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.
Joni Mitchell did something very special in the mid to late 1970’s. Something that impacted on me personally roughly 25 years later. She began to combine folk oriented singer/songwriter instrumentation with jazz chords and harmonies. Her approach at this evolved from working with Crusaders Joe Sample and Wilton Felder to fretless bass icon Jaco Pastorius-all between 1974 and 1974. In particularly on 1975’s The Hissing Of Summer Lawns, Mitchell’s music was her own unique hybrid. Neither jazz or folk. This all came to a tremendous head with her 1977 release Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter.
It was an album where the cover art (as was typical done by Mitchell herself) drew me into its musical world. It depicts three images of herself. One seems to be a herself as a teenager. The other is a character she portrayed at a Halloween party named Art Nouveau. This was based on a black man she met who complimented her at that time. Mitchell describes her soul as “not being that of a white woman”. And that she often writes from a black perspective. Embracing the jazz aestetic, from be bop style poetics to the music itself, all became a part of what made this 1977 double LP what it was.
The song “Cotton Avenue” starts the album with an overture, one where Mitchell is playing six differently tuned guitar tracks simultaneously. The song itself is a swinging number-heavily textured by Jaco’s atmospheric bass lines. The faster “Talk To Me” and the slower “Jericho” both explore the approach of Mitchell’s guitar with Jaco’s bass-playing in an almost Salsa like rhythm on the former, and back to the jazzy swing on the latter. “Paprika Pains” is a 16+ minute cinematic number, showcasing Mitchell’s improvised piano with full jazz orchestration.
“Paprika Plains”‘s music also serves as the soundtrack to a first person description of a late night bar gathering of Canadian First Nations tribe’s people-poetically touching on matters of alcoholism and despair. “Otis & Marlena” is a fairly conventional country tinged folk number. Its based in the acoustic guitar. Its a character sketch of two people vacationing in Miami while “Muslims are sticking up Washington”. “The Tenth Worlds” is primarily the work of Puerto Rican percussionist Manolo Badrena, one which focuses only on his fluid Afro-Latin percussion and improvised vocal chants.
Weather Report member Alex Acuna joins in for “Dreamland”, my personal favorite number on this album.”Dreamland” merges an even broader (and somewhat slower) Salsa percussion sound with the highly hummable, Caribbean folk style melody of Mitchell’s. Chaka Khan provides a very tribal sounding back up vocalese right along with Mitchell’s on the song. The title song is somewhat similar to “Talk To Me” from earlier in the album-as well as “Coyote” from her previous album Heijra. The more rocky “Off Night Backstreet” and the folk oriented “The Silky Veils Of Ardor” close out the album.
Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter represents the official birth of what could best be described as a Joni Mitchell sound. Its true that jazz always accommodated other musical styles into it. Mitchell wasn’t new at doing that. But she did manage to expand on the possibilities of jazz fusion at the same time as she did the same for her own songwriting style. That coalition of personal and overall creative intent would is likely a lot rarer a thing than it might seem. And just for creating a welcoming and enticing entry point into Joni Mitchell’s musical hybridizing makes this album one of her most iconic ones.