There's an engaging quality to Donald Fagen's songwriting and perfectionism that makes Steely Dan fans flock to his solo albums. While The Nightfly (1982) and Kamakiriad (1993) were expressly Fagen, Morph the Cat closely resembles Steely Dan without Walter Becker. The lineup partially reflects the ensemble that recorded the Dan's 2003 release, Everything Must Go, and toured with the group that year. The cast includes drummer Keith Carlock, guitarists Hugh McCracken and Jon Herington, and trombonist Lawrence Feldman. An assortment of additional musicians and vocalists help Fagen deliver a superb solo effort.
For many years, Steely Dan was keyboardist/lead vocalist Fagen, bassist/guitarist Becker and an ever-changing lineup of session musicians, including Michael McDonald, Larry Carlton, Steve Gadd and Wayne Shorter. On a typical album, no two songs had the same lineup. However, in 1993, around the release of Kamakiriad, the songwriting duo began to assemble a complete band. Several of the musicians who toured with the Dan over the next decade also appeared on Alive in America (1995), Two Against Nature (2000) and Everything Must Go (2003). Meanwhile, Fagen's solo albums, beginning with 1981's The Nightfly, have represented something of a trilogy that takes a look at his personal life.
Morph the Cat presents an older Fagen who now faces mortality. The title song is a tale of a strange but almost endearing visitor to Manhattan, who might also be a thinly disguised Grim Reaper. "Morph the Cat is driven by Freddie Washington's throbbing bass line and features a guitar solo by Herington. "What I Do is a laid-back tribute to the late Ray Charles. Howard Levy provides a bluesy harmonica solo on this track, which is a fictional account of a young Fagen chatting with the ghost of Charles.
"The Great Pagoda of Funn is one of the few straight-out romantic ballads in Fagen's repertoire. The longest selection on the album is an escapist story of two lovers whose time together offers respite from today's headlines of "psycho-moms and "dirty bombs. Carlock, one of contemporary jazz's most versatile drummers, brings the toms out on this one. Marvin Stamm offers an elegant muted trumpet solo.
One of the beautiful things about Fagen's musicboth with Steely Dan and as a solo actis his ability to meld thought-provoking and sometimes suggestive lyrics with extended instrumental solos. "I like it when songs develop in some way, and four minutes isn't usually enough time for something to develop musically usually, he says. The additional timesix of the nine tracks are longer than six minutesallows him to get his lyrical message across while giving plenty of room to the musicians.
Whether singing about death ("Brite Nightgown ), living in bomb shelters ("New Frontier, from The Nightfly) or athletes and drugs (Steely Dan's "Glamour Profession ), Fagen has a unique ability to make the dark things in life enjoyable. Blending his experiences in jazz, blues, rock and soul, he makes Morph the Cat another in a long list of keepers.
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).