Category Archives: Walter Becker

Anatomy of THE Groove: “Gaslighting Abbie” by Steely Dan

Steely Dan disbanded after the release of their 1980 album Gaucho. Walter Becker retired with his family to Maui. Donald Fagen released a very successful solo album in 1982 called The Nightfly, basically semi-autobiographic nostalgia that served as a musical followup to Gaucho to a degree.  Becker did occasional production work,in particular with the British group China Crisis in 1985. After some aborted sessions after working together with singer/model Rosie Vela in the late 80’s, the pair came together with Becker producing Fagen’s sophomore solo album Kamikiriad in 1993.

With that album being a positive experience, the two launched on their first live tour in roughly 20 years in 1995- for both Becker’s solo album 11 Tracks Of Wack and a box set containing remasters of all their studio albums Citizen Steely Dan. This prompted their first live album Alive In America. A couple of years later, Becker and Fagen were recording Steely Dan’s official follow up to Gaucho. In 2000, the album came out as Two Against Nature. Much to my surprise, it won album of the year at the 2001 Grammy awards. The opening song that got my instant attention is called “Gaslighting Abbie”.

Ricky Lawson’s hi hat heavy drums start off the groove with Fagen’s Fender Rhodes/ Clavinet and Becker’s high rhythm guitar playing a brittle call and response. Lawson’s drumming gets into that slow,funky beat-with Becker and Fagen’s Rhodes/rhythm guitar continuing for the refrains of the song. The B section and choruses takes the song across several chord progressions. On the second refrains, the horn charts quietly enter the mix. On the bridge, Dave Tofani plays an electrified sax solo before Becker takes a guitar solo. An extended refrain plays out with a sustain horn chart fading out the song.

“Gaslighting Abbie” basically picks up where the musical approach of Gaucho left off.  Rhythmically its structured as a strongly funk based composition. In terms of the notes,chords,harmonies and instrumentation however, the vibe of the song is highly jazzy. It establishes Steely Dan as perhaps being their own particular sub-genre of music as opposed to a group embracing many genres. Becker, Fagen the the players they work with fully understand the composition their dealing with here. And it made it a fresh and very familiar start to the first album of their early aughts comeback.

 

 

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Filed under Donald Fagen, Steely Dan, Walter Becker

Steely Dan: The Early Years As A Duo-A Tribute To Walter Becker (1950-2017)

Steely Dan Early Years As A Duo

Steely Dan started life as a sextet that included musicians such as guitarists Denny Dias and Jeff “Skunk” Baxter. By 1975, group founders Donald Fagen and Walter Becker were on their own. And their sound took on a sleek jazz funk sound as such-bringing in more session players from that field. A lot of this had to do with the founding members lack of interest in touring. Yesterday I woke up to the news from my boyfriend Scott that Walter Becker had passed away at the age of 67. Considering the bands relationship in their years as a duo, this essentially marked the official end of Steely Dan.

At the suggestion of Henrique Hopkins, I decided to wait a day or two in terms of writing about Becker and his music. After all, another friend in Thomas Carley already was doing some wonderful writing on Walter Becker-both as a member of Steely Dan, a solo artist and producer for people such as Ricki Lee Jones,China Crisis,Rosie Vela,Michael Franks and Fra Lippo Lippi. Woke up this morning to read a Rolling Stone article by one Rob Sheffield about Becker. This article mainly focused on Becker’s more negative “rock star” qualities. So decided there had to be another way to present Steely Dan.

In all honesty, the gritty and…cryptically jazzy poetry of Steely Dan’s lyrics have never detracted from my love of their music. Nor did it define everything about them. Becker, who according to Sheffield had the most attitude of the Dan’s founders, managed to balance (along with Fagen) the sometimes very sarcastic and cynical lyrics of Steely Dan with a romantic (and even relaxing) choice of words and a sound often defined by an extensive use of the processed Fender Rhodes piano. So as tribute to Walter Becker, wanted to present my two Amazon.com reviews of their first two albums as a duo.


Katy Lied/1975

Originally Steely Dan was a band featuring people like Denny Dias and Jeff Baxter. By this time Donald Fagen and Walter Becker had grown weary of the road the decided to stop touring and concentrate on their studio craft which,they felt was their strongest suit. They also broke up the band and Steely Dan became them as a duo plus the studio session musicians they hired for the sessions.

Even so during this time Becker and Fagen were not entirely sure how their sound was going to evolve from this point on so not only was the music on this album fairly tentative but Donald Fagen detested the recording quality of the album to such a degree he issued an apology to record buyers on the back of the original sleeve and didn’t desire to listen to this.

Well it’s not really that bad an album but it does find them beginning to re-imagine their sound with very mixed results. “Black Friday” and “Chain Lighting” are two of the best remembered songs here and even though nothing on this fared too well commercially these songs embrace a slick blues/rock flavor that Steely Dan really hadn’t emphasized in their music too much and really never would to this extent again.

“Daddy Don’t Live In That New York City Anymore” again showcases the same idea only with somewhat of a jazzier funk edge to it. A lot of the songs here are rather spare jazzy pop such as “Bad Sneakers”,”Rose Darling”,”Doctor Wu”,”Any World” and “Everyone’s Gone To The Movies”. Here also you see them really putting even more emphasis on their twisted character plays in the lyrics and things are becoming so metaphorical in that respect some of their lyrics are more impenetrable.

