Walter Becker and Donald Fagen aka Steely Dan occupy a unique place in “rock” music. While much of their work sounds as though it’s been hauled straight out of the jazz canon, in 32 years they’ve only ever recorded one non-original tune… and that was Duke Ellington’s “East St. Louis Toodle-Oo.” Earlier this year (2000) they released the acclaimed comeback Two Against Nature, and recently completed a sold-out UK tour. Chris Ingham meets the two master musicians who rarely talk to the press but have turned “rock” songs into “jazz” classics.
By Chris Ingham
Waiting for Walter Becker and Donald Fagen AKA Steely Dan in their publicist’s New York office, I spot two mouth-wateringly opulent 24 CD sets of Duke Ellington: The Complete RCA Victor Recordings 1927-1973 on a shelf, still shrink-wrapped, “one each for Walter and Donald,” the publicist explained.
(Dan’s record company, Giant, is under the same BMG umbrella as the Ellington RCA archives.) I enthusiastically point the sets out to Becker and Fagen when they arrive. “Oh yeah,” drawled Donald Fagen, not making a move to pick the box up, “we already know most of that stuff.”
For many jazz enthusiasts, that is the essence of what makes Steely Dan the coolest of rock bands: they know most of that stuff.
Meeting in New York’s bohemian Bard University in the mid-’60s, Becker (a bassist and blues guitarist) and Fagen (a “mostly self-taught” jazz pianist, a hopeful saxophonist and reluctant vocalist) were a pair of hipster misfits who shared tastes in beat literature and jazz. They began writing rock songs with aspirations to Dylan-esque cryptic depth and melodic sophistication; “classical and jazzical Third Stream,” assesses Fagen.
Answering an advert in Village Voice that read, “Bass and keyboard player required, must have jazz chops. No assholes need apply,” Becker and Fagen found themselves with a band. Between 1972-80, they released seven albums, the latter few of which remain among the most fine-honed and sophisticated in the entire rock canon.
Quitting touring in ’74, subsequent output established that Steely Dan was not a band at all, just Walter, Donald and an ever-flowing tributary of top session musicians. Yet, when they started touring again in ’93 with hired jazz hands and even on this year’s triumphant comeback album Two Against Nature, they always produced the unmistakable sound of Steely Dan.
“One thing that people don’t realize is that we never, ever went for a specific kind of sound, even in the ’70s,” says Fagen. “It’s really a function of what we like to hear. A kind of rhythm and blues foundation with jazz harmonies and my voice and a few other points of style give you that sound.”
Becker attributes their sound to clarity and consistency of conception. “I have a CD at home, an Impulse sampler, all recorded over a period of four or five years in the early ’60s for the Impulse label by Rudy Van Gelder, produced by Bob Thiele. Cut to cut, all of these records sound like they were made on the same day, the sounds were consistent, Coltrane, the drums, it’s really remarkable. And the reason is the engineer and the producer had a really clear idea of what they thought things should sound like. Same with Ellington. Granted there was consistency in his bands too which he fought for, but here was a guy who obviously had a vision of something and it didn’t change a whole hell of a lot over time. He enriched it and added to his vocabulary but it sounds like the same guy. Why wouldn’t it?”
Fagen’s jazz influences stem from an early rejection of post-Chuck Berry rock ‘n’ roll, childhood exposure to Symphony Sid’s jazz radio show and Red Garland’s Jazz Junction album. Fagen: “I bought it and ever since I’ve tried to imitate his style in the privacy of my own home.” They both cite “the best jazz players from the ’50s and ’60s” as primary influences. Significantly, the DJ on the cover of Fagen’s 1981 solo album The Nightfly has a copy of Sonny Rollins’s The Contemporary Leaders to hand.
“You might say that Walter and I have a rather narrow spectrum of taste when it comes to that sort of thing,” Fagen once remarked. “I like Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane up to the point where he self-destructed jazz. He got a little smart and ventured into realms where no man should ever tread. I also dig Mingus, Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, Eric Dolphy, sax players in general and good rhythm sections. Also Miles’s quintets.”
Both Becker and Fagen agree on the pre-eminence of Bird. A college pal remembers Becker and Fagen explaining world history to him thus; the planet formed, the earth cooled, fire was discovered, the wheel was invented, Charlie Parker appeared and it was downhill from there.
Though the majority of their song structures have a pop/rock base and their grooves are mainly rooted in R&B and occasionally Latin rhythms, the harmonic element of their compositions became increasingly jazz-oriented with each album. Lacking confidence in themselves as players, they hired dozens of the greatest rock, jazz and session musicians to realize their singular compositions.
