By Robert Kinsler
The Orange County Register
LOS ANGELES — When it comes to performances of the best-known jazz-rock album in popular music, it’s next to impossible to imagine anything outdistancing the live version of Steely Dan‘s Aja that thrilled a capacity crowd at the Greek Theatre Friday night.
For 43 magical minutes, the Dan (singer-keyboardist Donald Fagen and guitarist Walter Becker, both now in their early 60s) teamed with an inspired troupe of eight musicians and three female singers, collectively known as the Miles High Big Band, and chronologically performed all of the 1977 classic’s seven tracks as if each was a key song in the setlist. This revival, part of a so-called Shuffle Diplomacy Twenty Eleven Tour, confirmed that the Hall of Famers’ mega-selling sixth album has a timeless, sophisticated sound still able to cast a spell when handled with care.
Throughout the night, whether deep in the thick of Aja (which opened the concert) or wending through any of the dozen or so hits and deep cuts that followed, the 13-member ensemble made few missteps. The complex harmonies in “Black Cow” and “Aja” were spot-on thanks to the blending of Fagen’s distinctively scratchy voice with the smooth pipes of Cindy Mizelle, Carolyn Leonhart-Escoffery and Catherine Russell. Another bonus: the combined power of those vocalists never overpowered Fagen’s lines, as evidenced by a chilling performance of “Home at Last” and the upbeat “Peg.”
Steely Dan honored Aja with versions mostly faithful to the originals, though there were obvious moments when new intros, big finishes or slightly extended instrumental jams injected an all-important spontaneous element to the show. Wrapping up with an electrifying “Josie,” highlighted by Becker’s jazzy guitar playing, the troupe earned a well-deserved standing ovation — but rather than take a short intermission, the group powered on, proving that the next 75 minutes would be icing on the cake.
“So what do you want to do now?” Fagen asked the crowd.
Having already scored the winning run, Steely Dan kicked off the last part of the show with “Your Gold Teeth,” a mid-tempo dose of jazz-pop that really allowed the musicians to stretch out. All four guys in the horn section (Michael Leonhart, Walt Weiskopf, Roger Rosenberg and Jim Pugh) were given a chance to solo, with Rosenberg’s work on the baritone sax especially shining. “Time Out of Mind” offered a chance for Becker and virtuoso lead guitarist Jon Herington to trade speedy licks, while “Show Biz Kids” had the group blending old-school funk and jazz.
Casual fans seemed pleased with the top-tier players that filled the stage, yet it was classic hits that elicited the biggest cheers and ultimately got everyone on their feet. The group responded in kind, ending this rewarding night in big-time fashion with a rocking “Reelin’ in the Years,” during which drummer Keith Carlock wowed, plus an encore boasting both an exhilarating “Bodhisattva” and a rousing take on “Kid Charlemagne.”
Wonder how many of those, if any, will be repeated when Steely Dan plays again tonight, July 9, at the Greek, serving up a setlist pre-selected by fans via online voting. Tickets are $50-$125.