Steely Dan: Peg

"Peg" is a rare instance in Steely Dan's discography where the music takes precedence over the lyrics. While the storyline chronicles the life of a Hollywood hopeful, the peppy funk tune is given the royal treatment by a stellar cast of musicians including Bernard "Pretty" Purdie, Chuck Rainey, and backing vocalist Michael McDonald, a frequent contributor to Becker and Fagen recordings.

According to Rainey's interview during VH1's "The Making of Aja," Becker and Fagen were against adding slap bass to the tune but left it in after Rainey added it behind their backs. Good call on Rainey's part, because it helps the music thrive in an engaging and friendly sort of way and, with guitarist Jay Graydon placing the icing on the cake with a solo which, while technical, adds even deeper melodic twists, the track still captivates after thousands of listens.

Whether or not the subject matter is about long-forgotten actress Peg Entwistle, who committed suicide by throwing herself from the Hollywood sign's "H," is uncertain-after all, there are several actresses named "Peg" listed in the Internet Movie Database. However, you will most likely get into the groove of the recording before you consider the lyrics, which is a refreshing and welcome change in a catalog of music largely sequestered in psychoanalysis.

September 16, 2009 · 0 comments


Steely Dan: Josie

From the wildly successful Aja CD, "Josie" is constructed around light jazz flourishes, a horn section that keeps the group's syncopation tight as a headlock, and an infectious, celebratory energy where the cheerfully positive vibe is transparent.

Some of the band's best songs lack any real explanation of why their singer feels the way he does. "Josie" follows a pattern similar to tunes such as "Rikki, Don't Lose That Number" and "Any Major Dude Will Tell You" by avoiding an explanation of what is truly happening in the lives of the characters. While, in lead singer Donald Fagen's eyes, it is "good" that she is returning to the neighborhood because she, for some reason, is its "pride," he contradicts this by stating that it is "bad" that she has returned in her current form because, before, she was, "the best friend we never had."

Lots of emotion is voiced by the narrator when it is stated that hats, hooters, and motor scooters are going to appear during a beach party that occurs upon her arrival. Thus, the lack of further description of who Josie is still makes this a puzzle worth solving in the 21st Century and beyond.

September 16, 2009 · 0 comments


Steely Dan: Bodhisattva

"Bodhisattva" is an excellent track dealing with a somewhat obscure topic in a Western world that, according to Steely dan frontman Donald Fagen a few years later, welcomes its citizens with "sausage and beer."

According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, a bodhisattva is, "a being that compassionately refrains from entering nirvana in order to save others and is worshiped as a deity in Mahayana Buddhism." However, you have to question the beliefs of the narrator here, who surely needs proof that Buddhism works to even begin to believe in it. Sarcastically, vocalist Donald Fagen instructs whomever acts as his "shakabuku" (or initiator) to take him "by the hand" and lead him to verifiable proof of the religion's powers. Amidst few lyrics, the only references that the track makes to anything at all includes mentions of Japan and china, but this "china" is not the country but an allusion to the porcelain that is manufactured in that nation. Hence, in stating that he would like to see "the sparkle of your china," the lyricist states that he basically could never believe in what he considers the "porcelain god" of organized religion. In the final verse, a note about cults and religious fanatics surfaces in the words "I'm going to sell my house in town"-a commentary which could mean that Fagen had checked out the scene and could not relate to those who sacrifice everything for religion's sake.

Exactly why the main character is so skeptical is the question; certainly, he had been led to explore the tenets of the practice, but, upon meeting those ideologies, a complete rejection seems in order. While the guitar duel between Denny Dias and Jeff Baxter creates a jazz firestorm within, it aligns with lyrics that reflect upon the piety by which the participants in Buddhism believe. The person who was termed a "Razor Boy" and one of Hollywood's "Show Biz Kids" on the very same album, though, may not be quite ready for such a major change in his life to occur.

However, on Countdown to Ecstasy, it does eventually occur; the CD's final track, "King of the World," finds the speaker assailing "assassins, cons, and rapers," which shows that, while the world peace offered by the Buddha may not have been up his alley, at least he has learned to embrace some form of morality by the end.

