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Posts tagged ‘Donald Fagen’

‘The Nightfly’ at Milton Court

The Nightfly at Milton CourtEven though it meant missing the first set of Michael Gibbs’ 80th birthday concert at the Vortex, the idea of hearing Donald Fagen’s first solo album played by the new intake of students on the jazz course at the Guildhall School on Monday night was impossible to resist. The Nightfly is a wonderful album, made by a man in early middle aged in the era of Reagan looking back at how things felt as the era of Eisenhower shaded into that of Kennedy, in that brief period of illusory optimism when prosperity and progress seemed to be the prevailing forces, before the Cuban missile crisis, the civil rights marches and the Vietnam protests took over. I thought it might be interesting to see how it sounded in the era of a president whose name I don’t even want to type out on this blog.

Also I wanted to hear a bunch of young players. And first, as an hors d’oeuvre, came a succession of seven small groups under the supervision of their tutors — Tom Challenger, Yazz Ahmed, Gareth Williams, Gareth Lockrane, Robbie Robson, Barak Schmool and Stuart Hall — playing short pieces based on ideas suggested by the album, each group having the benefit of a mere three hours’ preparation. All were interesting, but my ear was caught most readily by a lovely Mingusian variation on a phrase from “New Frontier” played by Challenger’s septet and by Williams’s sextet arrangement of “Ruby Baby”, which soured the harmonies in a George Russell-ish way and provided space for cracking solos by the altoist saxophonist Albert Hills Wright and the trumpeter James Beardmore.

Introducing the evening, Scott Stroman, a professor in the jazz department since 1983, had reminded us: “These guys didn’t even know each other last week” — the start of the academic year. It hardly seemed possible. There were also fine individual contributions from the fiery tenor saxophonist Asha Parkinson, the astonishingly eloquent pianist Jay Verma, and the assured drummer Zoot Warren.

After the interval came the main course. Malcolm Edmonstone, the head of the Guildhall’s jazz programme, had transcribed and arranged the entire album for a group of 57 students, including 13 singers who shared the lead around and fleshed out the close harmonies, and a load of pianists, guitarists, bassists and drummers who alternated the rhythm section roles.

Under the precise, assertive and invigorating baton of Giles Thornton, the band soared through “I.G.Y.” on Mark Fincham’s confident bass lines, articulated the strut of “Green Flower Street” with crisp power, absolutely nailed the sublime hip-swinging arrangement of “Ruby Baby” (with Parkinson’s tenor again making its mark), glided through the yearning “Maxine”, hustled through “New Frontier” (although there doesn’t seem to be a chromatic harmonica player in the class of ’17), locked into the fingerpopping groove of “The Nightfly”, and sauntered and shuffled through “The Goodbye Look” and “Walk Between Raindrops”.

When you think about it, these young musicians were pitting themselves against the achievements of Marcus Miller, Jeff Porcaro, Larry Carlton, Dean Parks, the Brecker brothers, Greg Phillinganes, James Gadson and the rest of the crew of first-call virtuosi assembled by Fagen back in 1982. The result was joy and exhilaration all the way, delighting the large audience of friends and family assembled in the concert hall at Milton Court.

(And I made it to the Vortex for the second half of Mike Gibbs’ birthday celebration with his 14-piece band, a glorious series of glowing set-ups for soloists like the trumpeter Percy Pursglove, the altoist John O’Gallagher and the guitarist Mike Walker. It was nice to think that some of this year’s Guildhall students will be carving out similar reputations before too long.)

Walter Becker 1950-2017

Walter Becker and Donald Fagen 2

Chinese music always sets me free / Angular banjos sound good to me

In a single couplet, Walter Becker and Donald Fagen made fun of themselves with wonderful grace and wicked sophistication: the qualities that imbued the music they made together. It’s so sad to think that the announcement of Becker’s death today, at the age of 67, puts an end to one of popular music’s great songwriting and record-making partnerships.

Amid the booming rock scene of the 1970s, in which anything seemed possible, Steely Dan made music that will last. That doesn’t make them unique, but it is a tribute to the enormous care and effort Becker and Fagen put into constructing the nine studio albums they made together under that name between 1972 and 2003. Their clever words, clever time-signatures and clever chords were the product of two enthusiasts dissatisfied with anything but the cleverest music they could possibly produce.

Fagen first encountered Becker at Bard College in upstate New York. He was walking past a building used for musical practice and heard someone playing a guitar in the style of Howlin’ Wolf’s records. The two bonded quickly over their shared interest in, as Fagen put it in his statement today, “jazz (from the ’20s through the mid-’60s, W.C Fields, the Marx brothers, science fiction, Nabokov, Kurt Vonnegut, Thomas Berger, and Robert Altman films… Also soul music and Chicago blues.” All that, and much more, was in their music.

They were also unique in that, as musicians in their own band, they usually preferred to call on others to enhance their vision. Becker started as Steely Dan’s bass player, but he was also very fine rock guitarist — just listen to his lead parts on “Black Friday”, from Katy Lied“Josie”, from Aja and “West of Hollywood” from Two Against Nature. Yet he was happy to hand that job to a succession of players with different skills and sensibilities. Some of them were Denny Dias, Jeff “Skunk” Baxter, Elliott Randall, Dean Parks, Hugh McCracken, Lee Ritenour, Jay Graydon and Steve Khan. The same would be true of the attitude he and Fagen shared towards the keyboard players, drummers and saxophonists they chose to articulate their vision: only the best, on their very best day, would do.

