Category Archives: Donald Fagen

Anatomy of THE Groove: “Tin Foil Hat” by Todd Rundgren featuring Donald Fagen

Todd Rundgren has been one of those DIY singer/songwriter/musician/producer’s who was successfully able to meld his many talents into collaborative projects. Coming out of The Nazz into his own solo career,through Utopia and onward. Yet it wasn’t until his most recent solo album White Night,released just over a month ago. The majority of the album concentrated on collaborations with a diverse range of artists. Among them old friend Daryl Hall and one particular partnership that really got me personally interested: one with Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen.

This particular collaboration came during a time when America and to a degree much of the Western World is in great turmoil. It was turmoil that actually stopped me from writing this blog for a week or so. Unlike the post 9/11 years happily, very few American artists have any fear in challenging the disastrous presidency of Donald Trump. In fact,Rundgren made news (even on Fox) regarding his desire not to have Trump supporters in his concert audiences causing trouble.  All of this is presented as part of his collaboration with Fagen entitled “Tin Foil Hat”.

A bluesy,vibraphone like two note keyboard line opens the song unaccompanied. Following that,electronic drums come in playing what seems to be a slow jazzy swing in 6/8 time. After that another keyboard comes in playing an organ type part-with that opening line assisting a swinging bass keyboard and guitar (or guitar like) tone. On the choruses,the chord changes to a slightly higher one before descending back into the refrain via a brief re-appearance of the organ style solo. By the final choruses, a bluesy piano joins the affair before the songs comes to an abrupt stop.

“Tin Foil Hat” is a song that addresses the entire Trump fiasco so well. Instrumentally,its a classic R&B/jazz/blues shuffle in Fagen’s classic style-with Rundgren’s vocal effects and own musical touches going right alongside it. Presented here is an accompanying music video,which has the songs wry and biting humor but also has a mild dire element of conspiracy theorists in high positions constantly foreseeing a coming apocalypse. Its an example of a funky,bluesy and soulful type song in 2017 delivering a message for the American people with both humor and effective social commentary.

 

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Anatomy of THE Groove: “Florida Room” by Donald Fagen

Donald Fagen was said to have had a case of writers block after his 1982 album The Nightfly. In fact,it wouldn’t be for another decade until he began writing for his follow up solo album entitled Kamaliriad in 1993. The album is for all intents and purposes a Steely Dan record-with Walter Becker featured on bass and lead guitar on most of the songs. The album lyrically picked up on its predecessors reflection on youth to showcase a more middle aged perception. Musically speaking,the album is instrumentally modern for the time but features a lot of songs based heavily in early/mid 70’s funk.

Conceptually the liner notes describe the album as having the loose concept of a man taking a road trip in a new car at the turn of the millennium called a Kamakiri,which is steam powered and actually has a GPS type device in it. So on the most basic level Kamakiriad is a lyrical travelogue-set in that always cryptic Donald Fagen lyrical approach. Its an album that I’d heard played by my family many many times after it came out.  Of course one song leaped out at me seventeen years later while celebrating my 30th birthday with my family in Tampa/Clearwater. The song is appropriately entitled “Florida Room”.

A grooving,percussion accented beat starts off the song with a fanfarring,melodic horn chart with the electric piano and bass playing the different changes for a two bar intro. Than Fagen’s processed Fender Rhodes piano chimes in with a warm,bouncy roundness as the drums and rhythm guitar all take on a brightly melodic,funky shuffle. The female backup vocals on the chorus plays call and response with the horn charts-whereas Fagen’s vocal on the refrains are accompanied most heavily by the processed Rhodes. After a bridge where the horn charts solo,the chorus repeats as the song fades out.

“Florida Room” might be one of the most under sung songs in the Donald Fagen/Steely Dan cannon of music. The bouncing shuffle,melody and rather happy sounding romantic lyrics have a soulful funkiness reminiscent of what Joe Sample might’ve gotten on songs by the Crusaders. Yet with the bop jazz style chordal changes and Fagen’s trademarked processed Rhodes piano,that Steely Dan sound is the dominating one. Since both groups mentioned came from similar places musically,”Florida Room” is a reminder of how 70’s style jazz/funk could remain relevant to the early 90’s almost totally uncut.

 

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Donald Fagen: The First Two Solo Albums

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Donald Fagen is someone whom I’ve neglected exploring on Andresmusictalk. And Steely Dan for that matter. Its a major goal for the blog to remedy that this year. Fagen will be one year short of 70 years old this coming Tuesday. And to start that celebration of the man and his music,wanted to start out by discussing the beginning of his solo career. It all began as an outgrowth from Steely Dan at first-utilizing some of the same session musicians such as Greg Phillinganes and Hugh McCracken. He also centered on similar jazzy melodies and his signature processed Fender Rhodes electric piano.

