?" Sting asks. "Because he's not a strict jazz purist like Wynton," I say. "He thinks you're a great musician, the best in your field, and he admires that. Hell, he told me he was out there at Shea Stadium for the Police show, screaming his lungs out with the rest of them."
We arrive at the club just as Marsalis takes the stage with Willis' quintet. "So is this gonna knock my socks off?" asks Sting. I smile. Mary Ellen Cataneo, the Columbia publicist who first introduced me to Branford, leans across the table. "What the hell are we going to do if they don't like each other?" she whispers. For a moment I try to picture myself explaining to Branford how there's this slight problem, and he won't be needed after all. As the first twinge of nausea hits I block the whole question from my mind.
Marsalis steps up to the mike and uncoils a mesmerising solo that demonstrates his ability to bring fresh ideas to the tradition that he's absorbed and mastered. Sting is delighted. "The man can certainly play the saxophone," he enthuses. "And he's not just playing from his head. When a truly great musician plays it's almost a sexual thing, and Branford has that." After the set Sting gives Branford an affectionate hug. Over dinner the two musicians trade stories. Sting reminisces about his days playing trad jazz in Newcastle clubs, while Branford recalls himself and Wynton learning P-Funk tunes for his high school band. They talk about integrating their respective musical approaches and Sting asks what Branford hopes to get out of the collaboration. "Basically, if you want to play saxophone today in a pop context, you have to base everything on King Curtis. You learn all your clichés, and where to drop 'em," says Marsalis. "It's not King Curtis' fault - it's all these guys who are coming along and doing poor imitations of him. I'm not going to even deal with that. I'd like to take some of the things I've learned from playing jazz and apply them in a new way. And a lot of that comes from Wayne Shorter." Sting expresses his admiration for Shorter's work with Weather Report. "Wayne has a fantastic knowledge of traditional harmonies," explains Branford, "and as a result he could extend those harmonies and spread chords out to previously unknown parallels. To the conventional ear it sounded out."' Branford shakes his head. "Critics sometimes call the stuff Wynton and I do 'out,' but it's not. We're playing on chord structures, but not the way they did forty years ago. The stuff we're doing is based on tradition, but it's not traditional. We're not archivists." I ask if he believes its necessary to work through a tradition. "Most definitely," he insists. "We have guys who are playing avant-garde music now who can't even play a twelve-bar blues. That's not what's supposed to be happening, man. That's retrograde."
"But," I counter, "some people who aren't technically accomplished can still put an incredible amount of presence and spirit into their music, often more than the technically proficient people."
"Yeah, that's true," admits Marsalis. "But that doesn't make what they do jazz. Jazz is a standard tradition with certain laws and strictures, like classical music. I mean, you can't say, 'Well, I don't have the technique to play Bach but I'll just do my own interpretation of it and it'll be cool.' At this point in my life I'm not listening for feeling. I'm listening for lyricism, I'm listening for the conjunction between melody and harmony. It's a very analytical approach, but that's what I'm working on at the moment. The feeling deepens as you get older." He laughs. "I'm only twenty-four!"
As we leave the restaurant Sting pulls me aside. "Branford's fantastic. He's going to be a star, I'm sure. But does he ever just cut loose on-stage and let it rip?"
"Not in this context," I answer. "That's why I introduced him to you."
One down. Three to go.
Tuesday January 15 1985
A steely, choking wind sweeps down Ninth Avenue outside. The wind chill factor plunges to a brutal -20F. But inside SIR Studios Room C, things are beginning to warm up. It is day two of the workshops. Twenty-two-year-old Darryl Jones, currently with Miles Davis, checks the tuning on his white Fender, while Weather Report drummer Omar Hakim works at tightening the head on his snare. During the past hour they've loosened up by jamming on three Police tunes: 'Driven To Tears', 'One World', and 'Demolition Man'. Sting, looking semi-formal in his white dress shirt and black suspenders, is deep in discussion with Danny Quatrochi, his faithful roadie/secretary/man Friday. There seems to be some problem with the Synclavier's computer hook-up.
Branford Marsalis is sitting across the room, his feet propped up on an empty equipment case. He's wearing a bright orange St. Louis Cardinals cap. He devours the New York Daily News sports section and hums an irritatingly familiar melody to himself. Some old jazz standard. perhaps? A forgotten Duke Ellington melody? Nope, it's the theme from the Rocky and Bullwinkle Show. "Heyyyy Rockeeeeeee!" hollers Branford from behind his paper. The man does a perfect Bullwinkle. Tomorrow, Sting will hail him in the New York Times as a "genius." Branford, that is. Not Bullwinkle. But it's said Einstein did a mean Donald Duck.
