By Ted Giola
When jazz fans look back at the fusion music of the late 1960s and 1970s, they tend to see only half of the picture. They remember the jazz musicians who crossed over to the rock and pop charts, but they forget the other side of the equation — the rock and pop acts who embraced the jazz idiom.
Yet for every Miles Davis, there was a Frank Zappa. For every Weather Report, there was a Blood, Sweat and Tears. For every Grover Washington, there was a Joni Mitchell. And though it is easy to dismiss the long-haired hippie types who dared mess with jazz, the fact is that the rockers had at least one big advantage.
Perhaps it was only a psychological advantage, but (as Yogi Berra once said) the mental half is ninety percent of the game. When rock or pop musicians tackled jazz, they usually believed they were raising the level of their music. Embracing jazz was their way of aspiring to a higher degree of artistry.
The jazz musicians who took on rock-and-roll rarely had such high and mighty notions. True, there were a few jazz cats who moved into fusion for aesthetic reasons, but the vast majority did it for baser motives – a chance at a bigger payday or a larger dose of fame.
When Sonny Rollins recorded “Disco Monk,” he certainly had some goals in mind, but I doubt that one of them was a plan to raise his music to a grander level of expression. When Count Basie started covering songs by the Beatles, he may have had his reasons, but who dares claim that he had decided that the Liverpool sound was cooler than Kansas City swing?
The rock and pop acts who embraced jazz, in contrast, often did so despite commercial considerations. When Joni Mitchell released her Mingus LP, it proved to be her poorest selling release in a decade. To some extent, Joni never regained the mass market audience she had enjoyed before this move. Zappa had his best sales when he squeezed the jazz out of his recordings, and opted instead for “Valley Girl” shtick. The band Chicago sold more records, the less jazz they put into them. In short, when the rock-and-pop folks added jazz to the mix, it invariably hurt their marketability and compromised their prospects. For this reason, I like to champion the rock side of jazz-rock fusion, give a nod to the commercial artists who elevated their music during this turbulent period despite the costs.
No band epitomized turbo-charged pop-jazz better than Steely Dan. The group was formed around the nucleus of Donald Fagen and Walter Becker, who met at Bard College in 1967. They played together in various groups (one of which, The Bad Rock Group, featured future comedian Chevy Chase on drums). But the success of their LP, Can’t Buy a Thrill brought the duo fame as Steely Dan, and during the 1970s they released a series of albums marked by smart song-writing, lots of attitude, and impeccable musicianship. Becker and Fagen brought in the best studio musicians for their projects – so much so, that being asked to participate on a Steely Dan LP became a sign that a studio player had reached the top rung of the ladder. The material was perfectly suited for displaying jazz chops. These songs had some bite, helped along by juicy chord changes and clever arrangements.
But this music also succeeded because of the sly lyrics. The words to these songs were sassy and in-your-face, sometimes a little ambiguous. (What was that number that Rikki was supposed to send off in a letter to himself? Or is it herself? Is it a number between one and ten? Nowadays could you send it off in an email to yourself?) I especially liked the way the lyrics combined macho bravado with raw vulnerability. This was a paradoxical mixture, but Becker and Fagen pulled it off. Even a single couplet could play on both tough and soft angles – for example, on “Deacon Blues,” where Fagen sings: “I cried when I wrote this song / Sue me if I play too long.” Hearing that made me wish I could write a line that combined “I cried” and “sue me” in a single burst of poetry.
The breakup of Steely Dan in 1981 signaled the end of an era. The great age of fusion was over, for all intents and purposes. The formula had become formulaic. Yet Donald Fagen followed up with a solo project the following year, The Nightfly, which showed that the idea of mixing pop and jazz still could produce one final masterpiece.
