Interview: DOWNBEAT (1985)

December 01, 1985

The following article by Art Lange appeared in the December 1985 issue of Downbeat magazine...

Blue Turtles and Blue Notes - Sting speaks...

"I was committed to do an album without the Police, and I went through all kinds of ideas about how I would do it. There are various ways of skinning this cat. I could have done it all on my own, which would have involved synthesisers and sequencers and drum machines and all the rest of it. Actually I wandered to a certain extent along that path and then I thought, 'No, there's too much of that out there already, why add fuel to the fire?' Then I thought perhaps what I needed was a big producer - I think I was going through a need for a big brother figure, somebody to convince me, 'Yes, it's great, do try that'. So I approached Quincy Jones. I sent Quincy some demos, and he was really enthusiastic and said he loved the songs, which was nice. Before that I had approached Gil Evans, who I'm an enormous fan of. I met Gil backstage at Ronnie Scott's club in London. I went to see his show and introduced myself, and surprise, surprise, he'd actually heard of me. And he too was interested.

"But all that would have involved orchestras and big bands and whatever. So then I thought really the most organic, the most exciting thing you could possibly do is actually form a band, the way the Police was formed. You're a band, you're committed, you go out and do gigs, and then you make an album. So I thought, 'Where's the best place to do that ?' I think New York; the best musicians in the world happen to live in this metropolis. So I got in touch with Vic Garbarini, and Vic had access to a lot of musicians and he introduced me to Branford. We had dinner one night. Branford talked for three hours and I didn't say a word. And we sort of committed ourselves to this crazy idea, and the only basis for this alliance was my material, in that the stuff I had already written had changes in it. It wasn't just one-chord funk or three-chord rock&roll - it actually had minor chords and some things that would interest people like Branford Marsalis.

"I decided to have a workshop here in New York, and I invited the jazz community to come and play. Lots of people turned up - people whose records I own - but it wasn't an audition. The beginning of the day I'd present the material, and I'd keep a drummer from the previous day, and a bass player from the day before, and gradually over 10 days I got an idea of who was there, what they could do and couldn't do, and at the end of that period I picked who I considered to be the best young jazz musicians in the world - on the understanding that we weren't going to play jazz. What I wanted was a flavour. I didn't want to go off and give Branford 120 bars to explore a theme; I was gonna say, 'You're going to have 16 bars and you're going to burn from the first bar.'

"It's funny; you wouldn't think it but pop music has a discipline, a finely honed discipline, and the members of the band are going to have to make a journey, because I felt I was making a journey to a different country and so would they I wasn't going to have them be comfortable in their world and me sort of floundering. So I think what we've produced is sort of a hybrid, and we're still doing it; the record really isn't an end product because every night the show changes because of the jazz influence.

"Every night it just grows and gets more strange. At the same time, I'm not losing pop fans: I like the fact that 14-year-old girls can come to the gig and enjoy it. And I think what's interesting at about the audience is you get such a broad cross-section; and all those sections are looking at each other. You get some serious music people who come to see the guys, and they're looking at these kids in Police t-shirts, and the kids are looking at the older people. For me, that's what music's about. It's not about sectarianism: It's not about appealing to a small minority group. It's appealing to everybody. Actually it's been a long-term aim of mine to emulate the span that the Beatles had, for example. There's no musician in the world who doesn't appreciate the Beatles, and no pop fan either. They just had the whole thing down, and that's because things were freer then, more open. The radio stations were less demographically controlled. Back then a kid could turn his radio on and hear different kinds of music - black music, jazz, pop. Now you turn a radio on and it's the same music all day. Which is sad. Rock music is becoming more and more atavistic, just feeding off itself, instead of feeding off everything else, which is what it does best. At the moment, we're just getting rehashes of old pop music.

"If I had to single out one jazz group that I appreciate and love it's Weather Report. But what I would hope to do is kind of emulate the vision that Zawinul has but go further, with songs. Because songs speak volumes. That's what I am, a songwriter, so I want to use that kind of finesse, that kind of adventurism with songs.

