a self-styled jazz aficionado, overwhelmingly male and usually a musician in training himself, who expresses a handful of determinative social behaviors. Among these are a migratory pattern from the practice room, where they often nest alone, to the jazz club, where they travel in packs; a compulsion to signal the awareness of any mildly startling musical detail, with muttered exclamations like the aforementioned ‘Woooo’; the emphatic adjectival use of the word ‘killing,’ as in ‘that solo was killing’; and the exploitation of jazz knowledge as a private commodity selectively put on public display.
Does any of this matter in a discussion about Steely Dan? It might. Why? Because the jazzbro’s Charlie Parker, Sonny Rollins or John Coltrane…his Patron Saint of the Saxophone, if you will, is Chris Potter. As Chinen will tell you, they “ritually converge anytime Chris Potter is in town with his Underground band.”
Potter, as you Dan Fans (which sounds only slightly less derogatory than “jazzbro”) already know, was plucked from obscurity and played in the reconstituted Steely Dan band, touring with them from 1993-4 and again in 2000 when the band was promoting Two Against Nature. And, of course, he appeared on the Grammy-winning Nature record itself. Chris Potter post-Steely Dan has blown up in the jazz world. His Michael Brecker/Dewey Redman-derived tenor with a dash of bass clarinet on the side has made him the new Brecker now that the longtime hero to jazz fans of the younger, upwardly mobile set had sadly passed away in ’07.
I haven’t been immune to Potter’s charms, either, whether talking up his other big notable gig in the Dave Holland Quintet or heading up his own fusion outfit, that Underground Band. Hell, just a couple of months ago I put his ECM debut on my mid-year list of best albums. I did go out and see Potter play live last year, and he, um, “killed it.” But he was there as part of Pat Metheny’s Unity Band. I don’t have to tell you the main reason why I went to that concert.
Besides, a jazzbro “prevailingly falls somewhere within the 18-to-34-year-old demographic.” I’m well past that age group, old enough to be a jazzbo. Whew! Chinen can cast his stink eye elsewhere.
Becker and Fagen on the other hand can be considered old beatniks, who are probably even another generation older than jazzbo’s, and yet they are obviously keen on Potter, too. Remember when Becker told Steve Gadd to “play like hell” on “Aja”? Potter undoubtedly was given the same instructions for the closing epic of Nature, “West Of Hollywood.”
Otherwise, we’d have only a four-and-a-half minute perky tune defined by a metronomic 2/4 beat, Becker’s abrasive licks and Fagen singing some heavily compacted lyrics about the bitter aftermath of a dysfunctional relationship set in the southern California environs of Steely Dan’s classic years. Or something of the sort.
All of that is barely more than half of the song. But there is only one member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame aside from Miles Davis who’d think nothing of tagging the end of a song with a four-minute sax solo, just because it sounded good to them.
I’m not going to break down the solo with technical terms like “he was gradually working the dominant chord right before the ending resolution.” I’ll just say it sounds a lot like the Potter who is ruling New York these days. And I’m also more than a little amazed of the chord progression Becker and Fagen slipped in underneath: the chords don’t just change underneath, the key keeps changing too.
That sax solo surely is nice, but the song construction remains the most intriguing thing about “West of Hollywood.” As good as Potter is, there are a few other saxophonists out there who could solo like that. There is no one who can write a song like that, except for Walter Becker and Donald Fagen.
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