Steely Dan – Great Chops, Great Music

As I think about the current Steely Dan tour, I find myself reflecting back to the 1970’s when I first became aware of this creative group.

Although the rock-influenced early songs such as “Ricky Don’t Lose That Number”, and “Do It Again” created an early surge of popularity on the Top One-Hundred Charts, it was the Aja album that stopped me in my tracks. I couldn’t put my finger on it at the time, but what captivated me was their creative integration of jazz and rock.

Those who have come to love Steely Dan as I have know that the group is really a duo, composed of guitarist, Walter Becker, and pianist / lead singer, Donald Fagan. Steely Dan achieved its real fame as a studio band that utilized some of the best session musicians of that era, including likes of Larry Carlton, Chuck Rainey, Wayne Shorter, Jeff “Skunk” Baxter, and Michael McDonald. They often used different performers for specific songs on an album to get a desired “feel” or effect. They knew exactly what they wanted and zeroed in on it as soon as they heard it.

Each cut of their Aja album is truly a gem, and one of my favorites is “Home At Last” because of the unique beat. I learned from the DVD, “The Making of Aja”, that the riveting drum rhythm was created by Bernard “Pretty” Purie and was actually called the “Purdie Shuffle”. The songs were well outside the typical rock and roll or blues formulas of the time. The title song, “Aja” definitely carried you outside of the rock paradigm by using jazz-influenced chords and a long bridge. The end of the song featured a wonderful percussion solo interspersed with a beautiful arrangement of guitars, and horns.

Another favorite of mine is “Third World Man” from the Gaucho album. In particular is the deceptively simple but haunting guitar solo as well as the background vocal harmonies. Katie Lied was an earlier album and had a number of very well arranged songs including “Dr. Wu”, which had interesting chord changes and vocal harmonies. “Hatian Divorce”, from the Royal Scam album was very clever in that it uses a Reggae backbeat, powerful bass holding down the rhythm, and an interesting use of the “wah wah” guitar so popular in the 1970’s.

Finally, the Donald Fagen solo album, Nightfly is an all-time favorite of mine from the tight harmonies of “Maxine” to rhythms of “New Frontier” to the rich arrangement of “Nightfly”. It clearly establishes Donald Fagen as the central creative and vocal component of the group.

While each concert will always have new material, the fun that I derive from going to a “Dan” concert is hearing the songs from the earlier albums performed by Donald, Walter and their hand-picked group of top-level musicians that they have assembled, which adhere to the same exacting standards used to created albums like Aja and Gaucho.

In the final analysis, it really doesn’t matter whether Steely Dan is or is not your favorite group or whether you like the new songs or the old. What matters is that we should all be passionate about something and seek it out, whatever it is. I look forward to seeing these talented artists and savoring everything they dish out.