"The album came together quickly. Basically the arrangements were fairly solid. I had done demos in the studio in London - virtually all keyboards, I didn't do any guitar work until later. But I knew exactly what I wanted. I knew in my head what I wanted Branford, for example, to contribute - and he did that, and more. He just amazes me, that guy. He seems to have a sort of telepathy with me. But obviously, I didn't want just sidemen. I wanted integrity. I wanted people who understood what I was singing about. They were all very concerned that what they were playing was the right thing. Happily my arrangements seemed to survive the test. Daryl was very pleased with the basslines. I said, 'Look, if you can improve them please don't feel restricted by what I can do because you're 100 times better as a bass player than I am'. But it was a trade-off. Daryl taught me things on the bass and I taught him a few things - reggae, for example. He had never played reggae before. So we had a good time."

By Art Lange: Though 1985 was a surprising, and in many ways exciting, year for music, possibly the most the most exciting - and undoubtedly surprising - development took place with the collaboration of a British pop star/film star/serious songwriter and four young, conscientious, open-minded American jazz musicians. Looked on with scepticism at first, their union created not the expected oil-and-water blend of incompatible styles but something new, something different. This wasn't a rock star straining for serious music credibility by leeching onto jazz musicians and thinning out their creative life's blood; on the contrary Sting hand-picked a quartet of the best possible musicians he could find to play his music - and they just happened to have a jazz background.

Or maybe it's no coincidence. All five of the participants of this endeavour - Sting, Branford Marsalis, Kenny Kirkland Omar Hakim, and Daryl Jones - belong to a generation of musicians who eschew stylistic boundaries and create - and enjoy - good music wherever they find it. The band doesn't play jazz or rock, but a highly flexible ensemble hybrid borrowing from many and beholden to none. Theirs is a sophisticated sound - but with plenty of power at crunch time. And audiences aren't stopping to label them -they're too busy listening. As Omar Hakim told the Chicago Sun-Times, "It lets me know that the audiences are more open than the music industry would like us to believe. If it were up to the music industry, I don't think that music would go anywhere. It takes somebody like Sting who has sold millions of records and made millions of dollars for a record company, for them to take a chance. I think this band is gonna knock some walls down."

AL: Let's start at the beginning. Why did you guys decide to join this band when asked?

Daryl Jones: Well, for me it's a chance to do something new, that's never been done before - where musicians with our backgrounds are given an opportunity to play to such large amounts of people, who are not exposed, necessarily, to...

Omar Hakim: what we normally do.

DJ: Right, to musicians who are playing. Not to say rock musicians aren't playing musicians but you know...we're different from Mr. Average Rock & Roll Musician.

OH: I met Sting when I was in Montserrat recording the latest Dire Straits album, and he was sitting at a dinner table talking to Mark Knopfler (Dire Straits guitarist/vocalist) about his idea for a band. And Branford's name came up, and that's what made my ears perk up - because I really like Sting's music. I like the Police a lot, but when he mentioned Branford to me it sounded like something really interesting. So I told Sting "When you get to the city, give me a buzz. I'm interested, I'd like to come down and see what's happening."

AL: Had you played with Branford before?

OH: No, I just saw him in clubs a lot.

Branford Marsalis: Everybody in the band is familiar with everyone else.

AL: You knew each other, but had you played...?

Kenny Kirkland: I had played with everybody...

BM: I played with Daryl on Decoy...

AL: Right, with Miles...

OH: I played with Kenny in Michal Urbaniak's band and Daryl and I hung out in Tokyo, when Miles and Weather Report were on tour...

DJ: We played at a sushi bar (laughter)...

OH: (laughs)... right, played with some sushi, chopsticks...

AL: How many of you had been familiar with the Police previously?

All: All of us.

AL: What did they do to turn you on?

BM: For me, it was the writing.

KK: The tunes.

BM: It was a trio, but they had a big sound.

DJ: I like the fact that they created their own niche, and built a market around that. If you're going to do your own music, that's the way to do it.

OH: Not only that, we're talking about a high level of creativity and musicianship as well, and a musician would appreciate that. It's beyond rock, jazz, this and that. A true musician will appreciate musicianship and artistry from another musician no matter what kind of music they play. We were just in here listening to classical music and discussing that. It's not a matter of the band, it's the level of creativity. That's what I enjoyed about the Police - the music was put together, the tunes were excellent, the playing was happening, the records were well done, everything was well done. They always sounded different, sounded unique on the radio, and we would notice that.