Fagen once discussed his 1982 debut The Nightfly and his follow up a decade later in Kamakiriad as representing the arc of his life. Conceptually his debut focused on his adolescence during the early 60’s during JFK’s “new frontier”-actually one of the song titles. The following album acts as a similar character dealing with middle aged situations,and tentatively looking to the future. Musically both albums reflect the change. The Nightfly sounds like a straight Steely Dan album for the most part. Kamakiriad adds some early 90’s drum programming and electronics on some of its songs.

These two albums are strongly linked to a sense of nostalgia in my own life. Hearing songs such as “IGY” and “Greenflower Street” while driving to pick apples with my parents while in the 4th grade. A local supermarket playing the whole album while at one point in the 90’s. Then there was hearing “Tomorrow’s Girls” on the radio for the first time-as well as “Florida Room” being a major ear worm while vacationing on my 30th birthday with my family in Tampa. Each of the songs on this albums are noteworthy for discussion. In the end though,best to deal with the entire albums themselves.


The Nightfly (1982)

During his period as half of Steely Dan for all intents and purposes Donald Fagen’s lyrical focus had always been on sly,cryptically phrased musings on the various twisted urban misfits surrounding him and Walter Becker in New York City and LA. It became a trademark. But Fagen had another side to him and a lot of it had to do with a completely middle American existence in 1950’s suburbia. From the stark black and white back cover photography of tract housing to his somewhat ambiguous manifesto written on the back this is certainly a very clever way to differentiate Fagen as a solo artist outside Steely Dan.

Musically this album is not in fact too different than [[ASIN:B00004YX39 Gaucho]] but the sound of the album is quite a bit more full and keyboard oriented. It could easily have been a Steely Dan album since all of the same musicians that you’d find on a latter period Dan recording and the same polished sound,enhanced further by the fact that this is one of the earliest full digital recordings ever made. Songs such as “I.G.Y”,”Greenflower Street” and the wistful shuffle of “Walk Between The Raindrops” explores the pseudo futurism and often ironic romanticism of post WWII America with Fagen wittily crooning about “getting your ticket to the wheel in space”.

The funkified “New Frontier”,named for JFK’s famous slogan gives a similar treatment to an atomic age fallout shelter romance Fagen may or may not have genuinely indulged in during his young. That romantic end of the theme is again explored in the ballad “Maxine” with some wonderfully multi tracked vocals as well as the well received cover of “Ruby Baby”,adding to the period flavor. The title track stars Fagen as “Lester The Nigthtfly”,a graveyard shift DJ broadcasting “jazz and conversation” while taking some eccentric call in’s along the way.

There’s also a noir-ish political intrigue Cuban revolution-era sendup on the breezily percussive “The Goodbye Look”. Even though the album has a unified lyrical and musical theme it also contains enough variety and charm to make it work in many context,from the audiophile to the irony of hearing this entire album played beginning to end for years in the local supermarket. Either way it’s one of the most welcoming and clearly defined of the all the Steely Dan related releases and was the best possible way for Fagen to begin his career on his own.

Kamakiriad/1993

From the start Donald Fagen has always been a very smart man. Most of the creative decisions he made in Steely Dan tended to be the correct ones,as much of a perfectionist as he tended to be. Likely that was part of it. After his enormously successful solo debut [[ASIN:B000002KXV The Nightfly]],very much an extension on Steely Dan there was a decade long gap between albums. And when this finally emerged it was very much a Steely Dan album in all but name,featuring production and playing from Walter Becker. Something more interesting was going on though.

Part of the appeal of Steely Dan,in terms of their lyrics,was their devotion to very implicit (sometimes cryptic) uses of language. You didn’t always know exactly what they were talking about. Sometimes you got the impression you didn’t want to. This came along at a time where most popular music of the time was stating things in highly explicit ways. You’d think Donald Fagen would have trouble surviving in this environment of harsh music and lyrics. Actually he turned that very much to his advantage.

For starters the focus of this sophomore solo set is the flip of the first one. Where on that he was looking back upon his youth,here he was looking forward on middle aged. And considering we’re talking about one of the most perceptive modern songwriters this side of Joe Jackson,he’s got plenty of stories to tell. He’s very much the observer on “Trans-Island Skyway”,”Countermoon” and “Springtime” that open the album. These are grinding funk jams with some JB like guitar licks and breaks but with this ultra clean production and elaborate pop tunes mithing he was known for.

