Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Deconstructing Steely Dan's Your Gold Teeth II from Katy Lied

Steely Dan (Donald Fagen and Walter Becker) composed and recorded Your Gold Teeth II almost thirty-six years ago on their Katy Lied Album (MCA Records) and the track sounds as if it were recorded today, fresh, tight, and with a be-bop groove that is unforgettable and will always be burned into my musical psyche as one of their very best jazz compositions and studio performances.

Deconstructing this song is fun because it fuses together so many classic jazz elements in a song that has weird lyrics to say the least. The arrangement is deceivingly simple and elegant with the piano, bass and drum parts that blend seamlessly throughout the track. The guitar solo and the underlying drum part are the highlights and placed front and center from the middle to the end fade-out for the song. The showpiece of this song hands down is Denny Dias' masterful guitar solo that pays tribute to Django Reinhardt. The guitar notes ring out and are clearly picked with a precision and jazz feel that any professional guitarist would appreciate. Denny plays this solo with passion and goes up and down the major and minor scales without bending a single note. One has to admire the dexterity, timing and precision of his playing as the solo is just nailed as soon as you hear the first few notes.

On this particular track, drummer Jeff Porcaro had a lot of trouble laying down the drum part. Instead bringing in another drummer, Donald loaned Jeff a Charles Mingus album with Dannie Richmond drumming to help him achieve the be-bop drumming groove he was looking for. (Dannie Richmond drummed for Charlie Mingus and was one of the best Be-Bop/Post Bop drummers in recent American Jazz history.)

As you can see from Jeff Porcaro Instructional Video, his dexterity and coordination is showcased as he casually performs what appears to be one of the most intricate drumming techniques. Jeff was truly a master of the drums and it's easy to see why he was in so much demand as a studio session drummer. He played on hit albums by the following artists: Bruce Springsteen, Dire Straits, Paul McCartney, Rickie Lee Jones, America, Miles Davis, Lee Ritenour, Michael McDonald, Tom Scott, BeeGees, Jackson Browne, Peter Frampton, to name a few.

Jeff was quoted in an interview by Modern Drummer Magazine: "'Your Gold Teeth II' is a song with lots of bars of 3/8. 6/8. amd 9/8. And it's bebop! I could swing the cymbal beat and fake it, but that always bothered me. After recording it, Fagen gave me a Charles Mingus record with Dannie Richmond on drums. It had a tune that was full of 6/8 and 9/8 bars. I listened to that for a couple of days, and we tried it again and it worked. What a cool thing! The ride cymbal on that, and on the whole record, is an old K Zildjian my dad gave me. Unfortunately, all the cymbals are clipped and phased on the album because the DBX didn't work. That was real heart-breaking for those guys"

Denny Dias Interview from the Making of Aja Classic Albums DVD
The next day in the studio, Jeff nailed the drum part in one take. His drumming was the perfect foil for Denny's spectacular guitar solo. If you are just getting into jazz for the first time, this song is a must hear if you want to hear what be-bop is all about. Although I described Denny's guitar solo as spectacular, most if not all of  his guitar solos are some of the most understated guitar solos in the business. Never showy or flashy, they get the job done as he has carved out a unique lead guitar style and tone that is instantly recognizable. Another example of this is Denny's lead guitar parts in Aja. Usually a record is produced and the finished product is good enough. For Donald and Walter, this was never the case. The finished product had to be as close to sonic perfection as humanly possible. The caliber of professional musicians they have used over the years reads like a who's who of the Jazz Musician's Hall of Fame. Their recording engineer Roger Nichols used state of the art recording gear and monitoring equipment. Forget Dolby, they were experimenting with DBX compression way before it became mainstream and were into exotic stereo equipment and speakers for the sole purpose of hearing the most accurate reproductions of their work. Walter was a big fan a Dahlquist Electrostatic Speakers. They also spend a lot of money (much to the the ABC Record Executives and Accountant's dismay) acquiring high end esoteric stereo gear so that they could monitor the tracks in the studio. Roger Nichols who was their chief engineer on all of the SD albums, was also a stereo fanatic and  ran a company on the side building studios and sound rooms for commercial accounts and private individuals. They were so into the cutting edge of electronic stereo gear and even ahead of the curve by choosing to use DBX compression equipment to record Katy Lied, that they got themselves into serious trouble when recording the master tapes with the DBX gear. It almost destroyed the Katy Lied recordings due to some electronic gremlins that to this day were never resolved by the DBX Factory headquartered in New England.