BM: What I liked was that their hooks were simple, but everything else had a little twist in it. The melody lines had interesting little hooks in them away from the typical two-note melody lines you hear all the time. Like 'Synchronicity' or 'Synchronicity II' or any of those songs, they had great melody lines and the hooks would be real simple, and then they'd go off into a development thing and stretch off in a vamp. The trio's an ideal setting anyway. Unless you're playing with Kenny Kirkland, piano players will lock you in, because their harmony is very limited - so they play certain things and you have to play within the confines of those things.

AL: I noticed unlike a lot of bands, there's only one guitar player - and Sting doesn't play all that much - meaning it's the keyboards that have to fill the sound out. And yet on-stage it sounded like Kenny was laying out much of the time or playing such subtle stuff that he wasn't really that noticeable in the arrangements - you were creating the bulk of the sound, but you weren't overpowering anybody.

KK: I approach this differently after doing Wynton's gig, which is more open and a lot of playing. Here I have to be the anchor, so I don't stick out and the music comes together with everybody playing equally.

AL: It's a very flexible group sound, it doesn't sound like you're locked into any one sort of groove...

OH: At the same time it has discipline too, though with Kenny and Branford and, Daryl they can go anywhere - and I think that's the reason Sting wanted a band of people who were playing improvisational music a lot. Not necessarily to get up there and play a lot of notes - there's that, and we can go in that direction - but there's also the discipline that's needed to play as a band. If it's necessary for me to just lay down a groove, a strong solid groove and nothing else, and make that feel great, then that takes a certain concentration, as much as to sit down and play everything that I can play in two bars.

DJ: Especially after years of playing gigs with Weather Report, where it's real open...

OH: ...very open, and I had room. This is the opposite, but it's still a challenge.

BM: It's like bringing the music back from 20 years ago, basically. Between 1960 and 1978 music just went backwards every year and got worse and worse. Musicians got dumber and dumber. You're taking groups like Led Zeppelin, you know, creative groups like the old Kinks... I heard Led Zeppelin and Yes in New Orleans and I couldn't believe it. It's rock & roll, right, but it floats. It moves around. It shifts. You can tell it's different from night to night. They're playing the songs the way they do on the records, but then they have the musical ability to stretch out and change little things to keep it interesting for themselves. Then this ambiguous shit came in, people wearing wigs and makeup, and all that became a lot more important than the music. So what Sting's trying to do is bring back the essence of the music.

It's society's fault - particularly American society creates stereotypical divisions. They're the people who say jazz is this, rock is this, and this is cool and that's not cool. People psychologically create divisions for themselves because anybody has the choice to work on their weak points and take their strong points for granted, or just rest on the laurels of their strong points and shoot at anything they can't do. Like Ringo Starr says, 'Jazz music sounds like rats running around on a tin roof'. I read that in a magazine, and it's like, "How can he have the nerve to say that?" He couldn't swing if he was hanging.

All: (laughter)

BM: It's like me not being able to write like John Lennon and then saying, "Well, John Lennon's music ain't shit." It's something I would never do, but things are based on divisions like that. You have so many groups out there that are based on inferior musicianship, and they take potshots at jazz musicians and potshots at bands like this, whereas playing jazz or jazz-influenced music forces you to have an open mind about things because it forces you to see the world as it really is not the way it's convenient for you to see it. It's like when you have white rock groups in America who don't listen to black musicians - they say they want to sound like the Beatles but the Beatles were copying blues musicians, so they're like an imitation of an imitation. Psychologically they're going 2,000 miles to hear something they could hear 20 miles down the street. And the British cats are busting their asses trying to sound like Little Willie John or Blind Lemon Jefferson. So if it's anybody's fault, it's our own fault. That's why jazz musicians can do what we want to do.

AL: Do you find yourself thinking or playing any differently in this band than any other musical context?

BM: I don't know about anybody else, but for me it was hard, because it's different. I can't explain it technically, but my ears tell me it's a different thing, and it's only been the last three gigs I've been able to play comfortably in this idiom. The timing patterns are completely different - as a result it's hard for me to play jazz now; the ideas don't flow in the same way as they used to. But it's just a matter of doing the gigs and switching around again.