"Okay, we're going to try something new now," announced Sting. The demo tape of 'Children's Crusade' is played once over the studio PA. Sting quickly goes over the chord sequence with everybody. "Right after the second chorus we'll open it up. Branford, you solo there for as long as you like.'
Branford emits a friendly grunt from behind the paper. Sting counts off the 3/4 beat and the band launches confidently into the tune. Jones' bass lines are solid and economical, with inventive little flourishes that never detract from his supportive role. Sting blocks out chords on the Synclavier. Hakim carries the waltz time with grace and vigour. Branford continues to check out the sports page. As they come out of the second chorus, Jones begins to repeat the circular, six-note bass foundation. Sting looks quizzically in Branford's direction. At the last possible moment, Branford drops the papers and sprints to the stage, where he scoops up his waiting soprano. Tilting his head to one side, he cocks his right leg over his left knee like a stork and begins to play. There is an exquisite tension between the other-worldly beauty of Marsalis' melody and the bittersweet sadness of his tone.
Jones suddenly kicks in his octave-divider, boosting his tone into a throaty roar. Hakim, his arms and legs flailing like some multilimbed Hindu deity, rolls and thunders around his kit in an ecstatic, disciplined frenzy. The Marsalis-Hakim-Jones triad spur each other on to near orgasmic heights, then smoothly wind down and pick up the verse one last time. The song ends in a crescendo. There are smiles everywhere I look, and the sound of many hands clapping fills the room. Sting slowly shakes his head in bemused wonder. "That was amazing. I think we have the band here." "Fantastic," I say. "But what the hell are we going to do with the dozen or so people that we've scheduled to come in over the next week or so?"
"Don't worry," says Sting reassuringly. "I still want to hear some alternatives. But I'm ready to make at least one decision right now. Hey, Darryl," he calls, "can I see you a minute?" Darryl drifts over, hands in pockets. "Look," explains Sting, "I don't really want to see any more bass players..."
"Uh, okay," mumbles Jones, who turns and begins to shuffle off. "No, wait" laughs Sting. "I mean I want you to be in the band!"
"Ah-hah," responds Jones in mock surprise. Sting gives him an affectionate hug. There's an extraordinary polarity between Branford's saxophone and Sting's voice. As if they were drawing from the same wellspring: the twilight zone between joy and sadness. Sting nods thoughtfully. "Yeah, I know... I wonder if he does?" He looks over at Branford, who glances up from his faithful paper and beams a smile at us. "Yo, Sting, c'mere. The Superbowl's coming up and we gotta explain football to you."
"Well, English football..." begins Sting.
"Forget that Anglo shit," laughs Branford, "you're hanging with the brothers now."
Darryl, nicknamed "Munch," reflects on his good fortune as he packs up his bass. "Getting a job with Miles at the age of twenty-one was the greatest thing that could ever have happened to me," he explains. "Now here I am with the two top guys in the two fields I'm most interested in. But what really excites me is the statement being made here about breaking down barriers, the barriers between jazz and rock, and between black and white musicians. There's a possibility of creating a hybrid here that could create a totally new direction in music." Sting joins us, curious about Darryl's, work with one of his heroes. Miles Davis is a legend among jazz musicians, who relish trading stories about his unpredictable and often outrageous behaviour. Jones, a Chicago native, had been playing in a band with Davis' nephew, who one day called from New York to say that Miles wanted him to audition for his band. Right now. Over the phone. "When I finally realised he was serious I frantically ran around the house looking for my bass. I'd been practising on the Chapman stick that day and I'd apparently left my bass in the trunk of my car. As I was explaining this to the guy, Miles got on the phone and asked when could I be in New York. It was a Wednesday. So I suggested Friday. Miles says, "What's gonna take you so long, you gonna walk?" Jones chuckles. "I flew in the next morning, auditioned and he told me I had the job. So I talked to him Wednesday; met and auditioned for him Thursday; rehearsed with the band Friday; and the following Tuesday played on-stage with him in St. Louis." Someone suggests Sting pay Miles a courtesy call. "No thanks," he responds. "I think I'd be terrified."
Day 4, Thursday January 17 1985
"Who is that guy?" whispers Sting.
"You're referring to the short, stocky, bespectacled chap over by the DX7? The one smoking a pipe ? Kind of looks like an English Lit. professor?"
"That's Kenny Kirkland," explains Branford. "He's Wynton's pianist. He's the most accomplished keyboard player in jazz or rock today. He's kind of shy at first and he'll tend to underplay till he's sure of the material. But do not underestimate him, man." Within an hour Sting's initial scepticism has melted away, replaced by appreciation for Kirkland's abilities. "It's not just that he has the chops," insists Sting. "Did you hear the way he layers his sound? Such taste and restraint."
