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Steely Dan: A bridge to Jazz

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Sep 4, 2017 Updated Sep 8, 2017

With the passing of Steely Dan's co-founder Walter Becker, we reflect on how the iconic duo stole the hearts of rock and jazz fans both.

Jazz is undoubtedly at the core of Walter Becker and Donald Fagan - the creative duo behind the long-running supergroup Steely Dan. They weren't merely influenced by jazz (of course, most contemporary music is). Rather, they actively composed and produced music that incorporated some of the genre's more fundamental principles - improvisation, syncopation and jazz harmony.

Not only that, but many of the musicians who joined the group on studio dates as session players were hand-picked from both the East and West coast jazz scenes. They include names like Wayne Shorter, Joe Sample, Don Grolnick, Lee Ritenour, Steve Khan, Michael and Randy Brecker and Steve Gadd - to name a few! With such unique and individual voices all in one recording studio, it's no wonder why a jazz aesthetic runs so deep in Steely Dan's tunes - songs that have won over fans from all over.

With the news that Becker has died at age 67, Fagan has vowed to keep the band 'alive,' and while it's hard to imagine Steely Dan without Walter Becker - one thing's for sure: his legacy will live on in albums that bridge the gap between jazz, fusion and pop - and we've picked out a few of our favourites to share...

'Aja' from Aja

Steely Dan exploited the then new technology of multitrack tape, and often invited a multitude of session musicians in to add their part to a song. Perhaps one of their most memorable inclusions was Wayne Shorter, who appeared on the title track to the 1977 album Aja. Although initially reluctant ("he didn't really do 'dates'"), Becker and Fagan convinced Shorter to come down to the studio and do a take for the track 'Aja,' and the rest is history!

'Parker's Band' from Pretzel Logic

Notebly, the pair had a deep affection for Charlie Parker's music and preached about it on their tune 'Parker's Band.' The lyrics take the listener back to the 40s and make reference of the bebop era with lines like "You'll be riding by, bareback on your armadillo / You'll be grooving high or relaxing at Camarillo."

'Gaucho' from Gaucho

This tune has a slightly strange story. After the album was released in 1980, Keith Jarrett sued the group, claiming that they used a part of his composition 'Long As You Know You're Living Yours' from the Jarrett's album Belonging (released in '74) in 'Gaucho.' Following the claim, Fagen and Becker stated that they were big fans of Jarrett, and subsequent pressing of Gaucho have added the jazz pianist to the song credits.

'Your Gold Teeth II' from Katy Lied

Based on a jazz waltz (with some subtle time signature changes throughout), this tune contains some pretty complex harmony - and most notably a trickly solo section of key changes, tackled here by the guitarist Denny Dias - an original founding member of the band.

Update: as some of our community have pointed out, honourable mentions also go out to 'Rikki Don't Loose That Number' - which pays homage to Horace Silver's 'Song For My Father,' plus the band's cover of Duke Ellington and James "Bubber" Miley's tune 'East  St. Louis Toodle-Oo.' Both tracks appear on their 1974 LP Pretzel Logic.

Article by Henry Rasmussen
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Steely Dan is an American jazz rock band whose music also blends elements of funk, R&B, and pop. Founded by core members Walter Becker and Donald Fagen in 1972, the band enjoyed great critical and commercial success in the late 1970s and early 1980s before breaking up in 1981. Rolling Stone has called them "the perfect musical antiheroes for the Seventies". Steely Dan reunited in 1993 and has...

This entry is from Wikipedia external link, the user-contributed encyclopedia. It may not have been reviewed by professional editors and is licensed under CC-BY-SA external link. Visit Steely Dan external link on Wikipedia to correct or update this entry. Any changes made to the Wikipedia article will not be immediately available here. The ABC is not responsible for the content of external sites.

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On Sep 5, 2017. 10:59pm
Hamish Spencer said

They do a lovely version of Cubano Chant live

On Sep 5, 2017. 10:54am
ABC Jazz said

Hey Rpromusic - actually, Mal's playing some this weekend on Jazztrack...!

On Sep 5, 2017. 10:53am
ABC Jazz said

Hmmmm - not sure about Silver being listed as a composer (at least not on the ABC's copy). It's not on the Wiki either - but you're absolutely right about that very similar Bossa feel and riff! We probably also left out an honourable mention of their cover of Duke Ellington's 'East St. Louis Toodle-Oo' (also on Pretzel Logic). Cheers, ABC Jazz

On Sep 4, 2017. 11:45pm
Rpromusic said

Thanks abc jazz for the belated and posthumous recognition of some of the most well crafted and iconic music of the late 20th C...Still no chance of ever getting a play on abc jazz of course

On Sep 4, 2017. 1:26pm
Anonymous said

You left out the borrowing of Horace Silver's iconic theme from "Song for my Father" on "Rikki don't lose that number". I think Silver is now listed as a co writer.

On Sep 4, 2017. 1:11pm
Christopher Lynch said

Sad to hear of Walter Becker's passing, but touched to know that ABC Jazz, as usual, is doing to right thing by featuring Steely Dan as indicated. Thankyou.
"Aja" is a particular favourite for me through its Eastern associations, yet "Gaucho" and "Katy Lied" are close equal seconds.
Extraordinary, innovative recordings and passionately recommended for all those who enjoy serious contemporary music.

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