Having relocated to L.A., they forged a close relationship with Brit-jazz wunderkindturned prodigious session man Victor Feldman who appeared on keyboards and percussion on all of their ‘70s albums. “Victor always treated us good,” remembers Becker. “However, there was another generation of jazz musicians who resented the idea that young guys would be popularizing elements of jazz music in their pop music. In the early ’70s in L.A. we would hire someone and not know whether that guy was going to show up and be interested, amused and delighted as say Victor was, or angered and disgusted the way certain other musicians were.”
Fagen: “They were probably mad at themselves for whoring out as they saw it. It didn’t happen very often. It happened once in a while, that was a typical interaction between rock people and jazz people in that period, though musicians our age and younger were used to playing in fusion bands from the middle ’70s. A lot of black guys had played in R&B bands, it’s always used to be part of what goes into making a jazz man. Coltrane used to play in R&B bands.”
Many of the current generation of jazz musicians were brought up to revere Dan (Fagen: “Yeah, we’re very big in classroom jazz”) and these days, playing for Steely Dan is one of the prestigious gigs for a musician-for-hire. Though the drummer’s role in Dan is less flexible than that of a soloist, they still look to the best to do the job. Peter Erskine, ex-Weather Report drummer and recently leader of two beautiful ECM piano trio albums with John Taylor, was the first choice on the reunion tour of ’93.
“I never knew how much fun it could be to play a bass drum on 1 and 3 and a snare drum on 2 and 4,” comments Erskine. “Jeez, I felt that years have gone by and I’ve missed something that a lot of other drummers have known. And, it’s not easy to do … to get it lay right. But it’s just as satisfying as the interactive jazz drumming that I like to do. And in some ways it’s more satisfying.”
Erskine also tells a story about testing Becker’s and Fagen’s legendary obsession with tempo and groove by notching up the strictly prescribed tempo of a tune one night by a single beat-per-minute, just to see if they noticed. They did.
Part of the Steely Dan fable is the exacting, often perplexing personal standards they demand of the performances of guest soloists. There a scene in the Classic Albums TV program on Aja where they re-visit some of the accomplished-sounding but rejected guitar solos of “Peg,” fading them up and down with terrifyingly dismissive comments. It’s a fascinating glimpse of that select Club Of Two that has daunted so many musicians.
On Two Against Nature, Chris Potter is the latest in an elite pantheon of saxophonists (that includes Wayne Shorter, Michael Brecker, David Sanborn and Phil Woods) to have passed the audition. Becker: “We just couldn’t shake him. He seemed prepared to improvise soulfully and swingingly over any kind of chords we gave him. Jeez.”
Fagen agrees: “We tried to stump him but no matter what we came up with it didn’t seem to really matter to him. Also, he was essentially reading chords, running the changes usually at first or second sight.”
Perhaps they should have made him play by ear. Fagen: “Without the chords in front of him? We’re gonna do that next time. You know, once he’d played ’em once through, he sort of was, actually, ha ha! He was kinda looking this way out the corner of his eye.”
A proportion of their material, at least one track per album (two on Two Against Nature – “Jack Of Speed” and “What A Shame About Me”) examines the altered possibilities of the blues. Fagen: “Sort of in the Blue Note tradition of Horace Silver, Herbie Hancock, that tune they made a rap out of, “Cantaloup Island.” Blues up to point. A lot of what we do is grappling with how to make the blues more interesting.”
Though Fagen is a pertinent pianist who, on the ’96 tour, made second keyboardist John Beasley sound positively garrulous, he continues to shun the spotlight as a player. Fagen: “We can’t play as fast as those guys. Ha ha.” However, on the blues-based tunes – indeed on most of Two Against Nature – Becker comes into his own as an affecting, effective, altered blues guitarist. Becker: “Donald encouraged me lot and I think it was more important to have a take on what the music about than a lot of chops. A rhythmic attitude.”
Fagen: “Walter plays in that Chicago pocket, that’s why I particularly like it. It’s hard to find younger musicians who can lay that far back, yank it around.”
Becker: “There has been a rhythmic shift over the years that’s caused us no end of difficulty, where people feel the centre of the beat in a different place than what we’re trying to do. It was already starting to happen by the end of the ‘70s.”
Fagen: “Yeah, people weren’t hauling the groove around like they used to with that kind of confidence. You can hear it in Miles Davis’s playing, Thelonious Monk, Muddy Waters.”
Becker has a lot of space in which to yank it around, the backings on Two Against Nature are very sparse. Fagen: “We realized that things generally sound better with more air in the rhythm track. It’s sort of fun when the sustaining instruments suddenly disappear and you’re left with rhythm track and you can hear the detail of what the rhythm players are doing. Not unlike Count Basie. The best thing about the Basie things, this huge band stripped down to a trio with the tiny Freddie Green guitar.”