OH: I've been involved in a lot of different types of music lately; over the last five years I've been doing jazz stuff, funk stuff, pop stuff, and I guess it would be different for a drummer. For me it's just a matter of getting into the slight attitude changes that are required to deal with each music. What I like about Sting's gig is that there are a lot of different grooves in one show. I mean, there's a reggae tune in there that I have to play totally different from 'Set Them Free', then we play 'Consider Me Gone', a swing tune. So for me it's fun, but other than that I don't feel I'm changing my personality, but injecting...

AL: Using a different aspect of your personality...

OH: Right, that's a good way to say it.

DJ: I can only compare it with the last job I did, and I feel like I'm generally doing the same thing. I'm a bass player, so that means being the anchor, and playing so that everyone around me feels comfortable, feels like, "Okay, I know the floor is there so I don't have to tiptoe, I can walk:' That's what I do best, and that's what I bring to this job. I think that's why he hired me, because I bring that kind of foundation.

AL: But is it a different foundation than the sort you played with Miles?

DJ: I would say so, only because with Miles a lot of times I literally changed basslines, there was no set bassline or set bass pattern. Like on the Decoy record there's a cut called Freaky Deaky, and Miles told me he wanted the bassline to keep rolling, keep rolling. He even made reference to an older tune he played maybe 30 years ago - which I hadn't heard - and he started singing a bassline that I literally couldn't put myself into. So I changed a little bit here and there and finally came up with something that let me do what he was asking me to do and keep rolling. But now I think about it, with this band I change patterns sometimes. Not as much. I think the two jobs that I've been doing are actually nothing alike, but my function is sometimes the same.

KK: I think for me it's a bigger difference than for anybody else. It's not like with Branford, who can play through things; my thing is pans. It's like orchestration, and what I was doing before this was very free, so this is a drastic change for me. I enjoy it, but it's like Omar said before, the discipline is good. It's just as challenging to do that and not play a whole bunch of stuff.

AL: Did you pick out the voicings on the synths for the different arrangements, or did you and Sting work them out together?

KK: A lot of the stuff Sting knows exactly what he wants.

AL: You've each individually been a pan of one of jazz's most popular groups - between Weather Report and Miles' and Wynton's bands - so you're certainly not strangers to playing in front of large audiences. But do these audiences differ from the ones you're used to playing for?

BM: People scream while we play. (laughs)

DJ 14-year-old girls have a lot less inhibition than an intelligent 26-year-old.

AL: Do you think most of them heard what you were playing.

KK: I don't really think so.

DJ: But they see you. What this band to me is about is raising the consciousness of people who are not listening - that's why I move around on-stage and when I get ready to play something I walk over to somebody and try to get people to watch and listen. When Branford blows something I walk over to him to bring some focus to what we're doing, so everyone's not looking at Sting. But we need to be trying to educate - and I don't even want to use that word - to make people realise, "Oh he just blew a solo."

OH: The music that most of these kids hear, there's not a lot of improvising going on, so they can't identify it when it happens.

BM: When we started this band, people were asking me what did I think was going to happen when we started playing, and my attitude was completely pessimistic. Just from playing jazz and watching the basic low level of understanding from even jazz audiences, I thought, well, this is really going to be a trip. But the response has been overwhelmingly in the opposite direction. There are a lot of people in the audience who are trying to understand what we're doing which was a major surprise to me. It's like what Sting said - he's enjoying this more than a lot of gigs he did with the Police in the later years, when they were established, because people walk in and they don't know what's going to happen. When we play in St. Louis and in Iowa, Sting comes on stage and they cheer, but they sit back and say, "Now what?" because they don't know. With the Police, they know.

AL: It's obvious that you guys are enjoying yourself up there on-stage. Was it hard to come from, say a more staid jazz environment, and relax and loosen up and dance around.

All: (laughter)

BM: Ask the brothers. Man, as far back as that first Ritz gig it was obvious I'd never done anything like this before. Then, after we'd made the record, after we'd done the movie, after a bunch of gigs, here I am in L.A. thinking, "This is my gig for the next eight months," and I walk out on-stage and we start 'Shadows In The Rain', pow, pow, and I'm standing there like this (motionless), and the lights are going on, and I'm thinking, "Man, what am I doing? I'm not playing jazz now, I can't do this shit." And the people were standing looking at me as if to say, "Well, what are you going to do, man?" (laughter) So all of a sudden I go over and say, "Daryl, why don't you teach me that step man?" (laughter) cause I'm one of the no-danciest motherfuckers you've ever seen. (laughter) So it's like going from just playing and standing there and saying, "If you like it, that's cool, and if you don't, the hell with you," to actually reaching out to the audience and saying, "Come on, have fun with us."

