Tag Archives: Steely Dan

2008 On The Longplay: ‘Circus Money’ by Walter Becker

Fourteen years after Walter Becker’s solo debut 11 Tracks of Whack, he returned with this sophomore release. Ever since the end of Steely Dan’s first run in 1980, we’ve often had to wait years (sometimes decades) for new music to appear by Becker & Fagen,either together or apart. In the beginning the results were exceptional (as on Fagen’s  Kamakiriad or Steely Dan’s first comeback Two Against Nature). But recently, we’ve seen an unfortunate side of this comeback.  Steely Dan were consistently spun off one classic after another on the same album in their heyday.

Of course, some of the trademarks of Becker & Fagen’s sound were crackerjack musicianship, production, songwriting and incredible lyrics. After the success of their first comeback the result were albums like Everything Must Go or Fagen’s recent solo date Morph the Cat-both of which relied on sound and musicianship but lacked in incredible songwriting;I just have to be objective because I LOVE Steely Dan but…..you know. This album isn’t exactly an exception from that in that the album relies more on sound then anything.

Becker had one great idea and that was to up the reggae/dub strains in his music. Most of the songs on this album will, believe it or not, make you feel more like walking with a skank then being jazzy and funky. But it doesn’t mean those elements aren’t present. “Door Number Two” and “Bob Is Not Your Uncle Anymore” of two great songs that are very successful:the former jazzier, the latter more reggae. Hardcore fans of the classic Steely Dan sound may be surprised (I would never say put off) by the reggae rhythms permeating much of the music here.

The result (as is typical of much of that genre) is the songs have the illusion of sounding somewhat alike;they really don’t at all but come off that way. Becker rises to the occasion though in a big way by closing the album with “Three Picture Deal”,nearing a complete restoration of everything that makes Steely Dan’s sound so special and unique. Some might want to know why he didn’t begin with that sound and take it from there. But at least by adding the Jamaican rhythms Becker is going for something new in his sound. And it  makes you wonder what the next Steely Dan release is going to pull out of it’s hat.

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Aja At 40: Welcome To The Land Of Steely Dan

Steely Dan’s 1977 album Aja was an album whose success has been based far more on its quality than its commercial potential. In 2010, it was even inducted by the Library of Congress into their United States National Recording Registry. It even won a Grammy in the the year of its release for being the best engineered non classical record of the year. For me, it represented the precision musicianship of the jazz funk era musicians who played on the album at some of their personal best. Also in 2010, I wrote a review on Amazon.com about the album and how I personally heard it.


Time has a way of testing a work of art that might be today’s masterpiece but tomorrow’s rubbish pile. One would probably find that not only would this album ace such a test with flying colors but could actually still be considered something of a yardstick of it’s kind. I am not sure but before this album very little music that qualified as jazz-funk,fusion or pop/jazz ever quite had the same level of all around success this one had in pop and rock circles and especially among pop radio listeners. There are a couple reasons for this.

For one the music featured here is a fully realized refinement on what was accomplished with The Royal Scam and unlike that albums more jagged moments both the production and arrangements on this album are clean as a whistle. For another thing none of that took away from the daring and adventurous flavors here. So you have this mixture of elegance,sophistication and a strong groove that only those really in the know about funk can provide.

The production of the Clavinet on “Black Cow” pretty much tell the story and some of the songs people don’t remember as well here such as “Home At Last” and “I Got The News” there’s some of the most intricate and uniquely textured piano work Donald Fagen had committed to record thus far and trust me: on that area he’d more than earned a few brownie points already. The title song has one of the most complex melodic constructions your liable to find in a pop record.

And of course it’s not easy to get Steve Gadd’s amazing fusion style drum solo at the songs conclusion out of one’s memory even after the passing of time. The popular hits from this album “Deacon Blues” and of course “Peg” showcase another surprising element of this album. Those familiar with Steely Dan before this album realize lyrically they tended to specialize in warped tales,usually of people no one wanted to know. These songs maintain their lyrical style but the tales they tell are a bit more accessible in tone and are among the more lighthearted and quaint in their catalog.

Yeah they were probably making a few funnies about the stereotypical simplicity of pop music lyrics but….a lot of it just is what it is and that’s kind of different for their usually double meaning approach. “Josie” ends the album on a similar note although the lyrics on that one may be just a tad slinkier and the groove just mildly edgier. At this point you could say this was Steely Dan’s best overall album and it’s certainly their best known.

But it’s also important to know their “laboratory in the studio” approach to recording across their previous two albums really opened the door for this to happen. So this was the conclusion to a long enduring musical experiment rather than something that came out of this air. That taken into considering the amazing thing about this is…..all these years later it still doesn’t sound like a product of hard labor.


