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The Mark Masters Ensemble: Everything You Did: The Music of Walter Becker and Donald Fagen

Jack Bowers By

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Another tribute album from leader / arranger Mark Masters whose splendid ensemble has previously paid homage to trumpeter Clifford Brown, saxophonist Lee Konitz, trombonist Jimmy Knepper and the Gershwin brothers (Porgy & Bess Redefined). This time around it's the music of Walter Becker and Donald Fagen, better known by their collective name, Steely Dan. The album, says Masters, is "a quartet recording with an ensemble," and said foursome is comprised of trumpeter Tim Hagans, tenor saxophonist Billy Harper, bassist Hamilton Price and drummer Peter Erskine. The ensemble, he writes, "is there to create colors for the soloists to respond to . . .," which it does efficiently on every number.

While opinions may vary about the music of Steely Dan, there's no doubt where Masters stands; he's squarely in their corner, and the arrangements, he notes, are designed to "free [their] music from the earthly confines, in some cases, of harmonic structure and allow the quartet . . . to create the magic that great improvisers birth." In doing so, he makes use of such varied instruments as the vibraphone, French horn, bass clarinet, bassoon, English horn and alto flute to lend the music an ethereal and exotic veneer, adding to the mix the sympathetic voice of Anna Mjoll on "Charlie Freak" and "Black Cow." Harper fashions a consentient solo on "Freak," and bass clarinetist Brian Williams does likewise on "Cow."

Elsewhere, Becker and Fagen's compositions, while arguably less than memorable on their own, serve as reliable points of departure for the ensemble and soloists. Nowhere is this more evident than on the tranquil ballad "Fire in the Hole," whose enticing alto solo by Gary Foster is among the album's highlights. "Fire" is followed by the light-hearted "Kings," on which the quartet takes no prisoners, the relatively well-known "AJA" (from Steely Dan's album of that name) and blues-based shuffle "Chain Lightning," enhanced by Don Shelton's alto sax and earnest solos by Price, trombonist Ryan Dragon, alto Oliver Lake and baritone Gary Smulyan (who offers another strong statement on "Do It Again," which also showcases Gene Cipriano and Sonny Simmons on English horn and bassoonist John Mitchell).

Whatever the theme, Masters and the ensemble always deliver the goods, and the music of Steely Dan has probably never sounded better than it does here.

Track Listing: Show Biz Kids; Bodhisattva; Do It Again; Charlie Freak; Black Cow; Josie; Fire in the Hole; Kings; AJA; Chain Lightning.

Personnel: Mark Masters: leader, arranger; Louis Fasman: trumpet; Les Lovitt: trumpet; Don Shelton: alto, soprano sax, alto flute; Gary Foster: alto sax (7); Oliver Lake: alto sax (10); John Mitchell: tenor sax, bassoon; Gene Cipriano: tenor sax, English horn; Gary Smulyan: baritone sax; Stephanie O’Keefe: French horn; Sonny Simmons: English horn (3); Les Benedict: trombone; Dave Ryan: trombone; Ryan Dragon: trombone; Dave Woodley: trombone (9); Brian Williams: bass clarinet; Brad Dutz: vibes, percussion. Special guests — Tim Hagans: trumpet; Billy Harper: tenor sax; Hamilton Price: bass; Peter Erskine: drums; Anna Mjoll: voice.

Title: Everything You Did: The Music of Walter Becker and Donald Fagen | Year Released: 2014 | Record Label: Capri Records

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