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Posts tagged ‘Steely Dan’

Reuben Fowler’s ‘Black Cow’

reuben fowler 2

In my experience, jazz musicians tend to approve of Steely Dan. The mixture of sardonic outlook, funny chords and respect for fine improvisers seems to do it. Herbie Hancock, Ahmad Jamal, Christian McBride and Mel Tormé were among those who covered their songs. A few months ago I enjoyed hearing the students of the Guildhall School of Music’s jazz course performing variations on Donald Fagen’s classic album, The Nightfly. Now comes Reuben Fowler, a gifted young London-based trumpeter, composer and arranger, with a download-only big band version of “Black Cow” — track one of the Dan’s album Aja — whose proceeds will go to Cancer Research’s oesophageal cancer unit, in memory of Walter Becker.

Steely Dan’s music wasn’t jazz. A rock body with a jazz head, maybe. Anyway, it responds well to being played by jazz musicians, as it usually was on the original albums, as long as they don’t try to play tricks with it. Fowler’s “Black Cow” is respectful to the work put in on the slinky groove of the original by the likes of Joe Sample, Victor Feldman, Larry Carlton, Chuck Rainey and Paul Humphrey. Jason Rebello (Fender Rhodes piano), Rob Luft (guitar), Lawrence Cottle (bass guitar) and Ian Thomas (drums) hit all the marks, while Paul Booth’s muscular tenor solo loses nothing by a comparison with Tom Scott’s original. The Average White Band’s Hamish Stuart does a great job with the enigmatic lyric — a little hoarser and more wearied than Fagen, but that works, too. Fowler’s arrangement wisely plays it cool until the finale, when the power of four trumpets, four trombones and eight reeds filters through to stirring effect.

I’m not normally a fan of downloads and streaming, for reasons mostly to do with the shamefully inadequate way they remunerate the artists. In this instance, however, the music and the motive make it a must. It’s also a nice way to celebrate Aja‘s 40th anniversary (which was actually last September). And at some time in the future Fowler — who was born 12 years after that album made its appearance — might put together a whole album of this stuff, which would be a very nice thing indeed to have.

* “Black Cow” by the Reuben Fowler Big Band is released on the Ubuntu label and can be found on the regular download and streaming platforms, including Apple Music, Spotify, Deezer and Tidal. The photograph of Fowler is by James Gardiner Bateman.

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. 

Session man

Hugh McCrackenHugh McCracken, the great New York session guitarist who contributed to recordings by Paul Simon, Steely Dan, Laura Nyro, Aretha Franklin, the Monkees and countless others, including all four Beatles, died on March 28, aged 70. Most of the obituaries, including this one in the New York Times, carried the anecdote about John Lennon meeting McCracken for the first time at the “Happy Xmas (War is Over)” session in October 1971 and, on learning that he’d played on Paul McCartney’s Ram earlier that year, telling him: “You know that was just an audition to get to play with me.”

The quote came directly from an interview with McCracken himself, but he didn’t get it exactly right. What happened that evening at the Record Plant was that Lennon was introduced to the group of guitarists who, playing acoustic instruments, were going to lay down the basic track for the song, according to the formula required by Phil Spector. All but one of them were young and inexperienced.

He asked them for their names. “Chris.” “Stu.” “Teddy.” “Hugh.” Lennon turned to Yoko Ono and said, “Hey, Yoko, doesn’t Hugh look just like Ivan?” Yoko didn’t respond. “Hugh, you look just like a mate of mine from school. A cross between him and Paul.”

He was referring to Ivan Vaughan, the friend who played bass guitar with the Quarrymen and introduced Lennon to McCartney at Woolton village fete that famous July day in 1957. Vaughan had known Lennon since childhood and had gone to school with McCartney, with whom he shared a birthdate. He studied classics at university, became a teacher, and was later engaged by the Beatles to develop an education project on Apple’s behalf. He was diagnosed as suffering from Parkinson’s disease in 1977 and died in 1993.

A little later, during a break, someone told Lennon about McCracken’s impressive record as a session man, including his contribution to McCartney’s second solo album a few months earlier.

“Oh,” Lennon responded. “So you were just auditioning on Ram, were you?”

If you think I’m splitting hairs here, you’re probably correct. But we might as well get the verbatim right for posterity’s benefit, if there’s going to be a posterity.

McCracken was a first-choice session man who could nevertheless often be found playing the less glamorous rhythm parts behind guitarists with bigger reputations. But if I had to pick a highlight from his career in the studio, it would probably be Steely Dan’s “Hey Nineteen”, a track from Gaucho (1980), to which he contributes a startling intro and a discreet but beautifully shaped short solo.

* The photograph of McCracken is taken from http://www.jimmyvivino.com — the website of the guitarist who leads the house band on Conan O’Brien’s late-night chat show on TBS, the US cable channel.