Best Steely Dan saxophone solos: Steely Dan Sunday

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It’s no secret that Walter Becker and Donald Fagen love tasty guitar licks and we earlier sized up what we thought were the best Steely Dan guitar solos on record. But along with their fondness for traditional jazz comes an appreciation for the emotive sounds of a saxophone, too. One their songs pays homage to perhaps the greatest alto sax performer of all time (Charlie Parker), and a Sonny Rollins album cover can be seen on Fagen’s own iconic The Nightfly cover.

S. Victor Aaron, Preston Frazier and John Lawler scanned the entire catalog of Steely Dan, Donald Fagen and Walter Becker albums in search for the most perfectly crafted saxophone solos and came up with these gems. As with the guitar solo choices, these prime saxophone performances came from the ranks of the well-known and should-be-better-known alike.

Click in the song titles to read our original take on these tunes.


5. Janie Runaway (Chris Potter): Potter perked up a lot of ears with his extended piece de resistance on the Two Against Nature closer “West of Hollywood.” Still, I prefer the dry, alto tone on “Janie Runaway” that feels so in tune with the crisp, clean groove of the song, nearly taking on the role of an alternate lead vocal. Modern in attitude but traditional in expression, this is just what Becker and Fagen like in their saxophone breaks.

4. Maxine (Michael Brecker): Brecker had done hundreds of noteworthy sideman stints, and this one might not even rank among his very best. Nonetheless, his trademark soul wringing aside on “Maxine” dovetails perfectly with Fagen’s daydream sentiment, making you almost forget about those gorgeous harmonies.

3. FM (No Static At All) (Pete Christlieb): Christlieb’s feature on “Deacon Blues” was so memorable, Steely Dan brought him back the next year for this encore. One version of “FM” actually replaces Becker’s outro solo with Christlieb’s, but even without that, his sax remarks in the mid-song instrumental break are characteristically expressive and counterpoints those stinging guitar lines with perfection and grace.

2. Aja (Wayne Shorter): Shorter recorded his sax part after Steve Gadd did his drum bit but he managed to make it seem as if they were jousting with each other; it’s an epic battle of two of the finest living practitioners of their respective instruments. Mr. Gone easily glides through Becker and Fagen’s knottiest-ever composition with a mastery that bespeaks his storied jazz career.

1. Dr. Wu (Phil Woods): For a perfectly crafted tune such as “Dr. Wu,” only a perfect sax solo will do and it takes someone of Phil Woods’ stature to pull it off. The bop legend, whose lavish phraseology also graced Billy Joel’s “Just The Way You Are,” puts the cherry on top of this one with a passionate swing you rarely hear from saxophonists of later generations.


5. Book of Liars (Live) (Bob Sheppard): The live rhythm section of Dennis Chambers and Tom Barney transform the song, but the centerpiece is clearly Bob Sheppard’s tenor solos which are graceful and sad. Sheppard starts the song with a soprano lick that is captivating but switches to the tenor; by the time he gets to the end of his audio magic you can see poor Santa drunk and paced out on the lawn. Admittedly not a pleasant sight, but it sounds great.

4. The Caves of Altamira (John Klemmer): From a Steely Dan album most noted by its killer guitar parts comes John Klemmer’s explosive and sweet tenor break. The song is propelled by a tasty drum and bass duo of Bernard Purdie and Chuck Rainey and when you think it couldn’t get better, Klemmer takes you higher. The fade out finds him holding his own against the horn section. Damn fine playing.

3. Three Picture Deal (Roger Rosenberg): When Cornelius Bumpus died I thought for sure Ari Ambrose or Bob Sheppard would take his place up on the horn riser. I was disappointed when baritone ace, Roger Rosenberg, was called in. My disappointment vanished quickly as Rosenberg is the secret weapon in the Steely Dan live show. A fantastic composer and arranger in his own right, his Becker-produced CD, Baritonality is one of the best jazz albums of 2009.

2. On The Dunes (Cornelius Bumpus): Eight minutes of audio ecstasy. Is it the evocative piano and string synthesizer work from Fagen or his vividly introspective lyrics? Is it Becker’s jazzy bass playing and sympathetic production? Or a shockingly effective drum break by Christopher Parker? Perhaps it the lyrical tenor sax solo from the late Cornelius Bumpus. Bumpus had a notable career with Moby Grape, the Doobie Brothers and Steely Dan, yet his performance here may well be his best ever.

1. Maxine (Michael Brecker): I’d argue “Maxine” is the best Dan-related sax work. Becker has a talent of fusing blues and jazz together is an emotional and heartfelt blend. “Maxine” is a perfect example of his magic and the sax blends effortlessly with the stellar drum track of Ed Greene’s and one of Donald Fagen’s deeply personal and direct lyrics.


5. Everything Must Go (Walt Weiskopf): Weiskopf tips the fez toward Coltrane and “Acknowledgement” in the intro to Everything Must Go, while cleverly slipping the theme of the bridge of the song into the cacophony. He licks the wounds of men with golden parachutes who chased fools gold into another economic bubble, prescient of the virtual economic collapse of 2008. Walt and Dan dissolve the corporation and ride off into the sunset.

4. Janie Runaway (Chris Potter): The desired lead single from Two Against Nature is blocked by Warner Bros. for Too Much Sax. Chris Potter warms up with paroxysmal call and response before making good on not just one, but two oh so hot and bubbly solos. Who’s not afraid to try new things? Chris runs away with jazzy, tasty treats.

3. Deacon Blues (Pete Christlieb): Pete Christlieb’s essence is soulful and mournful in this film noir classic on the Aja album. Probably the pinnacle of sophistication for Steely Dan, and the crack band virtually declares “Take it!” Mr. Christlieb delivers the goods in this iconic solo. The wet streets glisten and reflect the neon lights as our anti-hero then slinks off into the night in an outro that ends far too soon.

2. Doctor Wu (Phil Woods): Ho hum, another love, drug triangle for Walter and Donald. While the protagonist takes a hit and drifts into the haze, Woods reaches with a mighty grip from the other side and blows that thing. He injects a luscious melody straight into the vein, and it’s pure gold. Every note he wailed I knew was true.

1. West of Hollywood (Chris Potter): Potter rides the crest of unbelievable complicated chords and deceptive rhythms. He goes way deep and accesses a place in pop music where few have dared tread. Nearly four masterful minutes of bliss in a true instrumental tour-de-force, as he follows this descending tale from Mo’ to woe.

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