The somewhat slower “Snowbound” has a lovely sound even as it deals with a midlife crisis. “Tomorrow’s Girls” is very much [[ASIN:B00003002C Aja]] period Steely Dan all the way,with this hilariously witty lyric comparing the new generation of women to Stepford Wife-like B-movie body snatchers. “Florida Room” is one of my favorites on this album full of them for me,a swinging uptempo jazz funk number with an extremely catchy melody and a sassy theme. The near 9 minute “On The Dunes” is a a beautiful jazzy ballad with some wonderful piano chords and a very reflective,if sometimes sad take on going up time and the river as it were.

The album ends with another great mixture of jazz and funk on “Teahouse On The Tracks”. In the end this is one of the finest albums to come out of the Steely Dan musical cannon. Donald Fagen was extremely lucky in that regard. His first two solo records,though released a decade apart were absolute musical triumphs. And both were tremendously successful as well. After being let down so massively by the pop culture changed in 1991-92 hearing “Tomorrows Girl” on new music pop stations was an absolute delight to these ears.

It would be under a decade when Steely Dan finally did re-emerge with a new album [[ASIN:B00004GOXS Two Against Nature]] and take home their first ever Grammy for album of the year. I am of the opinion that if pop music had gone for the type of approach that Steely Dan and people like them had,people could turn on the radio and be able to sing,hum and dance along to music happily that would give them something to think about in the end up. This is music that will make you dance along,hum along,feel happy,sad and creative all at the same time. So if I could thank Fagen himself for putting this kind of music out,I would without hesitation.


These two albums are now part of a trilogy of Donald Fagen albums. The final of them was released just over a decade ago and was called Morph The Cat. It came after two Steely Dan comebacks in the early aughts. And it reflected the transition to elder hood. It isn’t an album I have strong memories of so will have to revisit it in the future. But The Nightfly and Kamakiriad still stand to me as the most representative of Donald Fagen’s solo sound. With his most recent album Sunken Condos dealing with a whole new conceptual threat,we’ll just have to see where Fagen’s groove takes him next time.

 

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Anatomy of THE Groove: “Time Out Of Mind” by Grover Washington Jr.

Grover Washington Jr. has often been referred to as one of the main progenitors of smooth jazz. This term extended from the softer toned end of 70’s and 80’s jazz/funk fusion. Grover always was a master of subtlety as a player. On the other hand,music production basically turned “smooth jazz” into a sub genre. And one that basically robbed the instrumentation of its vitality. Still,that music still reduced down to jazz/funk at its base. Especially when smooth jazz groups/soloists performed live. Towards the end of the 80’s,I tended to see Grover caught up in this musical conundrum.

When Grover passed away in 1996,I’d honestly started to forget about him. It wasn’t too long after that did I notice a new interest in his early to mid 70’s albums and songs such as “Mister Magic” and the first 70’s era Grover Washington Jr. song I heard “Lock It In The Pocket”. In  the years to come,I started to pay some more attention to Grover’s mid to late 80’s music that I’d tended to ignore whenever it showed up in record stores pre owned CD/vinyl bins. One such album was his 1989 release Time Out Of Mind. Never occurred to me until last night that the title song was a Steely Dan cover version.

A steady 4/4 dance beat on drums starts the song,accentuated by percussive congas. After this,the main keyboard line comes in on a ringing synthesizer. Accompanying that is a a gentle,bluesy guitar solo playing what was originally Walter Becker’s guitar line. Grover himself plays Donald Fagen’s lead vocal part on sax-adding many lyrical touches. On the choruses,he’s joined by a group of female backup singers. After a couple repeat plays of the songs bridge,Grover’s improvisations on sax take over much of the last minute or two of the song before it fades out on the chorus.

Steely Dan’s songs were always ripe (and perhaps even designed) for interpretation by jazz instrumentalists. And this cover is a very good example. It has some of the milder production elements of smooth jazz that were just beginning to occur in the late 80’s and early 90’s. For example,the guitar and keyboard parts aren’t quite as brisk and crisp as they were on the original. On the other hand,the bluesy jazziness that defines the songs content is brought right to life by Grover’s soloing. And even the rhythm section backing it up. So it ends up being a quality example of Grover Washington Jr’s latter period.

