Farewell to Walter Becker of Steely Dan

Sep 5, 2017

Leave it to Marian McPartland to host a relaxed, conversational hour with Donald Fagen and the late Walter Becker, and to foster the novel experience of hearing them ask questions of her. It should come as little surprise to fans of Steely Dan to know that the band's co-founders were jazz heads throughout their lives, and that their meticulously crafted records employed such jazz greats as Jerome Richardson, Phil Woods, Wayne Shorter, Victor Feldman, Plas Johnson, Pete Christlieb, and Supersax with Warne Marsh, Bob Cooper, and Med Flory. 

Donald Fagen and Walter Becker of Steely Dan
Credit Danny Clinch / Los Angeles Times

In this 2002 episode of Piano Jazz, Becker, who died on Sunday at age 67 from an undisclosed cause, and Fagen discuss their respective experiences listening to Mort Fega ("Uncle Mort") spin jazz records on WEVD in New York; their first meeting at Bard, where upperclassman Fagen was playing an out-jazz rendition of a patriotic anthem on alto saxophone; and Becker names Charlie Christian and Jim Hall as jazz guitar greats, but reserves most-favored status for Grant Green and notes his skill at swinging while he played elegant, single-string lines. On Piano Jazz, they play a surprise opener, Duke Ellington's "Limbo Jazz," Fagen sings a classic blues that he first heard on Louis Armstrong Plays W.C. Handy, and Marian joins in for a bluesy, two-piano take on the Steely Dan classic, "Black Friday."

"Deacon Blues," which premiered on their 1977 album Aja, features Pete Christlieb on tenor saxophone.  (Becker and Fagen 's only work as producers of a bebop-oriented jazz album took place the following year when they produced a quintet session on Christlieb and Warne Marsh called Apogee.)  The song is a projection fantasy on the jazz life that Fagen described as "autobiographical in that it reflected the dreams [we had] about becoming jazz musicians while [we] were living in the suburbs." During the Piano Jazz episode, Fagen noted that their devotion to high-quality audio production began with their appreciation for jazz albums that "sounded great." This fascinating exposition of the song features comments by Christlieb and drum master Bernard Purdie, and notes the influence of Rudy Van Gelder, the renowned studio engineer who recorded hundreds of landmark Blue Note, Prestige, and Impulse sessions that were cornerstones of Fagen's and Becker's collections.

"A little blues about Ulysses," is Donald Fagen's cover story for "Home At Last." I don't think of the Odyssean saga by Steely Dan as a personal favorite, but it plays in my head more than any other, so what's that say about my journey home? Or am I really just tied to the mast of Fagen and Walter Becker's extraordinary skill at writing complex, yet catchy tunes? Watch this especially for Bernard "Pretty" Purdie's amazing demonstration of polyrhythmic layering over a shuffle.