As they became more proficient in mixing traditional jazz with rock and deliberately cryptic lyrics, the challenge of finding even more talented jazz musicians for their new material and albums became harder but they were always looking for talented jazz musicians in the most unconventional ways. They "found" Pete Christlieb by watching and listening to the Doc Severinson Band on Johnny Carson's Tonight Show on network television. Walter and Donald called the Tonight show producers and auditioned the first two saxophone players from the Tonight Show band before Pete showed up as they could not ascertain who this fantastic Sax player was when watching the three of them play on the Tonight show. Pete ended up being the third and final sax player to audition and as soon as he started playing, Donald and Walter hired him on the spot.

Check out this track. It is one of many tracks that Steely Dan has produced that provides so much technique and finesse and is one of the more contemporary jazz pieces with a be-bop backbone that has won over many jazz traditionalists and rock fans over the years. I believe it is a quintessential Steely Dan song that pushed them into Jazz territory and showcased their arranging and compositional talents outside of the Pop song structure and progressive rock genre.

Your Gold Teeth II Studio Recording Youtube Video
Steely Dan over the years has hired some of the most talented guitarists of this generation to play extraordinary electric guitar solos that sound fresh and still stand as classics that are instantly recognizable to any one who has tuned into FM radio in the the last forty years. Here's a Youtube video of Hank Easton playing a medley of the most famous Steely Dan guitar solos. Hank is a San Diego based jazz guitarist who plays lead guitar in a Steely Dan tribute band, Steely Damned and the Hank Easton Band:

Steely Dan Guitar Solo Medley Hank Easton Band

Donald Fagen

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Deconstructing Steely Dan's Chain Lightning (From Katy Lied)

Chain Lightning from Katy Lied ABC Records
Donald Fagen - Walter Becker
Lead Guitar - Rick Derringer
Drums - Jeff Porcaro
Fender Rhodes &; Lead Vocals - Donald Fagen
Bass - Walter Becker

Chain Lightning is a simple 12 bar blues tune that has a swampy twang to it. This blues-ey track has an almost burlesque feel to it and if you close your eyes while listening to it, you can imagine that you are inside of a nineteen fifties vintage strip club with the requisite drummer performing while the strippers are doing their thing.

Leave it to Donald and Walter to lay down this most interesting composition that compels many listen-ings to absorb the pure simplicity of the song construction while admiring the complex lead guitar track contributed by Rick Derringer. Rick is one of the most underrated guitar players of our generation and wrote the chart busting tune "Hang On Sloopy" when he was the lead guitarist and founding member of the McCoys in nineteen sixty five when Rick was only 17 years old. His guitar and production work with the Edgar Winter Group is legendary and had a huge hit in the seventies and eighties with "Free Ride" and "Rock and Roll Hoochie Koo."

Here's a Youtube Video with Rick Derringer demonstrating
 some of his blues chops. This was filmed at a 2006 guitar trade show.
Incredible! Just incredible.

Rick at the time was hired by Becker and Fagen to flesh out the tasty guitar solo they wanted for Chain Lightning. Ably demonstrating his blues and jazz chops, Derringer provided everything they were looking for and even more. He contributes one of the most interesting lead guitar solos on the album and is counterbalanced nicely with Jeff Porcaro's tasteful drumming. Aoother musical prodigy, Jeff learned drumming from his father, Joe Porcaro, a veteran LA session musician and started to learn when he was only 9 years old. He ended up becoming the TV band house drummer for the Sonny and Cher show on CBS when he was 19 years old. Jeff recommended back-up singer Michael McDonald who was good friends with Jeff at the time when Donald and Walter were looking for a good back-up singer for their albums.

Jeff Porcaro: A Special Salute

This is another master lesson on taking a familiar song structure and building it out into something fresh and interesting that begs repeated listenings and also makes you feel that the song is way too short as you want the lead guitar to continue way past the fadeout of the studio cut. I think this song performed live is one of their (Donald and Walter's) favored songs for extended musical jams when Steely Dan is on the road performing live concerts.

This is yet another Steely Dan track that is timeless and you have another song recorded in the studio that seems to be pretty damn close to perfection from a performance perspective. In my opinion, a lot of these songs are like fine wine. They do sound and taste way better over extended periods of time.