"And you haven't even heard him open up yet," adds Branford.
"Well," Sting nods, "I think we've found our keyboard man."
"Do you want me to tell him?"
"I think he already knows."
Sting invites Kenny to try out the Synclavier. As the program engages the synth lines to 'Set Them Free' fill the room. The computer's printer begins to chatter, and as fascinated band members gather around, it spews out the song's sheet music. "It'll notate anything you play," explains Sting. "Plus it's got 32-track digital memory, which is like having a recording studio.
"I do find if you use machines solely, you lose that human dimension," he admits. "So if I'm playing a sequence or using a LinnDrum I'll always play some of the parts manually, in order to inject a bit of personality. Fingers can find things that machines never will." "Is that a LinnDrum on Set Them Free?" Omar asks. Sting looks sheepish. "Uh, Omar, did you play on Bowie's 'Let's Dance' single?" "Yeah," beams Hakim. "That's me." "Well, then that's you on the Set Them Free demo too." Omar looks baffled. "We sampled your drum part and used it," Sting confesses. "It was perfect."
Over the next week some of jazz's best and brightest passed through the portals of Studio C. But in the end, it was Kirkland and Hakim who got the nod. Omar first met Sting while working with Dire Straits in Montserrat. "Sting had come over for dinner with Mark. He said he was going to New York to put a band together. When he mentioned Branford's name he really got my attention. I asked if he had a drummer yet. He said no. So I said, 'You just found one!' He looked at me funny until Mark explained that I actually was the drummer with Weather Report."
When the chips were down, though, Hakim was hesitant about committing himself till he was clear about the band's direction. "After I went to the auditions and realised what was going on I felt good about it. This band is going to knock down a lot of barriers. Someone like Sting realises that when you have an audience of eleven to fifteen million you have a responsibility to hip them to something else. I think what we're doing with a song like 'Children's Crusade' is indicative of the future potential of this band. And that excites me."
Kenny Kirkland had precisely the opposite experience. "At first I told Branford I wasn't going to do the audition because I didn't know if I could do this kind of gig any more. Playing with Wynton's band is real conservative to me, and I got stuck into being conservative." But Kenny's no stranger to pop. Classically trained, he's worked with Angela Bofill, Chaka Khan, and, of all people, Crosby Stills & Nash. As Wynton is compared to Miles and Branford to Shorter, Kirkland is pegged as a Herbie Hancock protege. He freely acknowledges his debt: "'Headhunters' is what got me into jazz over ten years ago. When I tell Wynton that we argue." Kirkland is also keenly aware of Wynton's unhappiness over Branford's growing involvement with Sting.
"I think Wynton feels that if you don't study music or listen to jazz or classical music every day you can't be legitimate. He probably doesn't think Sting is a good musician, which he definitely is." And what does he see as the main differences between the two brothers ? "Wynton is a real stick-to-his-guns person. He's made his stand with jazz and now he's upset because Branford wants to do other things. He thinks Branford should be like him and just carry this message about jazz to the world. But Branford isn't like that. He loves jazz, but he's also open to other kinds of music. I'm the same way, and Wynton knows it. I think he feels that since we're jazz musicians in his band, by playing with other people we're making their stuff look like it's happening when it's not. You saw how he was in that 'Musician' interview about Herbie playing with Mick Jagger. I don't look at it that way. Sting's a great musician, and he knows what he wants his music to sound like, just like Wynton does. It's just a different kind of music."
It is mid-February, and the pace is accelerating. Recording will begin at Compass Point studio in the Bahamas in early March. Sting wants to play a surprise club date at the end of February in a New York club. "The idea is to put the band through a baptism of fire to help fuse our identity before recording," says Sting. This leaves only a week to rehearse before a show at the Ritz. Then it's off to Nassau almost immediately. This, of course, is exactly the kind of insane challenge Sting thrives on.
Last Day of Rehearsal, New York City
Sting is sitting by himself on a stool behind his Synclavier, softly strumming his black and white Fender Stratocaster. He begins finger picking the Villa-Lobos-inspired opening to 'Bring On The Night'." When he reaches the chorus he hesitates. "I've always hated that chorus," he growls. "Maybe it's time for a change...something a bit jazzier, more sublime..." Instead of going from Em to G and Gm7, he shifts down to Bm, Am and C. He's pleased with the results. By now the other band members have filtered in, including backup singers Dollette McDonald and Janice Pendarvis. "My songs are still in a state of evolution," says Sting. "I'm not one of those people who refuse to perform old material in a new context. Sure, you've got to challenge your audience with new things. But it's okay to give them some reference points."