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Filed under 1980's, blues funk, Donald Fagen, drums, Grover Washington Jr., jazz funk, percussion, Saxophone, smooth jazz, Steely Dan, synthesizer, Walter Becker

Anatomy Of THE Groove for 12/19/2015: “Lazy Nina” by Greg Phillinganes

Of course? I have to credit reading the credits on Michael Jackson albums in mid adolescence for my awareness of Greg Phillinganes’ music in my life. In addition to that? A book about the man called Michael Jackson: An Illustrated Record by one Adrian Grant tipped me off to this album’s existence. That’s because it started out with “Behind The Mask”,a song written by Mike.  It was quite a few years later that I managed to locate the album itself-first on vinyl,than an import CD. Yet it led me down another unexpected path as well.

By the time the mid aughts rolled around? I’d become deeply immersed  in the funkiest end of the west coast pop sound. Namely the Doobie Brothers and Steely Dan. Of course the lead singer/keyboard player and general architect of the latter groups sound was Donald Fagen. Since Phillinganes was an enormous part of Fagen’s solo debut The Nightfly as an instrumentalist? Fagen returned the favor a couple years later with a song he wrote but had never recorded or performed. The collaboration between the two fellow keyboard players  was called “Lazy Nina”

It gets started with a slogging  post disco style drum solo,which is also similar to the one on Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition”-before the jazzy shuffle of the bass synth kicks into the song itself. It’s that bluesy,electric piano based groove that Steely Dan admirers will know very well.  On the choruses,he melodies and orchestral synth become brighter. On the final refrain? It becomes a straight instrumental right out of the Minneapolis school of the day. With the quavering DX7 digital synthesizer playing the horn charts as the song fades out.

Each time I’ve listened to this song? Something new leaped out at my ear hole from behind the groove. First impressions revealed a composition directly from the Steely Dan/Donald Fagen school . Especially with the nostalgic fantasizing of the lyrics. Phillinganes adds a much more electronic flavor to the overall song.. This comes to bare on my most recent observation: how the concluding instrumental break brings in the Prince/ Jam & Lewis synth horn element. Overall? It’s reflectively cheery transitional funk filled with flair and vitality.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Filed under 1980's, bass synthesizer, blues funk, disco funk, Donald Fagen, drums, electric piano, Funk, Greg Philinganes, Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis, Michael Jackson, post disco, Prince, Stevie Wonder, synth funk, synthesizers, Uncategorized

Anatomy Of THE Groove for 5/8/2015: “Another Trippy Day” by Chicago

It’s been over a year since I first heard the song being discussed here. Chicago (once known as Chicago Transit Authority) have reveled in the musicality which made them one of the most popular and acclaimed bands of the 1970’s. Their channeling of melodic pop song craft along with progressive jazz and soul instrumentation has made them a model for many instrumentally inclined bands since their heyday.

In a similar manner to Earth Wind & Fire,with whom they toured about a decade ago now,and how are about to go on the road again with the Heart & Soul tour? Founding members such as trumpeter Lee Loughnane,trombonist James Pankow,sax and flute man Walter Parazaider along with the singer/songwriter Robert Lamm have continued to keep the band going with new members and studio albums every so often. “Another Trippy Day”,presented as a bonus song on last years Chicago Now-XXXVI,stood out for me personally as a shining example of why this band is still so incredibly vital musically.

A digital percussion sound opens the song before two round,spacey synthesizers play major/minor chords before the trumpet plays a bright and melodic solo. That’s when the the body of the song kicks in. It’s all about a a stomping, funkified beat. A bluesy sound slap bass accents each rhythmic exchange. All with that spacey synth,wah wah guitar and muted trumpet weaving in and out. On the choruses,all of these elements thicken up into melodic unison. A refrain starts out with an electronic symphony of synthesized sound before a full melodic horn chart,following by a pulsing drum,slap bass,synth duet before the chorus fades the song right out.

For me this song is an excellent example of cleanly produced,modern day West Coast style funky soul.  The song is defined by funk. That slow,stomping beat that has the average rhythm of the human walking pattern. Lamm takes this setting and lyrically explores the romanticism of the urban landscape-with allusions to “a hint of jazz and lovers embrace”. This song also evokes it’s strong California vibe that stands it’s own with the sassy and sweet jazz voicings of Becker/Fagen compositions with Steely Dan. And a welcomed jazzy pop/funk urban contemporary sound for the modern age.

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Filed under 2014, Chicago, Donald Fagen, Earth Wind & Fire, Funk, Funk Bass, James Pankow, Jazz-Funk, Lee Loughnane, Robert Lamm, slap bass, Steely Dan, synthesizer, trumpet, wah wah guitar, Walter Becker, Walter Parazaider, West Coast