Bandleader/arranger Mark Masters
has recorded a set of Steely Dan
tunes with a big band, which can be set on the shelf next to his celebrated albums dedicated to the music of George Gershwin
, Duke Ellington
and Dewey Redman
. A Dan jazz album makes sense. It's clear from the rock band's '70s albums that Donald Fagen
and Walter Becker
warmly loved jazz: the intro to their hit "Rikki Don't Lose That Number" is lifted directly from pianist Horace Silver
's "Song for My Father"; their "Parker's Band" is a sincere love letter to Charlie Parker
. Several top-flight jazz players appeared on their records, among them saxophonists Wayne Shorter
and Phil Woods
At the same time, most of the self-consciously jazzy elements of Steely Dan's music could be best described as examples of the justly- disparaged "smooth jazz." It's a mark of the band's characteristically sloppy multi-layered ironies that they seemed to parody smooth jazz even as they genuinely dug playing the smooth jazz. So a jazz treatment of their music could be more tricky than it first appears, especially for a serious guy like Masters. How does he handle it?
On the aural evidence of this thoroughly enjoyable record, Masters has no idea that Steely Dan loved jazz. Of course he must, but the record treats the material like a bunch of solid rock 'n' roll songs that have to be taken apart and carefully put back together before the likes of this ensemble can play them. And that's fine.
As such, Masters makes almost no concessions to the original sound of the songs. "Charlie Freak," for example, a tighty-wound, vaguely classical number in the Dan original, is remade into a slow-breathing film noir, enlivened by tenor saxophonist Billy Harper
's sensitive solo. "Aja," meanwhile, is sped up and opens with an aggressive ensemble line.
And what a band! The athletic Tim Hagans
on trumpet shines throughout, playing a bit outside the fairly straight-ahead vibe that predominates on the record. Other players have fewer moments in the limelight, but do not squander themlike bass clarinetist Brian Williams on the funky "Black Cow." The real star is the sumptuous Persian carpet of Masters' ensemble writing for the brass and reeds, subtly accented by Brad Dutz
' vibes. Vocalist Anna Mjoll
's contributions are generally wordless, further removing these readings from the hyper- literate Bob Dylan
/William S. Burroughs-style lyrics of the originals.
"Chain Lightning"a marvelous blues in the Dan versionis played straight, like an early-'50s Miles Davis
blues, providing the occasion for a blowing session. Special guest alto saxophonist Oliver Lake
's solo stands out particularly on this closing cut.
Masters' approach is squarely in the big-band tradition, marked by polished craftsmanship and consistently strong solosbut not at all by the arch hipness of Steely Dan. And that too is fine. His thorough- going re-imagining of this material lays bare how un
-jazzy, in a way, the Steely Dan songs were. Maybe there is, subtly, just a little of Steely Dan's wry smirk in there.
Show Biz Kids; Bodhisattva; Do It Again; Charlie Freak; Black Cow;
Josie; Fire In The Hole; Kings; Aja; Chain Lightning.
Tim Hagans: trumpet; Louis Fasman: trumpet; Les Lovitt: trumpet;
Stephanie O'Keefe: French horn; Sonny Simmons: English horn (3); Dave
Woodley: trombone (9); Les Benedict: trombone; Dave Ryan: trombone;
Ryan Dragon: trombone; Oliver Lake: alto saxophone (10);
Gary Foster: alto saxophone (7); Don Shelton: alto and soprano
saxophones, alto flute; Billy Harper: tenor saxophone; John Mitchell:
tenor saxophone, bassoon; Gene Cipriano: tenor saxophone; Brian
Williams: bass clarinet; Brad Dutz: vibes, percussion; Hamilton Price:
bass; Peter Erskine: drums; Anna Mjöll: voice; Mark Masters: