RIP Walter Becker, Your Work Here is Done

Walter-Becker

RIP Walter Becker.

Not many musicians were involved in a run as productive and consistently sublime as Steely Dan’s. My life, in short, would make much less sense without his work.

Here’s my tribute, from (yikes) 2006.

Steely Dan will not be denied. At this rate, within the next decade or so, the total of greatest hits collections will surpass the number of actual albums they made. This, shall we say, lack of restraint does not necessarily become the badass band that famously refused to tour and took its name from a dildo in William Burroughs’s Naked Lunch. And yet, the music makes most of their excesses excusable. Unfortunately, there is not much new or provocative in this latest set. Fortunately, it’s still fantastic.

Steely Dan, these days, is kind of like the kid you remember as an insufferable smarty-pants from high school who rolls up at the reunion suddenly the coolest dude in the class. Only more so. They could be accused of many things (and they are), but Steely Dan was never stupid: they knew enough to get out while the getting was bad, and managed to avoid ever making a substandard record. Indeed, their swan song, Gaucho, was not their finest hour, and if the sweetly sung invocation of the semi-obligatory addictions of its time (“The Cuervo gold / The fine Colombian”) is any indication, it’s not a stretch to speculate where most of the royalties from Aja went. After that, they stayed gone until deciding it was safe to come up for air, touring in the ‘90s and making new music in the new millennium.

Steely Dan remains impossible to pigeonhole, and therein lies their difficult-to-define appeal. How many other bands could boast their jazz influences so brazenly as to build their biggest hit (“Rikki Don’t Lose That Number”) on a Horace Silver standard, and then sing wistfully about Owsley Stanley, the legendary chemist who supplied, among many others, the Merry Pranksters with the fodder for their acid tests (“Kid Charlemagne”)? Answer: exactly one. These guys were smart. They were also shrewd: the best player-coaches of their era, Walter Becker (bass and guitars) and Donald Fagen (keyboards, vocals) made albums with a sweet sheen that just barely subdued the strained malaise always lurking beneath. Take “Black Friday,” for instance, which chugs along pleasantly enough until the lyrics kick in: “When Black Friday comes I’ll stand down by the door / And catch the grey men when they dive from the fourteenth floor.”

A band has to know its limitations, so Steely Dan built their studio of dreams, and sure enough, the players came. Looking at the personnel listed on virtually every song is like reviewing a roster of (mostly) unsung heroes from the ‘70s: Pete Chistlieb, Larry Carlton, Jeff “Skunk” Baxter, and Jeff Porcaro—to name but a handful. Notorious control freaks who spurned world tours, and wanting the best of all other worlds, Steely Dan made their unique blend of perfection seem, or at least sound, effortless, conjuring up the production chops of George Martin, the sonic skills of Phil Spector, and the sardonic acumen of Captain Beefheart. Somehow, it worked.

Not many white guys could ask the world to call them “Deacon Blues” and avoid coming off like William Shatner. Listening now, it seems safe to suggest that Steely Dan was rock music’s stealthy shadow, filling in some of the dark space between bloated early ‘70s side-long suites and the stripped-down punk rock revolution. These studio nerds’ street cred only escalates in hindsight, especially when considered alongside the pantsuit pomposity of, say, 1975. (Emerson Lake & Palmer, anyone?) Mostly behind the scenes, Steely Dan blazed an eccentric trail no one could copy, with one foot in a past they knew better than to reproduce, the other foot in a future they ultimately became too uncomfortable describing.

And so, another Steely Dan collection? The question should not be who wants this album; the answer is who needs it, and that would include anyone not already in the know. For the uninitiated, it’s a safe bet and hopefully will serve as a gateway to more dangerous Dan. Those seeking familiar favorites will not be disappointed: “Reelin’ in the Years,” “My Old School,” and “Peg” are a few of the usual suspects making another curtain call here. Like most compilations of well-known bands, half the songs have been beaten into banality by unimaginative radio stations, or else—the ultimate sign of dubious immortality—born again as Muzak. None of this, naturally, is the artists’ fault. As such, it’s hard to quibble with a collection that includes, as it must, the hits. As an incremental bonus, The Definitive Collection features a couple of samples from the Y2K incarnation, which are just enough to render the glory days more immutable. Steely Dan has not died, and they are still the coolest dudes in the class.

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If Two Jazz Fans Fight on the Internet, Does Anyone Hear It?

Kind of like two trees falling in the forest, right?

Well, for anyone (and I mean “one”) who may wonder what it sounds like when two jazz fans fight, here is the ugly, unvarnished tale of the tape (to be cont’d?).

Brief back story: in June I took the opportunity to express my (not particularly controversial) opinion that Miles Davis’s second great quintet was the best band of musicians to ever assemble in one group, here (the piece also appeared at PopMatters). Here is some of what I wrote:

Those men, individually, are some of the most important and brilliant musicians of the last century. Together? Forget about it. This quintet (Davis’s second famous fivesome) was an unstoppable force and they made some of the greatest albums. In jazz music? In any music.