As literate pop/rock writers with a jazz understanding, they’re virtually in a genre by themselves. Does that satisfy them or would they have relished a little competition? Fagen: “I would have liked it if it had worked out so that there was more combination of genres. Maybe some people who had more jazz background and who could play rhythm and blues, or understand what’s good about that. There may have been more interesting or smarter genres but it just didn’t happen.”
Becker: “The amazing thing for jazz fans is that more musicians don’t like that kind of music [jazz]. Musicians just went in a different direction. It’s not just that they’re not interested, they actively dislike it. It’s actually repulsive to them to move away from triads and, you know.”
Fagen: “That’s standard since the bebop era. You can still clear a room in downtown Manhattan by putting on a Charlie Parker record.”
Steelin’ in the Years
Can’t Buy A Thrill (1972)
Patchy debut that deliberately favoured simplified material over earlier songs considered “a little more pretentious” (Fagen). Highlights include original guitarist Denny Dias’s frantic modal/bop/blues workout on electric sitar over the droning, minor-key ‘Do It Again’. Note also Jerome Richardson’s (tenor) and Snooky Young’s (fluegelhorn) discreet curtain of horns on ‘Dirty Work’, Elliot Randall’s screaming guitar solo on ‘Reeling In The Years’ and Fagen’s assertive piano work on ‘Fire In The Hole’.
Countdown To Ecstasy (1973)
One of the great rock albums of the period. ‘Bodhisattva’ was soon adapted for live performance to incorporate Charlie Parker’s ‘Blues For Alice’ chord charges, bassist Ray Brown cameos on ‘Razor Boy’, the dorian mode is given a good seeing to ‘Your Gold Teeth’ and chord quota/density is conspicuously hiked, particularly on the portentous introduction to ‘The Boston Rag’ and the spacey fusion of the fade to ‘King Of The World’.
Pretzel Logic (1974)
‘Rikki Don’t Lose That Number’ borrows Horace Silver’s ‘Song For My Father’ groove; “I hadn’t been thinking of that,” assures Fagen. “I met him a couple of years ago, he was very flattered actually. He sent my wife an original lyric that he had written for ‘Song For My Father’.” Bird is saluted in ‘Parker’s Band’ (with ‘Bird Feathers’ quoted in the coda) and Ellington’s ‘East St. Louis Toodle-Oo’ — the only non-Becker/Fagen tune they ever recorded — is painstakingly transcribed for Dan ensemble. Bubber Miley’s trumpet growling is approximated by Becker’s wah-wah guitar, Tricky Sam Nanton’s trombone is duplicated on pedal steel, Fagan’s piano solo is a composite of “four bad clarinet solos.”
Katy Lied (1975)
Their first, suitably evolved, post-touring album. Phil Woods nails his alto break on ‘Doctor Wu’ first go but the fiendish time signature trickery of ‘Your Gold Teeth II’ eludes the band until Becker and Fagen play them a Charles Mingus track with similar qualities.
The Royal Scam (1976)
Their first masterpiece of composition, production and performance. Stars of the show include Larry Carlton playing two of the best guitar solos of his life on ‘Kid Charlemagne’ and ‘Don’t Take Me Alive’, Don Grolnick and his piano obligatos on ‘Sign In Stranger’ and drummer Bernard Purdie’s groove on ‘Green Earrings’.
Timeless, flawless rock-jazz in which every musical moment has something to recommend it. Arbitrary highlights include Wayne Shorter’s and Steve Gadd’s incendiary meeting in the middle of the title track, Jay Graydon’s guitar solo on ‘Peg’ and the rhythm charts throughout ‘prepared by Larry Carlton, Dean Parks and Michael Omartian in collaboration with the composers’, as the sleeve credits note.
A decadent, glossy near-swansong. Characterised by the tightest, most atmospheric ensembles yet, Becker and Fagen barely appear on it. “A lot of what eventually ends up being striking is just the way the musicians end up playing it,” notes Becker. “Even as on ‘Babylon Sisters’ with most of the band just sort of reading the chart, the mood of the thing is defined by the way everybody plays. At that time, we were pretty lucky to get performances that we got out of guys like that.”
Two Against Nature (2000)
A fifth of a century later and we’re back in Dan land. ‘Negative Girl’ is as opaque a composition as they have ever produced, Becker’s aching guitar work is the main instrumental feature though Chris Potter is deft and witty on ‘Janie Runaway’ and is allowed the longest solo on any Steely Dan album with his 3 minute 50 second blow on the mischievous fade of ‘West Of Hollywood’.