Donald Fagen and Walter Becker—better known as Steely Dan—have an uncanny ability to adopt a perfectionist approach and yet create deeply resonant music, despite the hundreds of hours spent honing it. Filled with memorable melodies, infectious grooves and no shortage of jazz harmonies, Dan is the perfect crossover band. Over the years it's provided grist for innovative and iconic solos by artists like guitarist Larry Carlton and saxophonist Wayne Shorter. And that’s no small feat, since such a considered approach to music-making often ends up being well-crafted but emotionally lacking.
Guitarist Jeff Richman has been on a roll lately with a series of guitar tributes to Mahavishnu Orchestra, Miles Davis and John Coltrane. But when he decided to tackle Steely Dan, in some ways he was faced with his most difficult challenge yet. How do you reshape such meticulously crafted songs into vehicles for some of fusion’s finest guitarists, saying something new while still retaining the signatures that have placed so many of Dan’s tunes into the lexicon of an audience whose interests extend far beyond fusion? How, indeed, do you improve on perfection?
The fact is that Richman knows just when to rework a tune—sometimes turning it inside out, as he does on Aja where the solo section becomes the intro, and the familiar theme doesn’t show up until nearly two minutes in and is rearranged into 7/4. He also knows when to leave well enough alone, as he does on a more faithful take on The Fez.
Richman knows how to shape the material to the strengths of the specific guitarists he’s recruited for this project. While all the signature hooks remain, Richman morphs Peg into a Bo Diddley rhythm that’s a perfect match for Robben Ford’s bluesy swagger. He turns the heat up on the blues-based Pretzel logic letting Steve Lukather’s powerful playing go farther than Becker and Fagen ever would.
With a crack band featuring drummer Vinnie Colaiuta, bassist Jimmy Haslip, keyboardist Peter Wolf and saxophonist Ernie Watts, Richman also knows that tampering with a tune like Kid Charlemagne where Carlton’s solo was so definitive, would beg inevitable and unfair comparisons. Still, by using Al Di Meola’s classical guitar as the primary voice on Aja he redefines it; and while Di Meola’s characteristic speed is there, he turns in one of the most cohesive and focused solos of his career.
Sometimes Richman’s penchant for playing with time doesn’t quite fit. On Josie—a feature for his own jazz-centric guitar work—the 6/4 vamp and 9/4 verse become blatantly overemphatic. Still, Richman ultimately succeeds in reinventing the music of Steely Dan into more than a mere shred-fest. The royal dan may not improve on the perfection of Becker and Fagen’s craft, but it does demonstrate that it’s possible to adapt it into a form with even more distinct jazz-centricity than has been at the core of Steely Dan all along. (John Kelman, allaboutjazz.com)