'Driven To Tears', 'Demolition Man' and 'One World' worked well at the auditions and are retained, but recent Police mega-hits are shunned, to avoid comparisons. Sting decides to open the show with 'Roxanne'," performed as a duet with Branford, and close with a solo Message In A Bottle. A hard-driving R&B version of Shadows In The Rain is thrown in. (Sting: "That's the style I did the demo in originally.") I suggest 'I Burn For You', a lost Police gem originally slated for 'Ghost In The Machine' but shunted off to the 'Brimstone And Treacle' soundtrack instead. Like 'Children's Crusade' it has a repetitive bass figure in the midsection that provides a ready launching pad for improvisations. The band runs through the song, building on the mid-section like Bitches Brew-era Miles Davis - but with more punch. "God, this band can soar," says an awed Sting. "Now we've got to learn to cruise, too." He's right. Where the Police are light and agile, this band is earthy and forceful. He can teach them a more subtle use of dynamics. "Songs like 'Set Them Free' require the band to 'float.' That'll come in time.
"Branford and Omar are overplaying a bit," Sting says. "But I don't want to chance losing this amazing energy by reining them in now. The pruning can come later." Sting walks the band through 'Bring On The Night'. Something's not meshing. He asks Omar to shift to a steady tour on the bass drum. Suddenly everything locks in. Just after the second chorus Sting begins vamping on seventh chords. The band kicks in behind him, instantly transforming the song into a James Brown-style romp. Branford abruptly stops playing and trots across the bandstand. He whispers something to Sting, who nods and grins. Turning back to the mike, he sings the opening verse to 'When The World Is Running Down' over the vamping chords. It fits perfectly. Branford was right - they are the same chords! Thus are medleys born. Afterwards, Darryl seems in a rush to leave. "Where you going?" asks Sting. "I'm recording with Miles uptown," replies Jones. "Wanna come?" Sting looks uncertain. "I'll call and ask," offers Jones.
Forty minutes later Sting re-enters the studio, looking a little stunned. So what happened? I ask. "I'm...not sure," he answers hesitantly. "As soon as we walked into the studio Miles asked me if I spoke French. I said yeah, and then he asked me to translate a sentence into French for him: 'You are under arrest, anything you say will be held against you... so shut up!' Then he pulls me over to the mike and has me recite it over the music. When I finish, he grabs his crotch and says, 'Arrest this, you motherf***ers!' and laughs. Next thing I know he's escorted me to the door and I'm out on the street." Congratulations, I say. You now have an honoured place in the annals of Miles Davis folklore.
A few minutes later I find Sting over at the Synclavier. He locks a simple repeating three-note figure into the machine's memory. Over it he picks out a simple, modal melody. "Folk music is the same all over the world," he muses. "I'm working on a modern folk song about the coal miners' strike in Britain." He locks in the melody, then maps out a counter-melody for the chorus. He works at getting the machine to synch that up with a counterpoint bass line. It's a struggle. "Looks like an aural video game," I say. "That's exactly what it is!" he beams. "Kenny amazes me," he continues. "He has an ability to play instinctively and spontaneously. I have to gather bits and pieces and vector them together on a machine like this till the different pieces fit." "But that's what they admire about you," I counter. "You have a conceptual ability they envy. They, on the other hand, can help you get more in contact with your feelings and instincts. "Sting nods. "I've had another one of those odd dreams," he relates. "I'm in my back yard at home, and suddenly these immense blue turtles appear. They frolic around, wrecking the flower beds and knocking things over. One of them does a back flip and smashes my little shed to splinters. I'm a fox sitting up in a tree and watching all this. The funny thing is that I don't mind at all what they're doing." He pauses, lost in thought. "I'm sure it relates to what's going on with the band. It's like something in me being broken down, and I welcome it."
It's Sting's nature to rationalise his emotions rather than experience them directly. This makes for perceptive if detached songwriting, as in 'Every Breath You Take' and 'Roxanne'," where the emotional release is always imminent but never realised. The jazz artists he's fond of are pulling him toward emotional directness to which he aspires.
The Ritz gigs were a resounding success. Any doubts about the group being accepted by Sting's audience evaporated before the end of the first band number, 'Shadows In The Rain'." Later that week Sting calls from the Caribbean. "How's Nassau?" I ask. "Nassau sucks," says he. "Too Americanised, like Miami Beach. They even have a Howard Johnson's there. I'm with my engineer Pete Smith at Eddy Grant's studio in Barbados. We'll start recording here next week. Why don't you come along as resident critic? Things could get really interesting down here..."
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