DJ: I try not to choreograph what I do on-stage, but deal with whatever is happening musically. Everything I do physically is a direct result of what's played, it's born of what's natural. It's natural for me, if we're hitting the same accent together, to look at him and (gestures together), or if I hear something Kenny plays to turn around and groove on that.

OH: I immediately flashed on Weather Report with that question, because I'm the kind of person who, no matter what son of gig it is, likes to go out there and have fun. And before I joined Weather Report I saw the band, and Joe looked so serious - he looked mean, you know - so when I joined I didn't know what to expect. Then when we started doing gigs people were saying to me, "You know, Joe is smiling on-stage, and he looks happy !" And I realised he has a really great sense of humour and he's a funny cat. But I guess because I was up on stage having such a great time, the vibe became contagious...

DJ: If you're doing all that and not having fun, what good is it.

BM: It's like...the classical record I just did was fun. It was the hardest thing I've ever done in my life. I was scared to death but it was fun. Just a different kind of fun. I like this kind of fun, though. (laughs)

DJ: It's refreshing...

KK: It's probably going to make me play for a couple more years...

BM: The music is definitely the best part of this gig, the most fun.

AL: Were you all pleased with the way the album turned out?

DJ: I think when people started reading that Sting was going to use jazz musicians, they expected a jazz album. And I'm happy it came out the way it did because it's just jazz musicians playing pop music, though it has influences that bring it to a higher level. It's not just blowing - it takes a lot of intellect to play on this.

BM: I'm tired of hearing people talking all the time like it was jazz, or jazz-fusion - jazz-fusion doesn't sell two million records. And since they don't know what to call it, it must be jazz. Sting And His Jazz Band - one thing this record should have proved is that it's not jazz, you know? One of the reasons Sting did it was to try and wipe out labels, and they're still trying to label it.

AL: How much input did the band have for arranging or changing the material in the studio?

BM: It wasn't the kind of input where you say, "Hey, I have this great idea..." We just played, that was our input. Like on 'Children's Crusade', Kenny put the keyboard pan down on the very first rehearsal. Basically, Sting came in and said, "Okay, this is the song," and Daryl did his thing, Kenny did his thing, Omar came in with his was jazz-type input.

OH: There wasn't much talk, you know.

DJ: He had demos for every tune that sounded pretty good.

AL: In other words, he let you go with your strengths - the playing, spontaneity, improvising...

BM: The rhythm tracks were done in eight days. These guys, man, wooosh, finished. You read about guys being in the studio for eight months, 10 months, and there ain't no record. I don't understand that. I mean, Sting wrote the music, came in, gave the cats demo tapes, rehearsed the band for a week, we did three gigs - and 'Fortress Around Your Heart', he wrote that in the studio in one night...

OH: The same with 'Seventh Wave'... he wrote that while we were in there.

DJ: Yeah, we jammed for like 20 minutes on this one groove...

OH: One World, yeah...

DJ: Sting said, "Let's play a groove similar to 'One World'," and we did, and they put it down on tape, and the next day he had lyrics and everything.

AL: What's going to happen to the band after the tour is over and Sting goes on to other things?

OH: I think that as a band - because we've discussed it amongst ourselves, and Sting's record company has expressed interest in us as a band - only we would know when we came to that point if we could do something special that would merit keeping us together for another tour or whatever. I think we'll probably go into the studio, write together, play, see how it makes us feel, and if we've got something to say I'm sure we'll go for it.

All: Right.

© Downbeat magazine


Nov 23, 1985

Pop star Sting goes jazz: Sting, the pop star and actor who left the hugely successful Police to start his own jazz-rock band, has returned to the sound that first inspired him to become a musician...

Nov 1, 1985

Bring on the new Sting: It was hard to tell whether there was a moon over Bourbon Street the night Sting and his band hit town, what with the imminent arrival of Hurricane Juan and his vanguard of attendant clouds. But you could still hear and see Sting, and he was more than just a shade. Over the course of a few days, he strolled through the heart of the French Quarter, danced around a concert stage, jovially jousted with reporters in interviews, tumbled through a soccer game at a local field and cavorted on the silver screen...