And so, very unusually in their chosen field, their wild imaginations were matched by their obsessively exigent craftsmanship. They were also some kind of weird cats. They were lucky to have their partnership, and so were we.

* The photograph of Becker (left) and Fagen is, I believe, by Anton Corbijn. I hope he doesn’t mind my use of it on this occasion. For the story of the duo in great detail, concentrating on the music, I recommend Anthony Robustelli’s Steely Dan FAQ (Backbeat Books, 2017).

A hipster’s life and times

Donald FagenOf the many, many entertaining passages sprinkled throughout Eminent Hipsters, Donald Fagen’s slender volume of memoir and musing, one in particular caught my attention. Looking back on his teenage years, the co-founder of Steely Dan recalls the experience of taking a girl to a jazz club in the mid-Sixties, hoping to share with her the experience of listening to some of the music to which he is in thrall. They’re on a date: the boy in a preppie blazer, the girl in a little black dress.

Imagine a split-screen, Fagen writes. On the left, the kid’s eyes are wide, his face is flushed; he’s transfixed. He can’t believe he’s finally in a real jazz club twelve feet away from the great John Coltrane, who’s blowing up a storm. His date, on the right side of the screen, is in hell. Although she’s heard her boyfriend talk about jazz, this is her first real exposure. She’s been in this tiny, smoky, smelly room for almost an hour now, nursing screwdrivers and being forced to listen to four Negroes creating a din that sounds like nothing imagined on God’s earth. She’s got her head in her hands down on the table because it hurts, a real pounder behind the eyes. Most humiliating is the fact that her boyfriend has forsaken her for a black man who seems to be using his silver horn as a satanic instrument of masturbation. The two sides of the screen merge when she finally pulls on her date’s arm and demands to be escorted out. In the clubs, this classic scene can still be glimpsed today, always interesting, always poignant.

Indeed it can. And how exquisitely Fagen recalls the tumult of emotions that many of us must have shared on such occasions, before we acquired sufficient pragmatic wisdom to know that this music and most (although not all) girlfriends were better kept apart.

Eminent Hipsters is a surprise and a joy. The first half consists of essays illuminating the various youthful enthusiasms and some of the people and events that would shape his life: the route into jazz provided by the music of Henry Mancini, the programmes of the jazz disc jockey Mort Fega (the model for the protagonist of The Nightfly, Fagen’s first solo album), his days at Bard College and the fateful meeting with Walter Becker, who would become his partner in Steely Dan.

Some of these have been published before, in Premiere, Slate, Harper’s Bazaar and Jazz Times; one that hasn’t is his reminiscence of the devotion of his mother, a night-club singer, to the Boswell Sisters. If, like me, you know them only by name, Fagen’s description of their recordings will sent you straight off in search of the moment, during their 1932 version of “We Just Couldn’t Say Good-bye”, when a sudden key-change from F major to F minor makes us feel, in Fagen’s description, as though “we’ve been instantly transported from the sleepy Delta to Times Square on a Saturday night.”

With page 86 (of 159), however, the book executes an abrupt key-change of its own. The essay format is abandoned and for the rest of the volume we’re into an intimate diary of the two-month tour undertaken in the summer of 2012 by Fagen, Boz Scaggs and Michael McDonald, calling themselves the Dukes of September Rhythm Revue — a successor to the shows presented by the same singers almost 20 years earlier, when they called themselves the New York Rock and Soul Revue.

I don’t think I’ve read a more unvarnished and punishingly self-aware expression of the sensations experienced by a musician of Fagen’s age and standing while on the road and experiencing what he calls Acute Tour Disorder (ATD), a syndrome that tends to magnify every small irritation into a source of major annoyance. Hotels, venues, audiences and his own performances are mercilessly criticised. We hear how Scaggs and McDonald save money by passing up the various Grand Hyatts and Four Seasons, choosing instead to sleep on their upholstered, blacked-out and soundproofed tour bus in the venue car-parks. “I’ve tried that a few times,” Fagen remarks. “It felt more like the lifestyle of an insect than a human.”

Fagen frets about his health, in particular a spider bite that he fears will turn necrotic, swallows painkillers and sleeping pills, listens to Stravinsky in his room, and spills the beans on “privates”: those high-paying gigs undertaken by major recording artists for corporations celebrating success or individuals celebrating birthdays, weddings, bar mitzvahs, etc. Everybody of his generation seems to do them nowadays, as a result of the discovery that album royalties can no longer be guaranteed to maintain them in accustomed luxury, but a certain amount of consequent self-loathing is involved.

“The worst are corporate gigs where the band is hired to perform in front of several hundred or a hundred or even fifty suits at a convention or company party,” he writes. “They usually sit at tables, dinner-theatre style, maybe with their wives or, just as often, hired escorts, and consume a lot of hard liquor. If they’ve hired a top band, it means they’ve had a good year and the leadership has invested in a real blowout, a wang-dang-doodle, although they never look as though they’re having much fun. The hookers like to get up and dance.”

Occasionally real life makes a painful intrusion. He’s in Orange Beach, Florida when he learns of the death of the son of his wife, the singer Libby Titus, whom they have been unable to save from his addictions and suicidal impulses. Anyone who has spent a part of their life on the road, in whatever circumstances, will identify with that, and with the solution: deal with it, and carry on.

* The photograph of Donald Fagen, taken by Danny Clinch, is from the jacket of Eminent Hipsters, published in the US by Viking Penguin and in the UK by Jonathan Cape.