September 16, 2009 · 0 comments


Gato Barbieri: El Sertao

It's a shame that Barbieri, after rediscovering his South American musical roots in the '70's after flirting with the jazz avant-garde the decade earlier, never got to hook up with his fellow Argentinian Astor Piazzolla. The modern concepts and powerful lyricism of both artists might have produced a fruitful collaboration, but when Bernardo Bertolucci chose Barbieri instead of Piazzolla to compose and play the music for his 1973 film Last Tango in Paris (Piazzolla reportedly wanted too high a fee), a verbal feud ensued between Gato and Astor. Be that as it may, the Last Tango soundtrack made Barbieri an international star (at least for a while), enabling him to expose many more listeners to his bracing potion of jazz and Latin melodies, rhythms, harmonies, and textures.

Barbieri's 1973 release, Under Fire, focused on Brazil, and the title of the piece "El Sertao" referred to the dry, poverty-stricken northwestern part of that country. Stanley Clarke's resounding bass ostinato, Lonnie Liston Smith's trills, and John Abercrombie's insistent chords are the first sounds heard, in addition to Airto Moreira's zestful rhythmic colorations. Barbieri plays the multi-faceted thematic material with a hard-edged, virile tone, but is able to convey elements of warmth and tenderness as well. Despite an intense, nearly screeching attack at times, on the whole his phrasing maintains an alluringly melodic consistency of expression. Smith's Fender Rhodes interlude is sparse but tonally poignant. Abercrombie's strummed pattern leads to Barbieri's climactic crescendo and decrescendo. This track is an example of Barbieri stripped of all the turbulent and distancing free jazz affectations he had exhibited but a few years earlier. He had found himself at last.

September 03, 2009 · 0 comments


James Carter (with Heaven on Earth): Diminishing

What does it mean when a group of crack jazz musicians gets together to make a thinly-disguised rock record? Is it a crass sell-out, or a stimulating attempt to reinvigorate their art with a dose of contemporary sounds? And why did they pick a mostly forgotten old Django Reinhardt tune for their honking and braying? Is this a tongue-in-cheek attempt at humor? Or does this performance have some hidden connection to jazz Manouche that I am missing?

So many questions. . . But I just chalk this up to James Carter being James Carter. Like Rahsaan Roland Kirk (whom Carter reminds me of in so many ways), this star horn player is a musical chameleon who is so capable of adapting to every situation that one can only sit back and marvel at so many different sonic personalities co-existing inside a single soloist. Of course Carter would grab an old Django song, since he always is pulling out some dusty chart from long ago. And of course he would play in some fresh, unconventional way, because. . . well, because he always does just that. Then again, I never thought he would play rock sax, but I am not surprised he does it so well. He purges all the Swing Era and bebop licks from his vocabulary and works instead with a dizzying array of sound textures. Here and there one can find bits of funk and post-Ayler speaking-in-reeds, but nothing persists for long in his raucously rambling Rambo of a solo.

Even if Carter had considered a more traditional approach to the tune, the creative commotion coming from the rhythm section would not have allowed it. I am not sure I would have ever thought of putting this S.W.A.T. team of rhythm—Christian McBride (on electric bass), John Medeski (on Hammond B-3), Adam Rogers and Joey Baron—together with Mr. Carter, and even if I had, I don't think I would have expected this kind of rocker sensibility. But the chemistry is frightening, and even if the track doesn't quite live up to the band's claim of "heaven on earth," these players do a helluva job.

September 02, 2009 · 0 comments


Bob James: Westchester Lady

Since being "discovered" by Quincy Jones some forty years ago and composing music for television and film, Bob James has come a long way in his career. On his 1976 album Three, James constructed a jazz-funk-fusion opus that has had a huge impact on music well beyond jazz and easy listening. Some readers might recognize the bass groove on this song as the inspiration for many well-known hip-hop breaks. Featuring a brass and wind section that included Jon Faddis, Hubert Laws and Grover Washington, "Westchester Lady" is a disco fueled number that's full of heavy string work and modulated chord changes.

The orchestral element of this song can be a little too much at times but that was just a thing that they did in the 1970s. Everything was over the top, including the recording. When you get down to the meat of this track, you have a funky bass line played by Will Lee and a moving solo by James on the Fender Rhodes. What does tend to get annoying are the string backgrounds during James's solo but he overcomes them with his solid blues work. Bob James is a musician that is all too often put in the light jazz category, especially for his later work with Fourplay, but his output from the 70s is very inspiring. Take note, many others have. Bob James has got that funk!

