Tag Archives: Chuck Rainey

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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Filed under Donald Fagen, Steely Dan, Walter Becker

Anatomy of THE Groove: “Go Up Moses” by Roberta Flack

Roberta Flack,a North Carolina native,had a somewhat complex beginning in music. A classically trained academic who represented the epitome of the college educated black mentality of civil rights era. Musically,she began as a student teacher and then a music teacher. It was jazz/funk innovator Les McCann who first discovered Flack performing in a  Washington DC nightclub. The result of their meeting was her debut album First Take in 1969. She covered McCann’s song “Compared To What” on it. The album later on provided her with her first standard in “The First Time Ever I Saw His Face”.

Today she is best known for two things. One being her iconic collaborations with the late Donny Hathaway that produced songs like “Where Is The Love” and “The Closer I Get To You”. Her sound is noted for its vocal and instrumental nuance. As well as its strong and complex songwriting. It also tended towards the slow and most adult contemporary end of balladry as well. Therefore,uptempo soul/jazz/funk has seldom been a huge priority for her. Yet when she comes through with funkiness,its often some of the strongest music the genre ever produced. A great example is her 1971 song “Go Up Moses”.

Drummer Bernard Purdie,plus percussionists Ralph McDonald and Grady Tate hold down the chugging Afro Brazilian beat. And session bass maestro Chuck Rainy provides an in your face rhythmic bass line to the musical affair. That describes the basis of the entire song-with Hugh McCracken providing bluesy rhythm guitar accents after each bar or two. Flack sings the refrains herself,and is accompanied by a bass singing choir on the choruses. She also provides a spoken recitation over them on the bridge. Richard Tee’s gospel drenched organ brings the song back home as it fades away.

This song lyrically and musically an extension of the centuries old spiritual “Go Down Moses”,with Flack collaborating with jazz flutist John Dorn for the musical aspects and the Reverend Jesse Jackson for some of the lyrical content. Its definitely in the vein of the more spiritual end of the “people music” message songs that were beginning to emerge very strong during the later period of the funk process in 1969-71. It was also the opening song to her third album Quiet Fire. Flack’s earlier albums generally opened with a bluesy funk uptempo number. And this is one of the finest of the bunch.

 

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Anatomy of THE Groove: “Stepping Into Tomorrow” by Donald Byrd

Donald Byrd is one of my favorite musicians during the 70’s Blue Note era especially. The Detroit native replaced the late,great Clifford Brown in Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers after a stint in the US Air Force. After launching his career as a band leader in the late 50’s,Byrd’s became Blue Notes equivalent of Miles Davis in terms of transitioning from acoustic bop jazz to fusion. Along the way,he also helped launch one of jazz-funk’s seminal bands in The Blackbyrds. His mid 70’s collaborations with the Mizell brothers Larry and Fonce are actually in a class by themselves too.

Around 12 years ago,I began to listen heavy to both the Blackbyrds and Donald Byrd’s mid 70’s jazz-funk recordings. This came from my dad playing the music of Madlib for me. Now this is a DJ/musician/producer/rapper who loved 70’s Blue Note. And focused a lot on Byrd’s music from that period. It was through DJ/musician Nigel Hall and his radio show at WMEB in Orono,Maine that I learned where to find one of my favorite pieces Madlib had used,since I wasn’t accustomed to first hearing classic funk songs via samples. Turning out that the song in question was the 1974 album title track “Stepping Into Tomorrow”.

A thunder-like sound opens into the song. The main groove is established right away. This is a slow,percussive drum from Harvey Mason,a melody setting bass line from Chuck Rainey,Larry Mizell’s ARP strings and Byrd’s trumpet. As the vocals of Byrd and a trio of female backup singers harmonize on the choruses,a minor chord intro then extends into a series of solos. First Byrd on trumpet,then Gary Bartz’s sax and finally Jerry Peters’ organ. The main chorus/intro/refrain parts repeat to,with a number of psychedelic,synthesized sonics until the song fades out.

“Stepping Into Tomorrow” is one of those truly democratic jazz/funk numbers. Instrumentally,it was a dream team of the finest of jazz/funk players in that area. And each one is performing at some of their finest on this groove. Its a strong enough groove to stand on its own. Yet it can be sampled all on its own in a way that doesn’t destroy its special musical qualities. Its the songs elasticity that represents its strongest quality. While I personally feel original funk songs should be searched for on their own rather than via samples,whatever method one uses to get to this funk will be its own reward.

 

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Filed under 1974, 70's Blue Note, ARP string ensemble, Chuck Rainey, Donald Byrd, drums, Fonce Mizell, Funk Bass, Gary Bartz, Harvey Mason, jazz funk, Jerry Peters, Larry Mizell, organ, Saxophone, trumpet

Anatomy of THE Groove: “Satin Doll” by Bobbie Humphrey

Bobbie Humphrey stands along with Mary Lou Williams,Melba Liston and Patrice Rushen as one of the rare female instrumentalists in the jazz world. This Texas native was creature during the same time as Patrice. Main different was she was a flutist,so melodic soloing  was her priority. She recorded her first album on Blue Note in 1971. Two years later she released her third album Blacks and Blues. This is as of now the only the Bobbie Humprey CD I personally own. It began her musical relationship with producer Larry Mizell. He and his brother Fonce  were major creative forces at Blue Note at the time. They were than working with Donald Byrd after several years of recordings hits for Motown’s Jackson 5.

