Is this the greatest piano solo?

In 1985 Gordon Sumner aka Sting took several huge risks. With The Police he’d ridden an enormous wave of success, with memorable hits such as Roxanne, Message In A Bottle and Every Breath You Take. Then in 1984 – at the top of their game, The Police broke up, and Sting set about converting his fame to a solo career.

That was risk enough, but he combined that with filming the experience of forming a new band and rehearsals for their premiere concert in Paris. As Sting says in the resulting movie Bring On The Night, most movies about pop bands are made towards the end of their careers when they’ve had years honing their craft as a combo. Filming a nascent band in the early stages of becoming comfortable with each other was truly a leap of faith.

There was personal risk too in that his wife – actress, film producer and director Trudie Styler – was heavily pregnant and due to give birth around the time of the premiere concert. That intersection between “the show must go on” and the private lives of performers is treacherous ground enough at the best of times. Deliberately planning a risky collision of dates takes it to another level.

Always work with musicians who are better than you

But musically Sting knew what he was doing, basing his choices for the band on the notion that one should always work with musicians who are better than you, who will challenge and inspire you to excel. It’s a strategy that led to two hugely influential collaborations lasting decades as Sting chose to fuse his pop prowess with the finest of jazz. That’s a challenge in itself. As Sting said, in jazz, soloists get to warm up through four or five choruses to hit the peak of their improvised solos; but in pop-jazz fusion, the solo has to hit it right from the first note and really nail it, usually for a single chorus at most.

That was when he first recruited jazz saxophone virtuoso Branford Marsalis, a stroke of genius that helped shape the unique sound of Sting’s tracks for decades to come.

That piano solo

An equally important collaboration was with the late great keyboardist Kenny Kirkland, leading to what is arguably the finest and wildest live-recorded piano solo in the history of pop-jazz fusion. You’ll find it midway through the 11-minute track Bring On The Night / When The World Is Running Down.

Fortunately for us, Sting toured this exceptional band on a marathon 141-shows Dream of the Blue Turtles world tour in 1985 and 1986, including Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide’s Memorial Drive. That April 1986 concert I still count as the best – and most influential – I’ve ever experienced.

I’ll never know how families survive these horrendously long world tours, not to mention the dubious publicity. Sting was once reported as bragging that he and Trudie enjoyed seven-hour sessions of tantric sex. He later conceded it was more like four hours of begging followed by dinner and a movie. Discussions over dinner would have been interesting.

Sting’s collaborations continue, including touring with Paul Simon and this fine performance at the 2016 Java Jazz Festival, working with Chris Botti, Caroline Campbell and Jo Lawry.

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