And The Nightfly is definitely a masterpiece. Everything about this project clicks. The musicianship is outstanding throughout. (Of course, when you can bring in the Breckers, Larry Carlton, Jeff Porcaro, and other top drawer talent, you can rest assured that the beat will be happening even if the tune is “Mairzy Doats.”) But these songs are also a cut above, displaying some of Fagen’s deepest lyrics, along with the great chord changes and infectious grooves that distinguished his Steely Dan efforts.
Even Fagen’s singing, which is not his strong suit, works wonderfully here, and when he overdubs his own voice on “Maxine,” he charms me both with the vocal arrangement, and even more with a rare moment during which the he lets down his guard. Instead of the tough boy after school attitude, so characteristic of Steely Dan, he gives us a glimpse of sweet high school love, all the sweeter for its confusion of reality and dreamy hopes. This is one of the most endearing pop-fusion ballads, and pulls at the heartstrings because (for once) the listener knows more than the narrator of the song, knows that these early spring loves rarely survive the winter.
And then there is the peculiar, yet strangely affecting theme that pervades the project. For The Nightfly is a theme album, even if it is hard to articulate the thematic content with precision. Let’s say that Fagen tried to combine a nostalgic look at the past with an optimistic look at the future. Or, to be more precise, Fagen fixates on the shallow concepts of the future that were the common currency in the 1950s and 1960s. How else could you justify a song about the “I.G.Y.”? (I.G.Y. stands for the International Geophysical Year, which was 1957-58. And if you want to learn more about it, don’t ask me; email a geophysicist or visit Wikipedia.) Who else would write a song about the New Frontier?
These songs are full of odd references to what naive youngsters in the Eisenhower – Kennedy years would expect from the future. Fagen sings about wearing spandex jackets, listening to Brubeck, and traveling undersea by rail. Everything is “graphite and glitter.” And even when he tackles a darker topic, as when he hints at an island revolution on “The Goodbye Look,” in a setting that just might be Havana, the mood is airy and light. This is more “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” than the Godfather II.
I think that this strange angle on the 1950s and early 1960s is one of the reasons for this album’s lasting appeal. After the Kennedy assassination, America lost its innocence. We became a cynical nation. My friend Ken Engelhart will even tell you that the violence in American motion pictures starting in the late 1960s comes mostly out of the subliminal impact of the Zapruder film. And he may be right. This is the ominous clock that Fagen tries to roll back, and this is his genius. While other works try to evoke the old days by focusing on sock hops and malt shop – think Happy Days or Grease — Fagen understands that these were the most superficial aspects of the era. What we lost after the Zapruder moment was not our past. It was our future. The Nightfly recaptures that very element, in all its elusiveness. These are songs about the future we lost back in the past, and in that convoluted way resonate with tragedy behind their happy, optimistic facade.
An album as perfect as The Nightfly seemed to promise a great solo career for Fagen, and his fans eagerly waited for the follow-up recording. And they waited . . . . and waited. Finally Kamakiriad came out in 1993. Under different circumstances, this project might have made a bigger impact, but after eleven years, even a strong offering from Fagen was bound to seem anti-climactic. And the theme of Kamakiriad, which is still future oriented, but now in a more cartoonish sci-fi manner, didn’t help. Even the MTV video for the release seemed to take delight in cheesy animation effects. But thought the CD lacked have the resonance of The Nightfly, the songs were still well-crafted and impeccably played. Fagen fell short only because he had led us to expect so much.
With the release of Morph the Cat in 2006, Fagen completed what now proved to be a trilogy of solo CDs. Certainly Fagen knows how to put closure on a project. With its themes of old age and death, this final release moved a world away from the New Frontier attitudes of The Nightfly. This is a daring move for a pop musician, but Fagen has never been one to play it safe. And though the angle may jar some listeners, it is an honest one. Above all, the grooves are still happening. Tracks like “H Gang,” “Security Joan” and “The Great Pagoda of Funn” show that fusion can still blow a fuse or two. These performances also make clear the stylistic unity linking Fagen’s work from the early 1970s to the present day