By Woodrow Wilkins
There’s an engaging quality to Donald Fagen’s songwriting and perfectionism that makes Steely Dan fans flock to his solo albums. While The Nightfly (1982) and Kamakiriad (1993) were expressly Fagen, Morph the Cat closely resembles Steely Dan without Walter Becker. The lineup partially reflects the ensemble that recorded the Dan’s 2003 release, Everything Must Go, and toured with the group that year. The cast includes drummer Keith Carlock, guitarists Hugh McCracken and Jon Herington, and trombonist Lawrence Feldman. An assortment of additional musicians and vocalists help Fagen deliver a superb solo effort.
For many years, Steely Dan was keyboardist/lead vocalist Fagen, bassist/guitarist Becker and an ever-changing lineup of session musicians, including Michael McDonald, Larry Carlton, Steve Gadd and Wayne Shorter. On a typical album, no two songs had the same lineup. However, in 1993, around the release of Kamakiriad, the songwriting duo began to assemble a complete band. Several of the musicians who toured with the Dan over the next decade also appeared on Alive in America (1995), Two Against Nature (2000) andE verything Must Go (2003). Meanwhile, Fagen’s solo albums, beginning with 1981’s The Nightfly, have represented something of a trilogy that takes a look at his personal life.
Morph the Cat presents an older Fagen who now faces mortality. The title song is a tale of a strange but almost endearing visitor to Manhattan, who might also be a thinly disguised Grim Reaper. “Morph the Cat is driven by Freddie Washington’s throbbing bass line and features a guitar solo by Herington. “What I Do is a laid-back tribute to the late Ray Charles. Howard Levy provides a bluesy harmonica solo on this track, which is a fictional account of a young Fagen chatting with the ghost of Charles.
“The Great Pagoda of Funn is one of the few straight-out romantic ballads in Fagen’s repertoire. The longest selection on the album is an escapist story of two lovers whose time together offers respite from today’s headlines of “psycho-moms and “dirty bombs. Carlock, one of contemporary jazz’s most versatile drummers, brings the toms out on this one. Marvin Stamm offers an elegant muted trumpet solo.
One of the beautiful things about Fagen’s music—both with Steely Dan and as a solo act — is his ability to meld thought-provoking and sometimes suggestive lyrics with extended instrumental solos. “I like it when songs develop in some way, and four minutes isn’t usually enough time for something to develop musically usually, he says. The additional time — six of the nine tracks are longer than six minutes — allows him to get his lyrical message across while giving plenty of room to the musicians.
Whether singing about death (“Brite Nightgown ), living in bomb shelters (“New Frontier, from The Nightfly) or athletes and drugs (Steely Dan’s “Glamour Profession ), Fagen has a unique ability to make the dark things in life enjoyable. Blending his experiences in jazz, blues, rock and soul, he makes Morph the Cat another in a long list of keepers.
Track Listing: Morph the Cat; H Gang; What I Do; Brite Nitegown; The Great Pagoda of Funn; Security Joan; The Night Belongs to Mona; Mary Shut the Garden Door; Morph the Cat (Reprise).
Personnel: Keith Carlock: drums; Freddie Washington: bass guitar; Jon Herington, Wayne Krantz, Hugh McCracken, Ken Emerson, Ken Wessel, Frank Vignola: guitars; Donald Fagen: Fender piano, vocals; Phonus Quave: vibes, marimba; Jerry Barnes, Amy Helm, Carolyn Leonhart, Cindy Mizella, Michael Harvey: backup vocals; Marvin Stamm: trumpet; Walt Weiskopf: tenor sax; Ted Baker: piano; Mark Patterson: trombone; Lawrence Feldman: clarinet; Roger Rosenberg: baritone sax; Gordon Gottlieb, Joe Pasaro, Bashiri Johnson: percussion; Howard Levy: harmonica; Jennifer Battista, Eddie Jackson, Camille Meza, Candice Predham: clappers; Harlan Post Jr.: acoustic bass; Illinois Elohainu: flutes; Brian Montgomery: remedial bass guitar.