Best Steely Dan drumming performances: Steely Dan Sunday

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Steely Dan’s attention to detail is, of course, storied. While they’re often thought to emphasize primarily top-shelf guitar and saxophone performances, they consider the drums just as important — if not more important — to the success of their recordings. This is why it’s hard to find fault with the drumming on any single Dan recording.

That’s not by happenstance: they worked tirelessly through dozens of takes to capture that perfect timekeeping and after the second album Countdown To Ecstasy, hired among the very finest drummers alive to execute them. Many times, only a certain elite drummer could perform the sophisticated rhythm charts Walter Becker and Donald Fagen had dreamed up in their minds.

John Lawler, Preston Frazier and S. Victor Aaron have taken on the impossible task of sorting out the best of these Steely Dan/solo Steely Dan drumming performances and choosing five favorites a piece. Maybe we should have allowed them ten a piece instead, but many phenomenal drum deeds would have still been left on the table.

Click in the song titles to read the full, SER take on these recordings.


5. Gaucho (Jeff Porcaro): Porcaro lays down a drum performance so spectacular in a late-night session that Donald and Walter throw out the remainder of the tracks and build the entire song around it. Drum rolls into an elegant shuffle with nuanced fills around the jumpy, modified Latin rhythms of the tune. Porcaro delivers a clinic, arcing to a delicious climax.

4. Home At Last (Bernard Purdie): You done it – you done hired the man who conjured the Purdie Shuffle. The song and performance that best exemplifies the half-time, funky, laid (way) back in the beat shuffle within the jazz-pop environment of the mid- to late- 70s can be found on “Home at Last.” Bernard “Pretty” Purdie feeds off Chuck Rainey’s bass with righteous grooves and masterful off-beat fills with alacrity in this tight band favorite.

3. On the Dunes (Chris Parker): Parker’s washes us over with waves of aural magic. Parker massages the cymbals and high hat with the ebb and flow of the sea, lapping the dunes that attempt to bury the pain. Drum machines overboard as life in the rhythm section breaks through on Fagen’s sci-fi lite funkfest.

2. Your Gold Teeth II (outtake) (Jeff Porcaro): A young Jeff Porcaro flexes his muscles on this challenging piece featuring 3/5, 6/8, and 9/8 time signatures. Porcaro swings and grooves of the jazzy masterpiece, channeling Dannie Richmond from Mingus’ big band. His feel and play off Rainey’s bass is unreal…and it is that feel which places Porcaro at the apex of the cadre of Steely Dan drummers.

1. Aja (Steve Gadd): This complex and sophisticated modern jazz suite featuring giants like Wayne Shorter, Larry Carlton, Victor Feldman, Joe Sample, etc. called for a fearless stick man on top of their game. After a number of gunslingers failed this mighty shootout, in strode Steve Gadd…fresh off a recent musicians’ duels with Al Di Meola on Elegant Gypsy and Casino. Two immortal takes through a multitude of shifting rhythms and a stick click later – Aja opens and blossoms into the rising sun.


5. Gaslighting Abbie (Ricky Lawson): Two Against Nature created a buzz for a number of reasons but one of the most obvious reason’s was Lawson’s drum track. Perhaps fans were expecting the flourishes of “Kid Charlemagne,” the swing of “Black Cow” or the sublime shuffle of “Babylon Sisters.” Instead, the late Ricky Lawson delivers a tights and funky, locomotion like back beat using just his high hat, snare and bass drum. The effect is hypnotic and super funky.

4. Rikki Don’t Lose That Number (Jim Gordon): Gordon, the drummer for Derek and The Dominoes and the cowriter of “Layla” has an undeniable rock legacy and even an impact of some of the Dan’s most used drummers. On “Rikki,” the master shows how it’s done with his subtle rim work, expansive fills and sharp right hand deftly buzzing on the snare. This song, one of Steel Dan’s most popular and also rarely played since 1974 would not be great without Gordon’s stamp.

3. Upside Looking Down (Keith Carlock): Partly the reason the song works so well is because Carlock’s snare and tom rim work is mind blowing. He effortlessly shifts from drum to drum while effectively working his ride cymbal. He manages to evoke Stewart Copeland and Jeff Porcaro in the same song. No small feat for this master drummer.

2. Third World Man (Live) (Peter Erskine, from Alive in America): Sure, the original has Steve Gadd and it may well be in the top 5 but Erskine’s live version trumps it with seriously subtle and expressive tom-tom fills and a blazing use of his floor tom. The slightly slower live version adds a sonic anticipation only hinted in the original from Gaucho, assuring that Peter Erskine’s brief stint as Steely Dan’s touring drummer will never be forgotten.

1. Josie (Jim Keltner): Keltner seems an unlikely Steely Dan drummer given his roots-rock pedigree. However, he’s a trained jazz drummer and a master of subtlety; nowhere is this more evident than on this hit song. “Josie” rides on Keltner’s ghost notes played on snare and an oh-so delicate shuffle led by his right hand and ride cymbals. It’s all about subtlety from the dainty opening to its trash can lid-driven bridge which climaxes with a shuffle to die for.


5. Surf And/Or Die (Ben Perowsky): One of the funkiest songs in the entire Dan-related discography, and Walter Becker’s bass has something to do with that. But even more so it’s Perowsky’s active kick drum perfectly syncing with that slap bass while his hard snare keeps the time. Relentless and powerful, only the sheer spiritual force of a Buddhist chant can take it down.

4. Your Gold Teeth II (Jeff Porcaro): As a teenager in the early 60s, Donald Fagen used to watch Charles Mingus’ band play. For “Your Gold Teeth II” he asked Porcaro to shuffle the waltz like Mingus’ drummer, Dannie Richmond, and Jeff nailed all those 3/8, 6/8 and 9/8 bars on the first try. His spotlight smack in the middle of Denny Dias’ dope guitar solo is a display of the finesse and coordination that characterized a legendary drumming career.

3. Babylon Sisters (Bernard Purdie): The Purdie Shuffle strikes again. We’ve witnessed Pretty’s signature 16th note sway on Aja‘s “Home At Last,” and on some days I’d put that song in this spot. But he pushes so hard against the stoic essence of “Babylon Sisters” that he transforms a good jazz-rock chillout tune into an excellent groover.

2. Rikki Don’t Lose That Number (Jim Gordon): Gordon is best known for his membership in the star-crossed Derek and the Dominos and he’s had plenty of notable studio dates, too. This sideman performance on a high profile #4 song is particularly sublime, because he knows exactly where to place the fills and disseminate an urbane jazz groove with the steady sophistication of Joe Chambers. He blends the rhythm into the melody so completely, and that’s the genius of Jim Gordon.

1. Aja (Steve Gadd): Walter Becker telling Gadd to “play like hell” is like telling LeBron James to “score like hell,” but for “Aja” the drummer is in total control of his fury. He gallops, swings and stops on a dime, pulling out the heavy weaponry and doesn’t just passively follow all the rhythmic changes Becker and Fagen put into the suite-like song, he leads the charge. Gadd was given a tall assignment, and he took care of business.

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