Humphrey was one of those artists who seems to have successfully adapted to changes in the music world. From jazz-funk,the disco era and even the new jack swing sound of the late 1980’s. Much as guitarist Bobby Broom played for R.Kelly in the early 90’s,Humphrey played on Gwen Guthrie’s 1988 song “Send Me Somebody” in a similar manner. Of course most famously she joined Stevie Wonder’s Wonderlove for his 1976 song “Another Star” from his blockbuster Songs In The Key Of Life.  While digging deeper into her music,I discovered an amazing musical reboot of Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn’s standard “Satin Doll”,also the title song for her fourth album.

Wah Wah Watson’s multiple shades of guitar come in and out of the swelling Brazilian style snare drum heavy rhythms of Harvey Mason on the intro-along with Chuck Rainey’s one,two,three punch on bass. Larry Mizell’s synth introduces the main melody of the song. Jerry Peters’ piano than kicks into the mix-just before Humphrey’s flute begins playing the main melody-accompanied call and response style with Mizell’s synth and Peters’ piano. Her high, ethereal singing voice matches the huge arrangement-even as Peters’ solos find him coming down almost as hard on the piano keys as Duke might’ve himself before the song fades out with a male backup chorus singing the main melody.

Bobbie Humphrey and the entire 70’s Blue Note crew really do Ellington’s musical vision proud on this album. Humphrey tended to follow Duke’s concept of adapting her playing to changing styles of music. This takes the by this time late composer’s into the mid 70’s cinematic soul era. The highlight of this groove along with Humprhey was Melvin Ragin. He delivers three shades of his wah wah guitar in the first minute of the song alone-from a sharp stinging tone to a melodic ring. The classic mixture of futuristic melodic ideas and chase scene paced rhythms makes this a Duke Ellington interpretation to remember.

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Filed under 1974, 70's Blue Note, Billy Strayhorn, Bobbie Humphrey, Brazilian Jazz, Chuck Rainey, cinematic soul, drums, Duke Ellington, flute, Funk Bass, Harvey Mason, jazz funk, Jerry Peters, Larry Mizell, piano, Satin Doll, synthesizer, Uncategorized, wah wah guitar, Wah Wah Waston

Anatomy of THE Groove: “Rock Steady” by Aretha Franklin

Aretha Franklin,having turned 74 today,has been alive during one of the most significant musical periods in terms of soul’s transition towards rhythm-towards funk.Her signature song at Atlantic was a version of Otis Redding’s “Respect”,which really showcased how the Southern soul style she embraced was edging towards that funky timing. Now Aretha has had some amazing uptempo songs,many of which were major hits,over her time as a recording artist. And they’ve all showcased how despite understandings to the contrary, that uptempo music can be just as timeless as balladry. Of course as with any artist,there were peaks and valleys for her. Some of those peaks were also pretty high ones.

Focusing to a degree on gospel soul/R&B ballads during the early 70’s,Aretha was becoming very well aware that the musical tide was shifting towards the more uptempo sound she’d pioneered in the late 60’s. So at some point in 1970-early 71 Aretha had a basic piano sketch of a groove that she presented to some of the new musicians she was working with. They were drummer Bernard “Pretty” Purdie,future Stuff guitarist Cornell Duperee and electric bass extraordinaire Chuckrh Rainey. This trio allowed for this song to be built directly from the rhythm up and become huge early 70’s hit for her. The name of the groove was “Rock Steady”.

Pops Popwell and Dr.John provide a hot Brazilian percussion accent to the bluesy organ of Donny Hathaway. From here Purdie’s drums really get going within this bed of percussion shaking along. Cornell get’s his James Brown rhythm guitar going on in a serious way in the center of this groove while Rainey’s bass is patted in with the sound of a deep, pulsating heart. On the choruses,Aretha’s vocals are echoed along with the backup harmonies from the Sweethearts Of Soul. Each refrain is buffeted by the very jazzy Afro pop charts from The Memphis horns. On the bridge,Purdie provides a percussive drum back that’s now one of the most famous in history before the song fades out.

There are times where the funkiness of a groove has to be discovered by listening closely. “Rock Steady” is not one of those grooves. It’s a song that demands moving and heavy booty shaking. With it’s strong Afro-Latin horn and percussion vibe,this is actually one of the songs that help inaugurate the “united funk” era of the early/mid 70’s.  Everyone playing in on this song act in the manner of JB as one rhythm machine. The song construction is so advanced,it thickens the whole sound. Aretha even lets us know to “call this song exactly what it is” before declaring it “a funky and lowdown feeling”. So as with Wilson Pickett’s “Funky Broadway”,this  groove really assumes it’s funkiness proudly.

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Filed under 1970's, Aretha Franklin, Atlantic Records, Bernard Pretty Purdie, Chuck Rainey, Cornell Dupree, Donny Hathaway, Dr.John, drum breaks, drums, Funk, Funk Bass, horns, Memphis Horns, organ, percussion, Pops Powell, rhythm guitar, Uncategorized