Steely Dan Sunday, Confessions of a Side Man: Recording on Donald Fagen’s Sunken Condos, Part 3

Below is the final installment in a three part series spanning Will Galison’s first hand account of some session work on an album by one of the most notorious studio perfectionists in rock history, Donald Fagen. Galison’s harmonica contributions can be heard on the tracks “I’m Not The Same Without You” and “The New Breed” from Fagen’s newly released Sunken Condos. Galison’s story begins here, and the second part can be found here.

The Bass Harmonica

Whenever I go to a recording session, I bring my “kit” which includes a chromatic harp (freshly tuned and regulated), a back up chromatic (in case a reed breaks during the session) a case containing 16 diatonic harps (one for each key plus a few low octave harps for certain keys), a chromatic harmonica in “B” and a bass harmonica.

You have probably never seen a bass harmonica, but you’ve heard its very distinctive sound on a number of hits, including “Fool on The Hill”, “The Boxer” and the theme of “Green Acres”. (I told you I was old!)

The bass harmonica is a misbegotten instrument.

In size and shape and general appearance, it resembles a chrome-plated toaster from the 1950’s, and is just about as practical to make music with. It is actually two giant harmonicas, about nine inches by one inch tall, mounted together on a kind of hinge. The bottom harmonica is pitched in “C” and the bottom one in “F#” (?). You can only blow on this harmonica so every hole only has one note, and you have to puff just so on the reeds to make a sound. Too hard and it chokes up, too soft and it doesn’t sound.

To make matters worse, playing anything outside of the key of “C” requires blowing one note on the bottom harp and then jumping to the upper harp while shifting the whole contraption to the right or left. It’s downright hazardous to play. If you see someone staggering out of a recording studio with broken teeth and a bloody nose, there is a good chance he just recorded a bass harmonica part.

But to make up for its ergonomic shortcomings, the instrument produces a distinctive and memorable sound; somewhere between the grunt of a bullfrog and the tone of those buzzers that go off when you give a wrong answer on Jeopardy.

Despite its limitations however, the bass harp can be the perfect sound for certain musical situations. And the most amazing thing about the instrument is that every single time I bring it to a session and I toot a note, the producer says “wow, that’s incredible! We have to use that!” and then they find some place on the album for which the bass harmonica is just the thing.

And so it was with Don and Michael. One puff on the bass harmonica and they lit up. Michael had the idea to double the bass part on sections of “The New Breed”, and as the line was chromatic and syncopated and impossible to play live, we patiently pieced the part together, a few notes at a time. The sound is subtle in the mix, but it works!

So, with two solos and a bass harp part in the bag, we wrapped it up for the night. Biking home, I beat myself up a bit for not acing the solos in a take or two but consoled myself with the thought that when Steely recorded “Reeling in the years”, even Elliot Randall probably didn’t nail that guitar solo on the first take. My biggest fear was that the CD would come out and I would find that my solos were not included. It often happens that producers change their mind about the instrument for a solo, and most studio musicians have had the humiliating experience of finding their masterpiece cut from the final mix.

I Want My Own Autograph

I naively expected the album to come out over the next month or two after the session, and after a year had passed I began to worry that the project had been put on the shelf.
But Donald Fagen is not known for rushing through a mix, and he stayed true to his reputation. Nearly a year and a half after the sessions, “Sunken Condos” was released in October, harmonica solos and all.

I know I’m not alone in thinking that this is an album on par with some of Steely Dan’s best, and I’m very proud to have been a little part of it. I’m hoping that there will be opportunities to play the tunes live.

Meanwhile, I can hear the 15 year-old me from 1973 saying: “Man, you played a solo on a Donald Fagen record! Can I have your autograph?”

*** STEELY DAN SUNDAY INDEX ***

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Galison’s latest album Line Open is also available from:

Waking Up Music
299 Riverside Drive, #1c
New York NY 10012

Send check or money order for $15.

Will Galison

Praised by jazz harmonica master Toots Thielemans as “the most original and individual of the new generation of harmonica players," Will Galison has played on hundreds of movies and television scores, albums and commercials - including Sesame Street, the Oscar-nominated scores of The Untouchables, Bagdad Café and Prelude to a Kiss. He has performed and/or recorded with artists as varied as Donald Fagen, Sting, Chaka Kahn, Barbra Streisand, Carly Simon, Ruth Brown, Astrud Gilberto, The O'Jays, Peggy Lee and many more.Contact Something Else! at reviews@somethingelsereviews.com.
  • PGE

    Thanks for sharing, Will. Interesting to read the three part story of the Sunken Condos sessions from your point of view.