Aja was an album that I first heard playing in my family’s car “boom box” when, as I recall, we were going to pick apples. Its an excellent example of a record where the melodic and very welcoming jazz/funk fusion grooves of the album deflect from Steely Dan’s typically cryptic and “insider commentary” based nature of their lyrical content. There’s a lot on the musical end of this album that I was able to project into a YouTube video I did about the album recently.  Aja is a record I could go on and on about here. But in the end, its best for the music to do the talking in this case.

 

 

 

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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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Anatomy of THE Groove: “Glamour Profession” by Steely Dan

Steely Dan’s 1980 album Gaucho had its rough patches in terms of productions. Started only months after the release of their Aja album in 1977, there were some major issues that hampered the sessions. Two revolved around the now late Walter Becker. One had to do with his increasing drug problem. The other had to do with a traffic accident that sent Becker to the hospital. And into six months of recovery. Donald Fagen collaborated with him via phone during that time. The album finally came out just a little over three years after its predecessor-in November of 1980.

Even for all that and a number of legal battles over the album title from Keith Jarrett, Gaucho continued Steely Dan’s peak of musical excellent. It would be their final studio album for twenty years. And that was just fine for most people. It was one of the few newer albums my parents had in their record collection during my own early years. Most of my life, the song from it I was most familiar with was “Hey Nineteen”. By the time its followup Two Against Nature came out, I began to explore Gaucho even deeper. And that’s how I discovered what’s likely my favorite song on it called “Glamour Profession”.

Steve Gadd’s straight up dance beat sets the pace right away. Its accompanied by Fagen’s processed Fender Rhodes piano and Anthony Jackson’s counter melodic bass hump. Before the refrain comes in, Tom Scott’s Lyricon and Michael Brecker’s sax play a nighttime friendly horn chart. During the refrains and chorus, Steve Khan plays some bluesy jazz guitar riffs. He also gets time for a solo just before the vocal bridge of the song-where the song changes key for a bar or so. The song fades out on an extended instrumental refrain with Khan’s soloing taking precedence.

“Glamour Profession” is likely the coolest song (and only one as I recall) about a fading basketball player’s involvement in an elaborate drug deal I’ve ever heard. Donald Fagen’s lyrics are as poetically cryptic as usual. Its also an amazing “dazz” song-its disco jazz flavor enhanced by the jazzy chords of the guitar,bass and processed Rhodes part that define the song. The production and melody are the sonic equivilent of clear glossy lacquer. The sound is slick and slippery. Yet is also full of weight and texture. And surely one of Steely Dan’s many fine musical moments of their original run.

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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: “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

donald-fagen

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: “Black Cow” by Ahmad Jamal

Ahmad Jamal-born Frederick Russell Jones in Pittsburgh,Pennsylvania is one of those musicians whom I’ve been discovering a lot about within the last several years. He came into prominence at a time when a lot of younger jazz players just coming up were looking for a stylistic alternative to the be-bop oriented sound all around them. Much like Miles Davis,Jamal was a major innovator of the “cool jazz” school of the mid/late 50’s. Miles even said that Ahmad Jamal’s light touch on piano had an enormous influence on his own playing style after his sister Dorothy introduced him to Jamal’s music for the first time.

My own personal exposure to Jamal’s music didn’t come through anything like cool jazz. It came through my father in one of his mid 1990’s “here’s a jazz version of that” turns. What he played me was a jazz-funk interpretation of Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition” by Jamal. Somehow after that,I kind of conceptualized Jamal as being a thoroughly jazz/funk based musician. When actually nothing could be further from the truth. That being said,the man did put his understated style to some sleek funk over the years. My friend Henrique introduced me to another interpretation from 1978 of Steely Dan’s “Black Cow”.

Ahmad Jamal plays every melody on this song on the Clavinet. The intro,much as on the original has that direct bassy sound-accompanied by light percussion. As the drums build in,Jamal’s Clavinet tone becomes much higher for the refrain and is accompanied by a heavy drum beat and powerful funk bass line improvising every melodic change. On the choruses,the lead vocals are handled by three backing singers-one of whom is Eloise Laws. As the song progresses,these backup singers vocalize their way around Jamal’s increasingly rolling Clavinet improvisations as the song fads out.

Ahmad Jamal really does this song justice here. And not by altering too much,but rather expanding on what’s there. He upped the tempo just a bit and made it more percussive-which is about all he really changed. Instrumentally this song is a massive jazz/funk showcase for it’s present and funk’s future. The Wrecking Crew’s Hal Blaine is responsible for the sizzling percussion while the rhythm section and vocals are arranged by future SOS Band mentor Sigidi Abdullah. In terms of a cool jazz veteran interpreting then contemporary funk smashes,Ahmad Jamal really had it locked down.

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Filed under 1970's, Ahmad Jamal, clavinet, cool jazz, Funk Bass, Hal Blaine, jazz funk, percussion, Sigidi Abdullah, Steely Dan