Over the last several weeks I’ve gone down the Steely Dan rabbit hole. (And you could arguably say that I’m still in it.) It started with the blind purchase of Gaucho, followed quickly by Aja, Katy Lied, and Pretzel Logic. And I’m sure that others will soon follow. For years Steely Dan has been little more than a George Carlin punchline for me, having only a peripheral knowledge of their music at best. It seemed that the closest I got was the deluxe edition of Elton John‘s Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy, the full live performance of which (on disc 2) includes Jeff “Skunk” Baxter sitting in.
For whatever reason I decided to explore the band’s material, and I began with 1980’s Gaucho simply because of the personnel, particularly: Tom Scott, the Brecker Brothers, David Sanborn, Hiram Bullock, Don Grolnick, Michael McDonald, and Steve Gadd. (Many of these are folks have been featured on the blog before: Tom Scott here and here, Breckers here, and Sanborn/Bullock/Grolnick here.) Honestly, my initial impression after one listen was: for a band (core members Donald Fagen & Walter Becker) so obsessed with production and studio perfection, you’d think Fagen would be a better singer… Anyway, that aside, I was immediately attracted to the songs and arrangements. I don’t know if I’d use “jazz rock” to describe Steely Dan, but it’s a close description. Interesting harmonies and melodies, catchy tunes, and solid players. There are some occasional misses (e.g., the rendition of “St. Louis Blues” on Pretzel Logic…yuck), but overall I’m quite taken with the library.
A song that quickly became one of my favorites is “Black Cow” from 1977’s Aja. It features the aforementioned hooks and complexities, and the studio recording features an outro solo by Tom Scott. Here’s a very nice live version from possibly 2003 featuring solos by keyboardist Ted Baker (whom I may have seen at Einstein on the Beach – I’ll have to check my program) and saxophonist Cornelius Bumpus.