I've been talking with my daughter about The Police, which she likes. I’m referring to the band. (I don’t know how she feels about the police.)
The Police were a supergroup composed of three drop-dead fantastic musicians who toured and released five fantastic albums from 1977 to 1983. What’s amazing to me isn’t how great they are as a band. It’s how my least favorite member turned into my favorite.
Of the three, I always thought of Andy Summers as the uninteresting one. Sting, the bass-player/ singer / virtuoso songwriter, was impossible to ignore. And once I discovered Stewart Copeland and his improvisatory drumming I never listened to drums the same away again.
Andy Summers? Meh.
Until I had a conversation with my bass-player friend John.
He filled me in on the way Andy Summers came into the band and transformed it into what it eventually became, because Summers was so much better than the guy he replaced. At first I couldn’t believe it, that this musician I couldn’t even remember hearing in the band was somehow the one my bass-player friend respected the most. Then I started listening and thinking.
The thing about Andy Summers’ contributions is that they are both irreplaceable and completely anonymous. I didn’t notice what he did because it was such a rock-solid foundation for the songs that it just sounded like “normal.” But if you take out his contributions, you can hear exactly what’s missing.
Usually the bass player and the drummer do that: Remain anonymous, set the table for the goodies. You don’t comment on the napkin and the plate unless they’re dirty or misplaced.
But in the Police the bass player and the drummer wanted to play around, stand out. So Summers hit the groove perfectly, nailed it, sounded almost anonymous, so that you almost didn’t notice him. That’s astounding and it speaks to the kind of professionalism that I think any creative artist should aspire to.
What is the job at hand? Can I do it as well as I can? Am I doing more than is necessary, and if so, what does that do to my final result?
There is something of this anonymity and craftsmanship in Shakespeare. The man gives you exactly what is necessary in his plays and sonnets. He’s so good he doesn’t have to show off.
The parallel with Shakespeare suggests there’s something to this approach even in solo work. If you’re playing for an audience, what do they need? If you’re giving them more than that, what will happen to the final result?
(At this point I usually make a wry comment or a pointed question. Do you think it would be too much? Have I said enough?)