Best Steely Dan bass performances: Steely Dan Sunday

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*** STEELY DAN SUNDAY INDEX ***

Walter Becker is a superb, vastly underrated bass player and no one would have complained if he had handled the bass duties on every single Steely Dan recording. Simply being superb isn’t good enough for Steely Dan, however, because Becker and Donald Fagen were always trying to find the right musician for the right song. They had plenty enough self-awareness to understand that the best man for the job wasn’t always one of them. That’s especially true after Pretzel Logic, when they shed any pretense of Steely Dan being a conventional band of all full-time members apart from its songwriters.

This afforded them the freedom to go out and get the best bass players in order to get the best possible results, just as we’ve seen from SD sidemen guitarists, sax players and drummers. There are no bass solos to speak of, as Becker and Fagen apparently believe in the bassist sticking within his traditional role, and within those confines, there have been plenty of really good performances (and yes, many of those came from Mr. Becker himself). So many, in fact, it’s really hard to pick out just a handful and state that these are the standouts. But that hadn’t prevented us from trying to do just that.

Preston Frazier, S. Victor Aaron and John Lawler pick out the exceptional bass performances from the catalog of Steely Dan and solo Steely recordings and rank ’em, five to one. Click in the song titles to read more of what we’ve had to say about these tracks.


PRESTON FRAZIER

5. Gaucho (Walter Becker): Becker is slick yet coy; he sustains notes and uses phasing which stands by the best playing of Chuck Rainey or Anthony Jackson. Indeed, parts of Gaucho sound as if a Moog bass was used to get the sustained note impact. Guitarist Steve Khan had said that Jackson played bass on the song but his note perfect parts were erased in favor of Becker’s. Nevertheless, “Gaucho” is one of Becker’s down-in-the-bottom crowning achievements.

4. Ruby Baby (Anthony Jackson): The Nightfly and Kamakiriad both sport fantastic bass tracks on par with the best Steely Dan songs. “Ruby Baby” played by the legendary Anthony Jackson is one of them. Jackson ignores the original simple quarter note pattern and delivers a slinky ascending bass line which confounds me to this day whenever I attempt to play it. Without this sauce to Jeff Porcaro’ s forceful backbeat, the song would not have fit so eloquently on The Nightfly.

3. Negative Girl (Tom Barney): “Negative Girl” is closer musically to a Walter Becker solo track than Steely Dan. Barney floats and slides over a tight and imaginative reggae backdrop. What time signature is the song in? I don’t know. Barney’s bass is more a melodic instrument (along with Paul Jackson Jr.’s guitar), leaving Dean Parks to hold down the rhythm. Barney provides a bass track on par with the best of Rainey, Jackson or Becker.

2. Green Book (Walter Becker): The journey into the “Green Book” starts off simply enough but things go askew quickly and in a good way. Becker’s five-string bass works in lock-step with Jon Herington’s guitar in an almost Henry Mancini arrangement which is both weird and wonderful. He works best in the pocket holding down the bottom with perfection and space, yet just the right lick when you least expect it. Here’s the best of both worlds within one bass track.

1. Josie (Chuck Rainey): “Josie” is Walter Becker played by Rainey; Becker wrote this bass part verbatim then worked with Rainey in the studio to add a bit of flair. Again, rhythm guitars holds the rhythm down tight (this time Dean Parks and Larry Carlton) and the bass is allowed the space to playfully interact with the Jim Keltner’ s snare and Fagen and Tim Schmidt’s vocals. The result is a classic bass track played by a classic bass player.

S. VICTOR AARON

5. Razor Boy (Ray Brown): Ray Brown was the preeminent acoustic bass player in all of jazz for decades, and he was the first one to stand in for Becker on a SD song. In what I believe is the only acoustic bass played in the entire Steely Dan proper discography, Brown’s steady pulses proved to be the tonic for this early period breezy Latin jazz number. (For another standout double-bass moment, check Joe Martin’s funky counterpoints on Fagen’s “Slinky Thing”.)

4. Paging Audrey (Walter Becker): Against the backdrop of Larry Klein’s uncompromising production on this muted jazz-rock gem, Becker’s pure, fat tone and cadence couldn’t have been better. He’s so precise and knows how to groove even when the groove is slow. Sometimes, he fakes out the listener with his note placement, dropping an occasional one off the beat instead of on it and it just makes things subtly more funky. Blissfully restrained, Becker quietly puts on a clinic.

3. The Nightfly (Marcus Miller): Next to the Chuck Rainey/Bernard Purdie rhythm section, there wasn’t a tighter bass/drums combination in Steely Dan lore than Jeff Porcaro and just about anybody playing bass. But Marcus Miller isn’t just ‘anybody.’ That little high-register aside he does right after the first chrous during the segue into the second verse slays me every deadgummed time.

2. Gaslighting Abbie (Tom Barney): Barney’s elastic and broad bottom prowls the groove, providing an ideal counterpart to Ricky Lawson’s treble-heavy snare and hi-hat emphasis. The sweet syncopation that results with the help of rhythm guitar courtesy of Becker, it’s Steely Dan’s funkiest song since “Night By Night.”

1. Kid Charlemagne (Chuck Rainey): Rainey has a feel for the groove like none other; he’s latching right onto “Pretty” Purdie’s funk strut while weaving around Don Grolnick’s Rhodes and Paul Griffin’s clavinet. “The energy on this song is great, and I remember playing everything I knew on that song, based on my 1-5-1 style,” Rainey recollects about that session. “I walked out the studio that day with my chest stuck out.” He has every damned right to be so proud.

JOHN LAWLER

5. Hard Up Case (Walter Becker): Becker lived outside the lines and in your face on his pop anti-pop maelstrom 11 Tracks of Whack. Becker brings his badass attitude at the bottom in this hard-thumping piece about self-destruction. The mighty and meaty hooks pulsing from the bass are the glue that stabilizes life in shatters.

4. Peg (Chuck Rainey): If there was a John Entwistle of the R&B/jazz alloy that Steely Dan conjured, it was Chuck Rainey. Rainey was master of countermelody, syncopation with the drums, and altered blues riffs. Chuck sweetens the pot and uplifts the groove on Peg, then swings the “band” aloft into superstardom.

3. Snowbound (Walter Becker): Becker performs his finest and most outrageous Chuck Rainey mimicry on this open sounding classic from Kamakiriad. Instead of a countermelody, Becker inserts robust themes for drums, keyboards, vocals, Wurly, and Fagen’s tasty horn chart to play off of. Walter laughs off the flare launching loser and blowtorches up those white nights!

3. Negative Girl (Tom Barney): On this spectacular live-tracked recording Tom Barney strikes up a head bopping syncopated conversation with Vinnie Coluiata and rhythm guitarists Dean Parks and Paul Jackson Jr. Barney and band swings hard into symphonic bliss under Dave Shank’s sparking vibe solo…and that outtro. More of the same, please!

1. Green Earrings (Chuck Rainey): Becker and Fagen had rustled up a Clanton Gang’s worth of crack musicians for this track. The jewel thief character, Chuck Rainey, Purdie, Dias, Carlton, and Randall simply just don’t care as they commit grand larceny wielding the baddest, funkiest bop groove ever committed to the virgin vinyl of the time. Rainey bubbles and threatens with delicious counterhooks and melodic themes that bob and weave in the spaces between Purdie’s fills. A band and fan favorite.

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