By Chris Jisi
Bass Player Magazine
It remains one of the most exclusive and longest-running clubs in the sideman realm: cutting bass tracks for Walter Becker and Donald Fagen—either in their collective form, Steely Dan, or on their equally sophisticated solo CDs. What bassist wouldn’t want to join the likes of Chuck Rainey, Anthony Jackson, Marcus Miller, Will Lee, Abraham Laboriel, Tom Barney, “Ready” Freddie Washington, and Becker himself behind the velvet ropes? And what bass writer wouldn’t want to join a telephone roundtable with the four bass players on Donald Fagen’s latest CD, Sunken Condos, an energetic, feelrich collection of wry fables with an emphasis on funk? The roundtable concept was the brainchild of album co-producer Michael Leonhart (most visibly Steely Dan’s longtime trumpeter, but also a talented composer, arranger, and studio savant).
Leonhart, who played all the live drums on the CD under the pseudonym Earl Cooke Jr., also stood in on the phone panel for the disc’s fifth bassist, Harlan Post—who is actually Donald Fagen’s synth bass-playing alter ego (Fagen’s bass “nom de musica” first appeared on his 2006 solo CD, Morph the Cat). The other four phone-bound thumpers were Dan-vet Freddie Washington in Los Angeles, currently on tour with the Dukes of September (Fagen, Michael McDonald, and Boz Scaggs); upright jazz bassist and solo artist Joe Martin (Jane Monheit, Joel Frahm), on the road in Japan; and in New York City, veteran plucker Lincoln Schleifer, who worked in Fagen’s New York Rock and Soul Revue in the ’90s and more recently with Donald at the late Levon Helm’s famed Midnight Ramble concerts in Woodstock; and Michael’s dad, upright mainstay Jay Leonhart, who has released over a dozen solo discs while anchoring everyone from Liza Minelli, Mel Torme, and Gerry Mulligan to Carly Simon, James Taylor, and Paul Simon. We asked them all for insight into the making of Sunken Condos—a play on Debussy’s “The Sunken Cathedral,” but also a nod to the struggling economy and Fagen’s advancing age (he’s 64)—as well as what it’s like to gain entrance into “the club.”
Michael, how did you come to collaborate with Donald on Sunken Condos?
MICHAEL LEONHART I’ve been working with Donald in Steely Dan for 15 years, and he knows I produce and play multiple instruments. I had a standing offer to help him put together any new material he had, and in March 2010 he asked me to come over and listen to what he had.
Donald’s … err, Harlan Post’s keyboard bass is prevalent, appearing on four tracks, starting with the syncopated part on “I’m Not the Same Without You.”
Donald initially demoed all the songs on synth bass, and nothing that followed had quite the same sound and feel as his original parts. Donald’s fundamental priority is groove, so whatever locked in best, whether electric, acoustic, or synth bass, was the main consideration. For “I’m Not the Same,” Donald had a syncopated R&B/disco concept against a four-on-the-floor kick. His synth bass had a warm sine wave-y vibe that we felt worked better then having the attack, definition, and string noise of a bass guitar.
How about the shuffle part of “Miss Marlene”?
For that I insisted on the original synth bass part, because electric bass would have sounded too derivative of a classic Steely Dan shuffle. The consistent tone gives the track a circular momentum, and it has the punch of a Stevie Wonder keyboard bass track, which lies well against the Rhodes and drums. I’m not a purist about having to have real bass on a song, and Donald only looks forward. He wants be in the here and now; we both don’t want to sound retro.
Throughout the CD, Donald can be heard creating muted notes, varying note durations, and playing scoops, slurs, pull-offs, and even 10ths.
He really has a feel for bass and how to humanize it with his touch, his pitch wheel, and other skills. Interestingly, Lincoln did a great take on “Good Stuff ,” but it felt almost too real and not fantastical enough for the lyric. Plus, the hyper drums needed a murky, more static bass.
FREDDIE WASHINGTON Donald’s keen sensibility for bass also comes from being a great arranger. He knows how to write in the parameters of the instrument.
JOE MARTIN Bass is always a big part of his songs. His parts have this great melodic and intervallic movement, but they also function as solid, supportive bass lines.
This is the first time I can recall Donald using acoustic bass on his records.
MICHAEL LEONHARD Right. The only other time was when Steely Dan hired Ray Brown for “Razor Boy” onCountdown to Ecstacy [MCA, 1973]. Donald demoed the first song we recorded, “Slinky Thing,” with an upright bass sound and figured we’d have to replace it with electric bass. The challenge of finding an upright bassist who could physically do two hours of takes without their pitch, vibrato, and time wavering, plus play with an authentic R&B feel and not get frustrated mentally—because Donald can be intimidating without knowing it—seemed insurmountable. But then I thought of Joe; I’d played with him in jazz clubs for years and had done some soul and boogaloo projects with him. He has a certain calm and confidence, and he always retained his great sound and feel through the last set each night. Sure enough, he kept it right in the pocket take after take. Donald just laughed in amazement.
Joe, how did you approach the funky part in “Slinky Thing”? Did you draw from the electric bass or keyboard bass stylistically?