And then, after discussing the merits of the individual players, lamented that Wayne Shorter still seems to get short shrift when all-time greats are mentioned:

Wayne Shorter is, for my money, possibly the most underrated genius in any genre of music. To be sure, he gets plenty of props within jazz circles and the people who know really know. And in his wise, humble way, he is probably cool with that. But his name does not come up quickly enough, or often enough in discussions of the true masters. And aside from his considerable proficiency on the horn(s), he is also among the most distinctive and consistently satisfying composers. And while Miles, who was without peer in assembling talent, had the vision and deservedly gets the lion’s share of the credit (he was the lion, after all), a good chunk of the material on those second quintet sessions was written by Shorter. And here’s where it gets unbelievable: all through the mid-to-late ’60s –at the same time they were in The Quintet– he (as well as Hancock) was dropping epic masterpieces on the Blue Note label (think Maiden Voyage, Speak Like A Child, JuJu, Speak No Evil –for starters).

So then, about a week later, I went ahead and sang the praises of Wayne Shorter in greater detail, here (a piece that also appeared at PopMatters). This is how I concluded the piece:

Wayne Shorter, on the other hand, is like imported dark chocolate. Or fresh Kona coffee beans. Or a 2004 Brunello (or a 1964 Brunello for that matter). Or whatever type of car people who appreciate cars get excited about. You get the picture. Wayne Shorter is, in other words, the authentic item that aficionados savor, but whom virtually anyone with unpolluted ears can immediately appreciate. We odd and admittedly obsessed folks who really love jazz have no agenda. Really. (I’m not talking about the aesthetic prigs who have nothing good to say about anything other than the music they endorse; that is a certain type of poseur who has always been amongst us, whether the topic is music, literature, movies or wine or food or coffee or, especially these days, beer, et cetera.) All we care about is disabusing opinionated but clueless blowhards of the notion that jazz is (insert cliche here: to include “old-fashioned dance music”, “boring”, “musical masturbation”, “shrieking”, “easy listening” (!!!), “overwhelming”, et cetera) what it is or, put another way, what it is so manifestly not.

Life is too short to try and pick up something you simply can’t appreciate. But if you’re willing to give it a shot you just might be surprised. So consider this five song sampler from Wayne Shorter a win/win: if you don’t like this, you don’t like jazz; if you do like it, welcome to the rest of your life.

I’ll confess I did not think anything I offered up was particularly debatable or objectionable. But when it comes to the so-called jazz intellegentia, all bets are off. Sure enough, a very hip(ster) reader of PopMatters felt obliged to chime in and (I have to hope unintentionally) misinterpret both the literal words and –more egregiously– the entire spirit of where I was coming from and why I was writing.

His letter, which prompted a response in kind, are below.

Him:

I am sorry, but I find your article very stupid.

I am a jazzman, I love jazz and I can’t live without it, but when I see sentences like, if you don’t like this, then you don’t like jazz, I can say anything but “stupid”.

First, you can love basie or billy without loving modern jazz. Jazz rythm is the most important thingin my life but it can’t be different for other people.

Twice, I know hundreds of people who like jazz and lots of them don’t like Wayne that much and it doesn’t mean they don’t like modern jazz. Moreover they may be much more advanced in their tastes than you, when it comes to real jazz ( they love Cecil taylor, the last thing of Coltrane and so on…)

You can give your opinion and as you say you are here for that, but don’t do what you are fight against. Let people have their own tastes and enlarge their tastes, not the contrary.

Best,

Serge

Me:

Serge,

Appreciate the thoughts and while I’m disappointed you found the piece “very stupid” I’m glad it provided you with the opportunity to vindicate the honor of those *really* misunderstood and sophisticated jazz aficionados (presumably for whom Wayne Shorter is simply too conventional).

Unfortunately, and more than a little ironically, your protestation kind of misses the purpose of my rather tongue-in-cheek point. Which is: the proposition that if a person, who has never taken the time (for understandable and legitimate reasons) to check out jazz does not find much to like in these rather accessible and representative post-bop recordings by Shorter, it’s unlikely that they will find much in the more free and “out” works of the last half-century (and for the record, I endorse Cecil Taylor, thank you very little, but find that there are two primary reasons I don’t recommend him first when talking to would-be jazz fans: one, however much I dig ‘Silent Tongues’, in my experience it’s not exactly an ideal aperitif for the uninitiated; two, dropping late period Coltrane (which I actually discuss in a recent appraisal of Trane’s career) or Cecil Taylor or Henry Threadgill as proof of my avant-garde bona fides would make me precisely the insufferable poseur I excoriate in this piece).

That said, I reckon there has to be at least one or maybe three people out there who ‘Speak No Evil’ would not speak to, but who would connect, at first listen, with Sun Ra’s ‘Cosmic Tones for Mental Therapy’. Likewise, I am sure there are more than a handful of folks who just love pre-bop jazz but don’t care for anything after Coleman Hawkins; the problem is, they are all 130 years old.

The central impetus of this piece (and the previous entry on Eric Dolphy, and whatever subsequent ones I write) is to hopefully turn on a handful of open-minded listeners to some great music that—whether because of some insidious stereotypes that still exist about jazz, or because they encounter uber-hipsters who feel that John Zorn sold out after ‘Naked City’, or Albert Ayler sold out…by dying, which understandably confirms the worst clichés about how *real* jazz fans roll—they might find worthwhile. It is a humble endeavor that I imagine artists like Wayne Shorter might even appreciate—perish the thought!

Cheers,

Sean

For even unconvertable jazz haters, Mr. Shorter casts a long shadow –and you’ve probably heard him before, even if you don’t realize it.

Steely Dan’s “Aja” (featuring Wayne Shorter):

Portishead’s “Strangers” (which features two samples, particularly the DOPE one that opens the tune, from Weather Report’s “Elegant People”, composed by Wayne Shorter; that’s him on the sax…):

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