Donald Fagen is turning 70 today. It has only been a short while since his partner in Steely Dan, one Mister Walter Becker, passed away. And it just occurred to me what a revival Fagen/Steely Dan’s music began to have during 1988. After five or six years of semi retirement, and only occasionally writing/producing for other acts, Fagen re-emerged with the song “Century’s End”-made for the Michael J. Fox movie Bright Lights, Big City. Last summer, I developed a love for the songs B-side entitled “Shanghai Confidential”.
This song is actually one of the very few instrumentals that Fagen ever recorded. And after the cassingle of “Century’s End” being in the family household so long? Am honestly surprised I’m hearing this song just now. Did want to credit music writer S. Victor Aaron’s article about the song for more musical information about the song. And even that was difficult for me to come by. Being that its largely the musicality of Donald Fagen that endears his music to me, this particular song really speaks to that end of his creative personality. So just what is the musical anatomy of “Shanghai Confidential”?
A clapping drum machine starts out the song-playing a sleek urban funk beat with Manolo Badrena’s percussion ringing along with a bell-like rhythm. The bass/guitar interaction of Steve Khan and Marcus miller take over with Fagen’s flute like synth part playing a very Asian style melody. The main melody is a cooperative affair-with a classic Fagen jazzy walk down with the lead synth, Fender Rhodes and the bass/guitar riffs playing off the other. Khan and Miller even get a substantial soloing space for a minute long bridge before the song fades out-again with the flute like synth leading the way.
“Shanghai Confidential” has a musically conceptual theme that Steely Dan had been playing with since Aja. One that flows back to Duke Ellington’s idea from his Afro Eurasian Eclipse that the entire world was taking on an Asiatic atmosphere. The drum machine, which I’d never heard used in anything Steely Dan related before this, as well as the bass and guitar are based slick jazzy funk sound. Yet the melody and mode of the song seem based heavily in the pentatonic scale. This makes for a song that provides a possible (and under explored) new direction for Donald Fagen’s music.
One good way for a musician, group or duo to avoid the problem of a sophomore slump album is to avoid the common mistake of xeroxing the style of their debut set for the follow up. I’ve seen it happen with all sorts of music,many of us have. Some people for some reason just opt to play it safe. But the Johnson’s were working with Quincy Jones and neither one of them were content with being safe.
As with their debut Louis and George were looking to do keep a grounded groove and keep the melody out front but all the same they elected to make a change. On Look Out for #1 they were based in hardcore Sly Stone styled funk this found them associated more with the latter 70’s sophistifunk style. Meaning creamier production,somewhat more of a pop-jazz base to everything and overall not as much of a musical attack to the sound. Now the real kicker is how they approached this (minor) change in their musical style.
Actually this album contains only two songs that could qualify as hardcore uptempo funk and that’s the title song and the instrumental “Brother Man”. They’re similar to the funk from their debut but even here the sound is a lot glossier and the playing is much tighter then before. Most of this album takes it’s cue from “Runnin’ From Your Lovin'” which begins the album in a similar tone to before but the approach again is gentler,with the synthesizers and reverb laid on much thicker.
Of course on the instrumental “Q” it starts out sounding almost like a Lee Ritenour style riff . And then it goes into more of a crunching funk breakdown-not a bad combo really. The same thing more or less happens on the vocal “Never Leave You Lonely”-that combination of pop jazz and hard funk”Free Yourself,Be Yourself” has what I’d describe as a very aggressively comforting pop melody-not as hard driving as Sly but not heavily harmonized like the Philly sound but actually something of a cross between the two.
Their famous hit version of Shuggie Otis’s “Strawberry Letter#23” is quite a bit more abstract than the original,with a very striking almost art rock style jazz guitar riff from George and again reverb and echo effects up the wazoo. The album ends with the folksy soul of “Love Is”,which has a lot of commonalities with the type of music Bill Withers and to an extent The Isley Brothers were making in the early to mid 70’s- only with the latter in the decade production sheen.
Generally speaking, this is somewhat of a smoother ride than they started out with-even when the rhythms kick up they hit just a little bit softer in a similar turn of phrase to how Miles Davis described his own musical approach. It’s also an important lesson in never making the same album twice. Even though the musicians and musical sound are similar there’s a clear difference in approach. And it seemed to have paid off because this album succeeded creatively,musically and commercially to the level of their debut set in every way.
Herb Alpert really never stopped recording in the years between his Tijuana Brass and his late 70’s comeback album Rise. And he never stopped recording between that album and this either. Yes both of albums have two important things in common. They both bridged different areas of his career. They also allowed him to reinvent his music for different generations. The Herb Alpert that made this album was not the relatively new record label mogul developing very individual artists like Gino Vannelli and recording albums with people like Hugh Masekela.
THIS Herb Alpert is a well oiled record mogul pressed into service to developing careers of videogenic megastars such as Janet Jackson. So he didn’t have to go far to find the right producer for this project. Jam/Lewis,even though really only four years into their career as producers were at this point already establishing what 80’s funk would sound like with Janet’s Control. So it was no surprise what so ever that their rhythmic but highly stylized dance/funk style would have the effect it did on Alpert as well. So here we have it: Herb Alpert’s Jam & Lewis album!
Starting off with the title cut,we’re instantly dealing with a bassy,deeply funky number where the sound of Alpert’s horn is used more as a percussive effect than anything,pushing out the melody in spurts rather than extended notes. “Diamonds” and “Making Love In The Rain”,the two Janet Jackson songs here were seen as the real draw on this album and really have more of Janet’s sound with Alpert more as a guest musician. And they are strong numbers for sure.
But there’s much more here than that. “Hot Shot” and “Traffic Jam” are two more heavy instrumental funk grooves where “Cat Man Do”,”Our Song”,”Rocket To The Moon” and especially the closing “Stranger On The Shore” really bring Alpert back as the star of the show as the primary instrumental soloist. And his distinctive,hyper melodic,vibrato heavy “bull fighting” trumpet style hasn’t changed one iota for this occasion either. On “Pillow” Herb takes over on vocals himself with Lani Hall so,in any spot where he may be vocally weak she can take over a little bit more. This dual lead harmony effect also serves to bring out the moody melodicism of the composition.
I’ve only really listen to this album once but I can already say from listen to it that this is the sort album that you will tend to get more out of each time you listen to it. It owes as much to the artist as it does to the producers. They both know how to keep the songs musically and melodically filled with just enough surprises to keep the music fresh and interesting with each listen. Again as with most things from this era a lot of people are bound to give this album some less than stellar commentary simply because it’s based in the production of the late 80’s.
And that’s not an era seen as very potent in pop music. All the same there was still enough of the kind of arrangement and melodicism that made music of the previous couple decades what it was. And in the era before the beat heavy hip-hop beats took over both R&B and jazz-pop even as the dominant rhythmic pattern that’s,along with Herb Alpert’s musical potency is part of what helps this to be a stand out album all the way.