August 20, 2009 · 0 comments


Herbie Hancock: Bubbles

I always like how musicians are able to come up with fitting titles for their songs. Herbie Hancock's "Bubbles" is a perfect example. This track is full of synthesized orchestrations with a splendid soprano saxophone solo by Bennie Maupin. Riding a modulated groove, Ragin also plays a smooth guitar solo that fits in really well with the groove. Maupin steals the show on this one though and it's nice to hear Herbie playing throughout, blending string sounds with everyone's solos. All in all, this is another strong cut from an album that, in my opinion, completed the trilogy of timeless albums for Hancock that began with Headhunters. People will say what they want about fusion in general, but most music lovers would and should have this album in their collection.

With stellar musicianship, acute knowledge of dynamics and interaction and even better songwriting, Hancock scores gold with this album and proves that he was truly ahead of his time and ahead of most musicians.

August 18, 2009 · 0 comments


Stacy Dillard: Three Sides (Ol' Faithful)

"Three Sides (Ol' Faithful)" has a '70s/'80s major-label vibe, thanks in no small part to the inclusion of James Hurt's Fender Rhodes piano and Craig Magnano's guitar; the Rhodes is forever fixed in that era, as is Magnano's slightly distorted, swinging/rocking post-McLaughlin sound. The rhythm section alternates an easy, New Orleans funk groove with a relaxed straight-ahead swing under tenor saxophonist Stacy Dillard's sure-handed reading of the melody and subsequent quick-fingered improvisation. Dillard's a strong, aggressive player. He states his case with dead certainty, without betraying a hint of vulnerability. As soloists, Hurt and Magnano are solid post-boppers, nice players if not quite able to match Dillard's heightened level of energy and overall technical facility. Drummer Donald Edwards is the sideman who most conspicuously matches the leader in terms of invention and intensity. Through no fault of Dillard, whose extraordinary chops and vivid imagination impress, the performance is professional without being especially memorable.

July 27, 2009 · 0 comments


Jaco Pastorius: Come On, Come Over

This is the only song off of Jaco Pastorius to feature vocals and like all of the other guest spots on the album, the bassist hired more legendary musicians to fill the spots. R&B duo Sam and Dave sing the vocal on this tune. Although this is not the most dense of songs, it marks one of the first times that Pastorius used an extended brass and reed section, which he would later employ with the Word of Mouth band. His horn section is also chalked full of some of the best players to ever have played jazz music.

Pastorius had a strong affinity for funk music and that influence is highly audible on this song. Herbie Hancock really brings the entire groove together with this wah-wah clavinet chord pattern. I really like the arrangements for the horn section and I think that Sam and Dave would have benefited nicely from an entire album with this band. Another classic song from a classic album!

June 16, 2009 · 0 comments


Jaco Pastorius: Opus Pocus

Jaco Pastorius composed a hypnotic groove for this song, complete with steel drums, an instrument which he also played some. Othello Molineaux, who performed with Pastorius on numerous occasions, starts this song off with some help from Leroy Williams who also plays steel drum. Wayne Shorter enters next with a soprano sax line that sounds just as funky and deranged as the bass line. But the best part of the song ensues as Pastorius busts into a head nodding bass line and Shorter follows suit with one of my favorite solos he's ever recorded. He effortlessly cascades up and down the register of the instrument with perfect intonation and control.

The song ends with a nice little section where the steel drums play a syncopated figure underneath Shorter's improvisations, which are further enhanced by Jaco's bass thumps and harmonic shape movements up and down the neck of the bass. This is one of the funkiest songs my ears have ever heard and I would beg anyone to disagree with me.

June 16, 2009 · 0 comments


Weather Report: Harlequin

This album marked the second appearance on a Weather Report release for Jaco Pastorius, his first being Black Market. This is the first release where the bass chair was entirely in his possession though. Call it irony or coincidence but Pastorius's first appearance as the main bassist was also Weather Report's most successful album, featuring the hit song "Birdland," which would go on to become a hit for other groups like Manhattan Transfer.

"Harlequin" on the other hand is a nice little number written by Wayne Shorter, featuring the undeniable pocket groove of Pastorius who plays very subtle but effective notes, aiding this song with its mellow feel. Joe Zawinul plays his usual effect-driven Fender Rhodes but he also works in some nice blues lines on the piano. On this tune, Weather Report prove to the rest of the playing field why they were the greatest fusion band ever formed. I know that might be up for debate but Weather Report had all of the right elements and their releases up until the 1980s were always consistent, especially Heavy Weather .

