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Sometimes tight-knit teams like Donald Fagen and Walter Beckerbetter known as Steely Danmake it difficult to determine what each individual brings to the table. It's no secret that Becker and Fagen have strong jazz sensibilities, not to mention an affection for Tin Pan Alley, having started out as staff writers for ABC Records before realizing their music was too sophisticated for the artists they were writing for. But Fagen's previous solo albumsNightfly (Reprise, 1982) and Kamikiriad (Reprise, 1993)and Becker's 11 Tracks of Whack (Giant, 1994) suggest that Becker is the more acerbic and idiosyncratic of the pair.
That's not to say that Fagen's new album, Morph the Cat, is filled with anything resembling joyous optimism. Fagen addresses topics like homeland security ("Security Joan"), the current administration ("Morph the Cat") and cults ("Mary Shut the Garden Door"), as well as personal issues like impending mortality ("Brite Nightgown"). The ghost of Ray Charles even shows up on the reharmonized minor blues of "What I Do." Nor has Fagen lost his sardonic way with words. Who else could come up with a phrase like "Rabelaisian puff of smoke"?
But Fagen grooves just a little deeper on his own than he does with Becker, giving the darker subject matter a veneer that has you bopping your head along, even as he talks of alien invasion and deatha quality that has always made both his and Steely Dan's albums so intriguingly paradoxical. Ignore the lyrics and the polished grooves are so infectious and the playing so tasty that Fagen's sharp wit and rich jazz harmonies become obscured by the music's sheer visceral nature.
The pieces are short-livedthese are pop tunes after allbut there are plenty of outstanding solos to keep the often six to seven-minute songs interesting. Walt Weiskopf's lithe tenor elevates the sneaky "Black Cow"-like funk of the title track and the more up-tempo "H Gang"; Fagen's melodica features on the down-and-dirty "Mary Shut the Garden Door"; Marvin Stamm's trumpet carries the breezier "The Great Pagoda of Funn"; and Howard Levy's harmonica adds colour to "What I Do."
Morph the Cat is also Fagen's most guitar-centric recordin or out of Steely Dansince the Dan's classic Royal Scam (MCA, 1976). No less than six guitarists, including mainstays Jon Herrington, Wayne Krantz and Hugh McCracken, deliver everything from clean singing lines to grungy dirt and, on "H Gang," a tone harkening back to the classic voice-box solo on "Haitian Divorce."
It's true that Becker and Fagen's easy-on-the-ears approach has contributed to the evolution of today's contemporary jazz radio stations, where the agenda is clearly "jazz lite," and Morph the Cat will undoubtedly get airplay on these stations. But there's always been something more authentic and physical about Fagen and Steely Dan's records. In terms of product placement, Morph the Cat may be undeservedly lumped in with smooth jazz, but make no mistake: this is an album that deserves serious consideration for its topical lyrics, natural grooves, outstanding performances and, ultimately, sheer humanity.
Track Listing: Morph the Cat; H Gang; What I Do; Brite Nightgown; The Grand Pagoda of Funn; Security Joan; The Night Belongs to Mona; Mary Shut the Garden Door; Morph the Cat (reprise).
Personnel: Donald Fagen: Fender piano, piano, organ, melodica solo (8), vocals, backup vocals; Keith
Carlock: drums; Freddie Washington: bass guitar, Harlan Post Jr.: acoustic bass; Brian
Montgomery: remedial bass guitar (9); Jon Herington: guitar, guitar solos (1, 2), chorus
solo (9); Wayne Krantz: guitar, guitar solos (4,5); Hugh McCracken: guitar (1-3,9); Frank
Vignola: guitar (1), tag guitar solo (9); Ken Emerson: guitar (3); Ken Wessel: guitar solo (6);
Phonus Quaver: vibes and marimba (1,9), marimba (4), vibes (5,8); Ted Baker: piano (2,5),
whirly piano (3,6), Fender piano (7,8); Marvin Stamm (trumpet; Walt Weiskopf: tenor
saxophone, tenor saxophone solo (1,2), alto saxophone (4); Mark Patterson: trombone;
Lawrence Feldman: clarinet (2), tenor saxophone (4,5), flute (7); Roger Rosenberg: baritone
saxophone, bass clarinet; Gordon Gottlieb: percussion (2,4,6-8); Bashiri Johnson:
percussion (4); Joe Pasaro: percussion (5); Jerry Barnes: backup vocals (1,5,9); Michael
Harvey: backup vocals (1,6,9); Amy Helm: backup vocals (3); Carolyn Leonhart: backup
vocals (3,8); Cindy Mizelle: backup vocals (3); Howard Levy: harmonica (7), harmonica solo
(3); Illinois Elohainu: flute (8).
Years ago now--in Rhodesia--listening to Voice of America with Willis Conover I heard Bunk Johnson play When The Saints Go Marching In, and Billie Holiday sing Don't Explain. I knew then there was no other life for me than jazz.