Steely Dan, the veteran pop band whose crisp production and memorable jazz licks made them required listening for today's smooth jazz stars, are the subject of a new tribute album that boasts some of the biggest names in the genre.
No Static at All: An Instrumental Tribute to Steely Dan, recently released on Samson Records, features a core band of Ndugu Chancler on drums, Byron Miller on bass, and Steve LeGassick on keyboards. The band, called Garden Party, is supplemented by guest artists including saxophonists Warren Hill, Richard Elliot, Dave Koz and Eddie M; keyboardists Jeff Lorber and Roger Smith; guitarists Doc Powell and Chieli Minucci; and trumpeter Tony Guerrero.
The project was conceived by Samson Records executive Steve Barri, who in 1970 signed two young men named Walter Becker and Donald Fagen to ABC/Dunhill Records as songwriters for a roster that included Three Dog Night and the Grass Roots. Fagen and Becker's lyrics and chord changes proved puzzling to many of the bands. But Barri heard something he liked, and in 1972 released Can't Buy a Thrill, the first album by Steely Dan, which consisted of Fagen, Becker and a crew of other musicians.
Some of the biggest session players of the time, including guitarist Larry Carlton and saxophonists Tom Scott and David Sanborn, have appeared on Steely Dan albums. Many of these session men went on to become top contemporary jazz artists.
More than 25 years after the first Steely Dan album, Barri returned to the contemporary jazz scene during a stint at JVC Records. When he spoke to jazz-radio program directors, inevitably the conversation would turn to Steely Dan.
"They're all such fans and they continue to play the music at that format," Barri said. "And I thought that Steely Dan would be the kind of band I would love to see this format break today, a newer Steely Dan, because it's a band that crosses many genres of music."
At JVC and later at Samson, Barri explored the idea of a Steely Dan instrumental album.
"A lot of people were into the lyrics and what they meant," he said. "That was an important part of it, but I always thought their melodies were just brilliant. And so many of musicians we spoke to said this was the stuff they grew up on."
Barri green-lighted the CD after Samson had success with a band called Jango, whose sound and vocals are reminiscent of Steely Dan's.
"We thought we'd give this genre a try [even though] a lot of labels are getting out now because you are limited in overall sales," he said. "But we feel that if we do it right and make the right kind of records and have the acts that can cross over to other formats, we can be successful."
At Samson, Barri plans to release other Garden Party CDs that will pay homage to such artists as Sting, Stevie Wonder and Smokey Robinson.
Tracks Stand On Own
The 11 tracks on No Static at All were picked by Barri: "Do It Again" (RealAudio excerpt), "Peg" (RealAudio excerpt), "FM (No Static at All)" (RealAudio excerpt), "Deacon Blues," "Rikki Don't Lose That Number," "Josie," "Bad Sneakers," "Caves of Altamira," "Hey Nineteen," "Reelin' in the Years" and "Pearl of the Quarter." While attempting to retain the flavor of the original versions, Barri said he tried to inject enough originality into the covers to make them stand on their own. On solos, for example, Barri had the sax replace Becker's guitar and the guitar replace Fagen's keyboards.
Jazz composer and keyboardist Lorber grew up with Steely Dan. He remembers playing their songs in a cover band during the '70s. On the new disc, Lorber plays piano, Hammond B-3 organ and Fender Rhodes on "Do it Again" and "FM."
"[Fagen and Becker] grew into this incredibly masterful production team," Lorber said. "Aja and Gaucho were some of the best records ever made in terms of engineering, drumming [and] recording. And the chord changes were so incredibly jazz derived and really interesting. They were textbook cases of how fantastic this craft of making records in the studio could be."
Meanwhile, Steely Dan is amid a summer tour after reuniting to make the CD Two Against Nature.