Mark Masters Ensemble – Everything You Did (2013)

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Steely Dan has long implicitly and sometimes explicitly paid tribute to jazz through their own music. Bandleader, arranger and American Jazz Institute Board of Directors President Mark Masters thought it would be a cool idea to pay back the favor.

Masters, whose prior appreciations devoted to projects centered on Duke Ellington, Clifford Brown and Cole Porter’s Porgy And Bess, now turns his attention to rock artists for the first time, but we all know these aren’t your common type rock artist. Everything You Did is a set of big band interpretations of songs penned by Donald Fagen and Walter Becker, featuring Billy Harper, Tim Hagans, Peter Erskine, Oliver Lake and Sonny Simmons (on English horn!), among many others. Masters’ repertoire of ten Dan songs covers mostly deep cuts and all are from the first six albums (through Aja).

And if you thought like I did that just because the Steely Dan originals were so exquisitely arranged, there’s nothing left a big band can do to them but throw more brass at it, Masters is here to say otherwise. Even the most devoted SD fans are unlikely to recognize “Show Biz Kids,” where the song might be played in the same key, but it’s been converted into a “So What”/”Stolen Moments” kind of hybrid. No matter. The friendly competition between Hagans’ trumpet and Harper’s saxophone are nearly show stopping, as is Erskine’s hard swinging drums right behind them. This, by the way, is one of Masters’ signature moves: constructing his large bands as if it’s a dynamic small combo supplemented by a big horn section instead of a big, lumbering orchestra. His careful designation of featured soloists help to make it that way.

“Josie” isn’t anything like what you hear on Aja, but once again, Harper and Hagans turn in some torrid solos. “Aja” is the one arrangement that’s much shorter than the original, and it’s deconstructed in much the same way Miles was deconstructing standards during his 1965 Plugged Nickel dates; Hagans and trombonist Dave Woodley mete out the licks this time. Some lyrical markers from “Do It Again” pop up at strategic times that let you know this is the song being played, with some chamber music instruments getting the spotlights this time, such as bassoon and orchestral English horn.

Vocalist Anna Mjöll is also deployed in unconventional ways. She defines the main harmonic line for “Bodhisattva” with wordless singing, which approximates but not imitates the lyrical line of the original; doing it in the manner she does it emphasizes the swing that’s been put in place of the rock ‘n’ roll sentiment that is familiar to everyone. Vocalese is used on a film noire take on “Charlie Freak,” too. She coos the verses on “Black Cow” but leaves the chorus after “breakaway” up to Brad Dutz’s vibes, and bass clarinetist Brian Williams is a an astute choice for soloist.

By not being slavish to the original treatment of Becker and Fagen’s songs, Masters came up with something rather original himself. Putting such top shelf talent in the service of top shelf songs, Everything You Did is a living legends tribute that reminds us that the genius of Steely Dan goes beyond merely coy lyrics and studio perfectionism.

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Everything You Did was released July 16 by Capri Records. Feature photo by Warren Bessant

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron is an SQL demon for a Fortune 100 company by day, music opinion-maker at night. His musings are strewn out across the interwebs on jazz.com, AllAboutJazz.com, a football discussion board and some inchoate customer reviews of records from the late 1990s on Amazon under a pseudonym that will never be revealed. E-mail him at svaaron@somethingelsereviews .com or follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SVictorAaron
S. Victor Aaron
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