June 15, 2009 · 0 comments


Steely Dan: Black Cow

1977 was a year in which disco reigned supreme but underneath the glamor and the glitz was Steely Dan's epic masterpiece Aja which came out in the fall. This album featured a wealth of different jazz musicians while also offering up some of the band's most extended and jazzy compositions. On "Black Cow," jazz legend Victor Feldman plays a tasteful Fender Rhodes solo and Chuck Rainey funks it up over a Paul Humphreys drum beat. Steely Dan is one of the few groups in the history of music that walked the perfect line between jazz and rock, carefully orchestrating the perfect arrangements with an acute understanding of extended harmony.

"Black Cow" was recorded during a time when the band was winding itself down. They had almost completed their recording requirements for ABC Records and Aja was their most successful album to date. Though they scrapped the tour for the album after the first rehearsal (band members were complaining about pay scales), "Black Cow" easily made its way into the Dan tour repertoire of the 1990s and beyond and still sounds timeless when performed thirty years later.

May 11, 2009 · 0 comments


Darren Rahn: Talk of the Town

Multi-tracking and programming, while they may reduce the opportunities available for actual living sidemen on sessions, can certainly cut costs and sometimes better ensure the desired finished product that an artist and/or producer is seeking. On the funky title tune of his new CD, Talk of the Town, for example, saxophonist-producer Darren Rahn impressively displays his versatility, playing tenor, various keyboards, doing the drum programming, and arranging the horn section that he and his brass-playing twin brother Jason layer so delightfully and skillfully onto this cut.

After some provocative opening electronic reverberations, Rahn's tenor soulfully plays the insinuating groove of the line over hard-nosed bass and drum rhythms. The spunky horn section riffs accentuate the danceable ambiance. Rahn's tone and delivery have appealing qualities similar to those of David Sanborn. The out-chorus, with Rahn wailing away and the horns vamping no end, recalls not only Sanborn, but also—from back in the day—the Brecker Brothers.

May 03, 2009 · 0 comments


John Novello: Salt and Pepper

Novello is best known as the organist for the invigorating fusion/progressive rock power trio Niacin, which also features bassist Billy Sheehan and drummer Dennis Chambers. His new CD, B3 Soul, is much more restrained than what he has generally produced with Niacin, and focuses largely on soul and funk. Novello has always been an upbeat, emotional communicator with an appealingly full-bodied sound and chops to spare, but he seems under wraps on this CD.

Novello gets into what he calls a "pocket groove" on the track "Salt and Pepper." He plays the funky theme on organ, but shifts briefly to synthesizer before his unhurried, soulful B3 improv. He then surprises by turning to acoustic piano, which he plays with just as much flair and finesse as he does the organ. Following his radiant piano interlude, he moves back and forth seamlessly and divertingly between piano and organ, before a fade-out ending that comes much too soon. Novello's programmed rhythm section backing comes across as a bit too stiff and mechanical for the genre, diminishing the overall effect of "Salt and Pepper." A press release states, "Novello looks forward to touring 'B3 Soul' with an all-star band." It would have been nice to have heard at least a couple of those living musicians supporting Novello on this selection.

May 03, 2009 · 0 comments


Torcuato Mariano: Back to the Road

Mariano moved to Brazil from his native Argentina at age 14, and soon became part of the contemporary Brazilian music scene, touring with such artists as Leo Gandelman, Gal Costa, Sergio Mendes, and Ivan Lins in the '80's and '90's. After a detour as A & R director for EMI Brazil, Mariano returned to recording himself, and Back to the Road is his sixth CD as leader. He's an extremely versatile and polished guitarist, proficient playing Latin, rock, blues, or Brazilian jazz, as proven by this diverse session.

The yearning title track is probably the most unfettered performance on the CD, allowing Mariano to let loose aggressively. Colaiuta's propulsive, resonating drum beat makes this piece come alive from the very start. Mariano is channeling a very early influence in his playing here, namely Carlos Santana, as is apparent in his twangy tone and sleekly flowing lines. Calasans' supple B3 chords and Stubenhaus's sturdy bass add to the unwavering foundation over which Mariano sails with genuine feeling. Well-placed brass punctuations enter just before and during the guitarist's blazing solo. A false wind-down ending gives way to Martins' nimble, bluesy tenor solo instead, but this appealing track fades out for real just as Martins is hitting his full stride.

May 03, 2009 · 0 comments


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