A second part of “Your Gold Teeth” and “Throw Back The Little Ones” show a stronger indication of their future sound,even to an extent Aja in terms of the intricate and complex jazzy arrangements and tempos. The best way to describe this is as transitional. Most of it is still very much in the same musical zone as their first three albums with a full band. But as with any retooled musical concept it takes time to both maintain AND refine a musical style and that’s basically where this album stands for Steely Dan in the context of their career.

The Royal Scam/1976

To be said Katy Lied had it’s definate moments but without any doubt this has to be Steely Dan’s most creatively and musically satisfying since Countdown To Ecstasy several years earler. Musically however the music couldn’t me more different. By this time Becker and Fagan had settled firmly into the studio oriented ethic they were hoping for but didn’t fully achieve with the previous album.

And even though this never got the recognition that what came after it did this is really the pair and the studio aces they surrounded themselves with at last finding their sound. What they really found is the funk. Now Steely Dan had ALWAYS been funky but in terms of the technically demanding rhythms and harmonics of the music,which naturally suited Becker & Fagen’s style anyway this album really finds them dipping into that area more than anything.

This was actually one of the earliest Steely Dan albums I owned and it was deep in my “funk period” so it worked pretty well. Yes true this album does feature a lot more guitars;Becker himself,Larry Carlton,Denny Dias,Dean Parks and Elliot Randell are all featured throughout this album and that’s a pretty big guitar army for these guys. Interestingly enough the guitars are used in a very jazzy funk way throughout as more of a textural sound element overall than just as soloing noise makers.

That’s exactly the effect you get on four of the albums strongest (and uptempo) cuts in the sharp,aggressive yet elegant funk styling’s of “Kid Charlemagne”,”Don’t Take Me Alive”,”The Fez” and the almost Songs in the Key of Life-period Stevie Wonder sounding “Green Earrings”. The Clavinet’s and keyboards used on these songs really add to the harmonic style as well.

Lyrically most of these songs are Steely Dan at their darkest:songs about misdirected anti heroes,youth bombers and domestic unrest are among the themes explored here and the good part is their presented in a wonderfully poetic and intelligent manner. “The Caves Of Altamira”,”Sign In Stranger” and the title song are all elaborate mid tempo jazz-funk-fusion explorations that really look the most to their sound to come although the dynamics are a bit looser than they would be in the immediate future.

“Everything You Did” and the lightly Caribbean flavored “Haitian Divorce” are closer to the breezy jazz-pop of the earlier Steely Dan but again produced very differently. Officially bidding farewell to their earlier band based sound this album finds Dan firmly on the way to Aja and if you listen to this album thoroughly you’ll realize that album was really the logical follow up.


These reviews were written seven years ago, right in between Fagen’s 2012 solo album Sunken Condos and what turned out to be Becker’s final solo release in 2008’s Circus Money. Becker and Fagen were always musical perfectionists. Both in terms of instrumentation and production. But with Katy Lied and The Royal Scam, their relationships with Crusaders’ Wilton Felder and Larry Carlton along with the great session bassist Chuck Rainey took their precision to the next level. And represent the best way for me to remember Walter Becker’s contributions to the Steely Dan’s sound.

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Anatomy of THE Groove: “Door Number Two” by Walter Becker

Walter Becker is one of those players whose proven himself the ultimate “comeback kid” as it were. The Queens native met Donald Fagan while the two attended Bard College. And of course they would soon be the core of Steely Dan. While the songwriting of Steely Dan was a collaborative effort between the two,Becker’s instrumental influence generally came through his guitar solos.  They grew from a virtuosic blues rock style in the early 70’s to an intricate,crisp jazz tone later on. A serious of exhausting events led Becker to leave Steely Dan following their Gaucho album-remaining musically inactive for a decade.’

In 1993,Steely Dan reformed and began touring. Becker released his solo debut album 11 Tracks Of Whack a year later. With a somewhat more stripped down musical approach and vocal style closer to that of Eric Clapton,his albums were as critically successful as Fagans. But didn’t have quite the same commercial appeal. It would be another 15 years later that his sophomore album Circus Money. This was an independently released project from 2008 that featured the same superb studio players Becker had worked with in the past. It also started out with just the right groove on the song “Door Number Two”.

A bass and light snare based beat,crystalized sounding piano and bluesy rhythm guitar provide the intro-along with a moody electric piano solo. The basic rhythm of the chorus than comes in. This is a bossa with a clean guitar burst playing a single chord on every other bar or so-with the piano,keyboard and slippery bass line playing along with the female backup singers vocalizing the choral lyric. The refrain finds Becker singing a bluesy line with more piano improvisations behind him. Chris Potter provides a great bop sax solo on the bridge and extends it into the chorus that fades out the song.

Years of being a record producer and even a one time member of the sophisti pop group China Crisis really helped to enhance Walter Becker’s musical flavors as a solo artist. It wasn’t until revisiting “Door Number Two” for this overview did I realize that it has the vibe of a lower key “Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag”. The bossa Latin/boogaloo funk is there in the rhythm. Still Becker’s love of jazz comes through all the way-with musicians Keith Carlock,Jon Herington,Jim Beard and Ted Baker all solo right in the pocket of this groove. And it all makes for a great example of jazz with a raw rhythm attitude.

 

 

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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 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