JOE MARTIN Fortunately, I got to have an informal jam with Donald and Michael first, just playing through some Monk tunes and standards. From there, they gave me a scratch track, a chart with the form, and an idea for the bass line. They wanted the upright sound but also a bit of the sensibility of how an electric bassist might approach it. I played electric before I got to upright, so conceptually I can get that kind of attack on the acoustic, and that’s what I kept in mind. We did some talking and tweaking while recording until we got to what they were looking for.
Lincoln, both “Memorabilia” and “Weather in My Head” sound like written bass lines, but there’s a definite sense of interpretation, especially around the edges. How much freedom were you given?
LINCOLN SCHLEIFER Probably more than I used on “Memorablilia.” I read Donald’s part fairly literally, with maybe a few interjections here or there. With Donald it’s always about feel, pitch, note duration, intensity—it’s all in the details and for the right musical reasons. He’ll also give directions during a performance, like, “Lay back a little.” On “Weather,” I timidly suggested opening the part up in the solo sections, especially on the outro. Donald and Michael were very open to hearing my idea and they liked it and kept it. With a blues-type part like that, I just played like I would on a live gig, without overthinking it.
Your other track, “Planet D’Rhonda,” has an interesting bass sound and reminds me of the “Glamour Profession” bass part, with rests on some of the downbeats.
That’s Michael’s ’71 Gibson Melody Maker, which has a single pickup by the neck. For my sessions, Michael asked me to bring the most lo-fi , warm, funky basses I had, and he brought a few. The Gibson intrigued me, so I put good flatwounds on it and we tried it. It was like having an 808 kick [drum sound]! There was zero high end and a real dub sound; later, when I heard the CD, it actually had more definition than I remembered. The bass line was another of Donald’s great parts, and I read it as written.
Jay, you play an interesting role on “The New Breed.”
JAY LEONHART Yes, and when Michael told me about it and gave me the track, with Harlan Post’s synth bass, I tried to contact Harlan but he never called me back [laughs]. Essentially, we thought of my role as being a comment piece, flying in and out with fills that answered the vocal—like one of the Steely Dan guitarists, but an octave lower. I sat at home and played to the track, getting a sense of the harmonies and trying out ideas. I was also asked to play some slides, à la my mentor, Ray Brown, so that was a nice connection. Oh, and I did play on another song first, a beautiful ballad, for which Donald came out of the control room and gave me all kinds of subtle, terrific suggestions, but then he decided to leave that song off the CD.
MICHAEL LEONHART The synth bass part on “Breed” took the longest to perfect and find the pocket for. Then when the track was almost done, Donald felt something was missing. He referenced Quincy Jones’s score for In Cold Blood, singing the Ray Brown bass slides, and he said, “Your dad would be great on this.” What I really like is how my dad approached the song as basically a blues, like “Peg.” Freddie knows this from all our years of touring; a lot of musicians, when they first get on the Steely Dan gig, try to play over all the extensions that exist in the harmonies, but what Donald and Walter ask is that you commit to just playing the blues against their chord changes.
Freddie, let’s talk about your part on “Out of the Ghetto.” Had you heard the original Isaac Hayes track, which has both Willie Weeks and a synth bass part?
FREDDIE WASHINGTON Donald has a knack for finding obscure covers, and I have to say, this one got past me. But when I heard it, I understood the concept right away. Michael had the chart, and I read it down while finding the pocket. I don’t really listen to myself when I play; I listen to everything that’s going on around me. In this case there was Michael’s Minimoog bass part and how I was going to play off it; I try to create a dance based on where I play and where I don’t. I did change the line a little at the end of the phrase, where it went up. I said to Donald, “How about if I keep this part going down?” And he said, “Oh yeah, that’s cool.”
MICHAEL LEONHART We wanted Freddie on more tracks, but logistically all we had was one day. We saved “Ghetto” for him, which Donald wanted to recast as an Ashkenazi Jewish ghetto tune using some klezmer ingredients. Freddie is such a gentleman and a team player, but I could tell the Minimoog was boxing him in, so by consensus we took it out while he recorded—and then the magic really happened, with Freddie bringing his unique low-end element to the track.
Let’s close by asking you each to pick a favorite Steely Dan/Donald Fagen song and bass line, and to express your feelings now that you’re “in the club.”
JOE MARTIN I’d pick the Aja album for songs, and “Josie” for favorite bass line. I grew up in the Midwest, and hearing Steely Dan on the radio was part of the soundtrack of my life. So moving to New York City and eventually playing on Donald’s record is an unbelievable honor.
LINCOLN SCHLEIFER Like Joe, I’d go with Aja the album and the song; it’s remarkably transportive. Bass-wise, I also love “Glamour Profession” and “I.G.Y.” My long association with Donald and finally being able to record some of his songs has been a real highpoint of my career.
FREDDIE WASHINGTON And I’ll go with Aja as a song and album, too, and “Peg” as my favorite bass line; I really enjoy playing that on tour. I had always wanted to work with Steely Dan, and when the opportunity came I was like, “My heroes are calling me!” It has been a dream come true ever since.
JAY LEONHART I would pick “Kid Charlemagne” as my favorite song and bass line. As an upright bassist, I learned how to play electric bass from listening to Steely Dan records; they were my post-graduate degree. Back then, when my kids were young, they used to ask me if I played for Steely Dan. Now I’m thrilled at last to be a part of the legacy.