Smile Politely

Andy Summers brings a lifetime of inspiration to his multi-media show at Ellnora

A black and white photo of a man playing guitar on stage
Andy Summers

“I think my style and persona are quite apparent within the results of whatever medium I happen to be working in.”

As a guitar practitioner, Andy Summers pauses to let his assertion take effect. It’s immediately apprehended and obvious that his self-examination has produced a lucid point. There’s an impish and sometimes dark whimsy running through the majority of his work, be it musical, visual, or literary.

Andy Summers became broadly known as the guitarist of the seminal “New Wave” band, The Police, in the late 1970s and early to mid-1980s. That band — completed by bassist/lead vocalist, Sting and percussionist Stewart Copeland — served to establish the genre paradigm shift that would run through the 1980s and beyond. 

Summers (born Andrew James Sommers), actually began his career a decade earlier than, and an era apart from, the one for which his playing was at the vanguard. His work began in the midst of “Swinging Sixties” London (he was the first guitarist Jimi Hendrix encountered upon his arrival in England), progressed through psychedelia, and would eventually move him to California to study classical guitar and 20th century composition. He returned to England, whereupon after varied session work, the entropic nature of music as language would deposit him squarely within punk’s Charybdis. He joined the intended punk band, The Police (at that time, a four-piece ensemble), and his musical sophistication effectively phased out the other guitarist.

This is a photo of a person holding a guitar. The guitar is a brown acoustic guitar with a white pickguard and gold tuning pegs. The person is wearing a black shirt and is standing in front of a gray wall and a staircase. The background consists of a gray wall and a staircase with a metal railing.
Andy Summers on Facebook

At this point, he did something unexpected. They say life can’t be contained, and the same goes for true art and the fresh ideas it needs to grow. Summers used his broad musical background in a new way. Instead of sticking to familiar styles and norms, he mixed things up and simplified his guitar work in a way no one had done before in a three-person band. The idea is that less is more. His approach made playing guitar in pop music a thoughtful activity, challenging the musician to think differently. Summers once said, “I provide a space and the listener fills it with his mind.”

Summers would be part of the lineup that inaugurated Krannert Center for the Performing Arts’ first guitar festival (then called the Wall To Wall Guitar Festival). This time out, Summers performs, “The Cracked Lens + A Missing String,” in which he successfully combines three of his preferred mediums of music, photography, and prose. Summers has now released a book of short stories called, Fretted and Moaning. In it, he explores prose in the form of fiction, utilizing a conversational, yet somewhat insular syntax. The book has, at its core, various aspects of working musicianship — yet emphasizes humanistic conflicts, insecurities, and travails.

“Of course, guitar can’t help but make its way into [the book], but an exploration of characters and their flaws or strengths is more interesting and yields better literature,” Summers tells me.

This is a photo of a musician playing a red electric guitar on a stage. The musician is wearing a colorful jacket and is standing in front of a microphone. The background consists of a large screen with a black and white image of a musician playing a guitar. The stage is lit with colorful lights. There is a keyboard and a speaker visible on the stage.
Andy Summers on Facebook

Fretted and Moaning comes after several other books he has published, the majority of which deal with his longtime side avocation, photography.  There have been autobiographical works: One Train Later and Can’t Stand Losing You: Surviving The Police. He published Throb in 1983. The images contained within in a very stark and real way, chronicled some aspects of worldwide fame and the unforeseen situations involved. Again, Summer’s dark whimsy serves as an essential element of the work.

“My photography seems at times, to resemble that of Henri Cartier-Bresson,” Summers comments. “It’s the use of in medias res which seems to be something that autonomically happens within the moment of inspiration. You capture a critical part of someone’s or something’s process, action, or emotion.”

In 2007, Summers published I’ll Be Watching You: Inside The Police 1980-1983. As it seems obvious, it documents the apex of the band’s fame between those years and concludes with the addition of images from its 2007 reunion. Following this, he released, Desirer Walks The Streets in 2009, which is a sort of compilation of black and white images extracted throughout the world and Summer’s entire life as a traveling musician. Most recently, Summers has presented  A Series Of Glances, a coffee-table book of what he considers important images again, from throughout the world and across many cultures.

This is a photo of an art gallery wall with three framed black and white photographs. The left photograph is of a beach with palm trees and a boat, the middle photograph is of a car parked on a street, and the right photograph is of a city street at night with lights. The photographs are hung on a gray wall with red text that reads “ANDY SUMMERS A SERIES OF GLANCES”.
Andy Summers on Facebook

“I’ve been nearly everywhere in the world. I prefer to emphasize similarities in human beings that one would expect by appearances or pre-conceived notions are completely foreign to others,” Summers observes.

Following the voluntary dissolution of The Police, Summers has been characteristically fearless in his pursuit of stretching the parameters of his instrument. Collaborations with anti-archetypal guitarist Robert Fripp yielded two releases: I Advance Masked and Bewitched. Summers has also worked in genres such as Brazilian jazz, fusion, and jazz reinterpretations of known compositions (Police). He has scored films such as Weekend At Bernie’s and 2010: The Year We Make Contact.

Two relatively recent offerings, Metal Dog and Triboluminescence explore “modern” mechanistic sounds and modal improvisation against tribal-ethnic themes, respectively. Both of these were completely self-produced.

“It’s just me and all my devices,” assures Summers.

The promotion of photography is straightforward, manifesting in gallery showings and books. Music is reflexive to Summers. But, written works…

“My manager and I thought we’d try public readings. But, there were some operational problems with that and it didn’t work as well as we thought it would.”

This is an image of an art gallery with black and white photographs on the walls. The gallery has a wooden floor and a black bench in the center. The walls are painted dark gray and the ceiling is white with track lighting. The photographs are framed in black and are of various sizes. The largest photograph is on the back wall and is of a person with their arms outstretched holding a newspapers sitting on a fireplace mantle. The other photographs are of people, buildings, and street scenes.
Andy Summers on Facebook

Cracked Lens is a cross-disciplinary performance involving all of Summer’s works — musical, visual and literary.

“The music is all improvised while images from my entire photographic canon are shown behind me. There is an inspirational connection between the music and the images. I’ll also talk and read bits from Fretted and Moaning. This is what people should expect: a multi-media experience.”

In a musical landscape where artists often fit neatly into established genres or trends, Andy Summers is a multifaceted creative force that defies easy categorization. With an artistic career spanning decades, he’s broken boundaries in music, literature, and photography, consistently pushing his creative expressions into new realms. From the grit of punk and the sophistication of classical to capturing stark realities through a camera lens, Summers remains a perpetual student of the artistic process. And that’s the essence of his innovation: a willingness to venture into the unexplored and then to invite us along for the journey. Whether he’s shredding the guitar, crafting visual narratives, or penning complex characters, he creates spaces for us, the audience, to fill with our minds. Far from being a static legend of the past, Andy Summers is an active, shape-shifting artist who compels us to listen, look, and ponder deeply. Catch him and his multi-media experience, Cracked Lens, at Ellnora for a taste of an artist in perpetual evolution — just don’t try to pin him down.

Andy Summers: The Cracked Lens + a Missing String
Ellnora | The Guitar Festival
Krannert Center for the Performing Arts
Sa Sept 9th, 8 p.m.
$10 to $80

More Articles