Chain Lightning Video from Youtube
Walter Becker
Donald Fagen

2014 Mercedes Benz E250E Bluetec One Step Forward, 3 Steps Back

Kudos to Mercedes for carrying the torch of Diesel innovation in the global and US automotive markets. Their newest luxury turbodiesel sedan entrant is the 2014 Mercedes Benz E250 Bluetec which started to ship late last year and is selling fairly well given the extremely high EPA mileage ratings for the 4 wheel drive and the rear wheel driver models. The RWD model is rated at a stellar 45 MPG which is quite an achievement given the fact that it tips the scales at a porcine 4,200 pounds. I believe the DEF Diesel Exhaust Fluid reservoir system is the main culprit adding more weight to an already heavy chassis along with other new electronic accessories and motors added to the mix. What is amazing is that the older Mercedes-Benz 6 Cylinder turbocharged Diesels are just as efficient and because of their lighter weight, are significantly faster than the new 4 cylinder sequential turbocharged 2014 E250 Bluetec.

As I am a current owner of a 2008 Mercedes Benz E320 Bluetec, I felt that a comparison between the 2008 E320 Bluetec and the 2014 E250 Bluetec would be a very interesting exercise. To wit:

2008 MB E320 Bluetec
3.2 Liter V6 Twin Turbo  Diesel Engine
201 HP
387 Foot Pounds of Torque
7 Speed Automatic Transmission
Zero to 60 Time in Seconds 6.5
Weight Unladen 3,860 Pounds
EPA Mileage Rating 37 Highway 28 City

2014 MB E250 Bluetec
2.1 Liter 4 Cylinder Twin Turbo Diesel Engine
195 HP
369 Foot Pounds of Torque
7 Speed Automatic Transmission
Zero to 60 Time in Seconds 8.2
Weight Unladen 4,200 Pounds RWD Model
4400 Pounds for All Wheel Drive Model
EPA Mileage Rating  45 Highway 28 City

The main takeaway here is that the 2014 Mercedes Benz E250E Bluetec is almost 2 seconds slower to 60 MPH than the 2008 E320 Bluetec, is about 330 pounds heavier than the 2008 E320 Bluetec
But is rated up to 8 Miles per gallon higher per the EPA highway rating. This can be attributed to the auto start-stop system and higher gears in the 7 speed automatic transmission in the 2014 E250 Bluetec.

I personally would not give up the performance for the higher mileage seen on the highway rating. A V6 Turbodiesel is really a beast of an engine and having almost 400 foot pounds of torque on tap makes it a real sleeper when passing cars on the highway. I also like the fact that the 2008 Bluetec is 330 Pounds lighter than the 2014 Bluetec.

Friday, November 14, 2014

US Vintage Guitars Rising In Value - Is the Tsunami to blame?

It is my belief that expensive vintage and acoustic guitars especially Fender, Gibson and Martins will see a dramatic rise in value later this year and next year once the general public and guitar collecting community realize that many valuable vintage guitars were destroyed by the recent Tsunami in Japan. It is no secret that some of the most valuable acoustic and electric vintage guitars are collected by Japanese guitar collectors. Many professional Rock and Jazz guitarists have made the trip to Tokyo and other cities to purchase vintage solid bodies like Stratocasters, Telecasters and other rare hollow body Gibson Jazz guitars. If they were made in the US and manufactured in the fifties and sixties, there is a good chance they are held by collectors in Japan. Tokyo and other Japanese cities still have the highest purchase prices and rent per square foot so it becomes difficult if not impossible to find inexpensive climate controlled storage space for their vintage American guitars within their most populated cities. I theorize that there must be many storage facilities in the Northern Prefectures (suburbs) that got wiped out in that Tsunami. It will probably be made public much later but I'll bet a lot of nice guitar and classic automobile collections got wiped out from the rising waters and the floodings. A lot of those guitars cannot ever be replaced and it will definitely drive up the value of other vintage US made guitars.

I may be totally wrong on this observation but only time will tell if we see huge bump on the values of used vintage collectible American made guitars.

Here's a link to a recent article in the Fretboard Journal which describes how Mac Yasuda rescued a priceless collection of banjos from a warehouse in Chiba prefecture in Japan. This article sparked my interest in developing my theory about the vintage guitars that have been damaged by the recent Tsunami.

Mac Yasuda Interview -Fretboard Journal

Spinal Tap Nigel's Guitar Room

Brown Fender Collection (Seventies)

Martin Guitar Factory Tour

Acoustic Vintage Guitars In Japan