Blue Turtles
Los Angeles, USGreek Theater

All that Sting...

Charismatic singer turns to jazz for hot rock.

It figures that one of the hottest bands in rock would be a group of jazz musicians. Sting reportedly was looking for a challenge when he put together a band of hot young names in jazz, and that's what he got. The intensity that Branford Marsalis, Kenny Kirkland, Omar Hakim and Darryl Jones (aided by backup singers Dolette McDonald and Janice Pandarvis) brought to their music at the Greek Monday was guaranteed to either bring out the best in a performer or leave him in the dust.

Fortunately, Sting was up to the challenge, and his 2-hour show was one of the most involvingly musical evenings to hit the concert circuit in years.

So much attention has been given to Sting's charismatic presence on stage and screen that the effort and intent he has put into his music has sometimes been ignored. There was no denying the dyed-blond Englishman's natural rapport with his audience at Monday's show, but even more evident was his close musical connection with his band.

The rarified music flowing between them sounded so immediate and so right that it often drew spontaneous smiles from the five. Though, as has been pointed out in interviews, the band isn't playing jazz, it applied the concentration and immediacy of that genre to Sting's finely crafted rock songs, and the combination was exhilarating.

The 21-song performance opened with a blast of shortwave radio squawking and a ticking clock as Sting came out to accompany himself on stand-up bass for a solo version of the anti-cold war song 'Russians', from the 'The Dream of the Blue Turtles' album.

The band then jumped in with that album's exuberant arrangement of the Police's 'Shadows in the Rain'. Propelled by Hakim's firecracker drums, the piece swung like a monster, and both Kirkland and Marsalis turned in fiery solos. 'Consider Me Gone' moved with a smooth saunter reminiscent of Marvin Gaye's 'Inner City Blues', abetted by Marsalis' simmering tenor. The tune heated up near the end, with Marsalis' horn echoing Sting's vocal yelps and the band stuttering through a series of false stops: Sting turned in his most plaintive vocal on 'Children's Crusade', a song decrying the fact that young people are usually the victims of war, the drug trade and other manifestations of greed.

Marsalis lent empathetic support on soprano sax and took an extended solo. A model of the band's constant interaction was seen in the rapt attention Jones paid to the sax lines, supporting them with ' subtle variations on bass. What Sting may lack in instrumental ability, he made up for with taste. He stayed with simple-buteffective rhythm parts and solo lines on his guitar.

His singing seems only to have benefited from his new influences. On 'Fortress Around Your Heart', for example, his vocals took on a horn-like phrasing, most evident on a well-controlled surge on the word "fortress."

The group performed every track from the 'Blue Turtles' album, even the outlandish instrumental title tune. The rest of the set was composed of reworked versions of Police songs and two blues songs, including Little Willie John's 'I Need Your Love So Bad'. The Police-era standouts included 'Driven to Tears', 'Roxanne', a reggaeized 'One World (Not Three)', which was effortlessly blended with 'Love is the Seventh Wave' from 'Blue Turtles', and a final encore of 'Message in a Bottle' aided by Sting's fingerpicked guitar accompaniment and a vocal support form the audience.

The only problem in the set was that 'I Burn For You', a neglected song from the "Brimstone and Treacle" soundtrack, was such an overpowering number that everything following it seemed anti-climatic. In concert it was rearranged to slowly develop a musical tension that was breathtaking. Sting and Kirkland exchanged taut lines, which Kirkland punctuated with jarring dissonances, while Jones and Hakim built a dramatic pulse. With Sting's driving vocal and explosive solos from both Marsalis and Hakim, it was a moment that couldn't be topped.

(c) The Orange County Register by Jim Washburn