Since Steely Dan is a band centered around the output of its songwriters that has relied heavily on the contribution of crack session players, it’s easy to overlook that these songwriters are prime musicians, too. Our recent ‘best bass performances’ lists shone a light on Walter Becker plenty of times, as he’s an excellent bassist. A pretty good guitarist, too.
The same goes for Donald Fagen and his keyboarding skills. Like Becker on bass, he handled virtually all the keyboard chores for the first two albums before generously sharing the load with a wide array of other keyboard players, but he continued to make his mark on the later recordings, even if in mostly subtle ways.
Keyboard solos on Steely Dan records aren’t as plentiful as guitar or sax ones, and oftentimes, the beauty of the keyboard performance is found in the accompanying role. As our contributing writer John Lawler noted, “some keyboard riffs are simply woven into the fabric of the recording.”
Lawler, Preston Frazier and S. Victor Aaron each scoured the vault of Steely Dan/solo Steely Dan recordings to find the finest piano and keyboard performances ranked from fifth best to best: Fagen or no Fagen; solo performance or just blending in with the rhythm section. To find out more about these songs, simply click through on the nested link titles.
5. Fire In The Hole (Donald Fagen): Donald channels deep into Thelonius Monk’s quirky rhythms and tendency to attempt playing between the notes. Off-kilter stabs and dizzying rocking echo the unstable mental state of the protagonist. This tune from the first album makes a bop (not at the hop) statement. Donald’s adept fingering, fine jazz chords, lyrical harmonies, and solo of staccato juxtaposed with runs smoother than Mr. Rogers’ are prescient of keyboard finesse and virtuosity to come.
4. Great Pagoda of Funn (Ted Baker): Keyboard tab freaks delight at the Chocolate Mousse Bombe of luscious jazzy chords, so rich and frothy they would make Burt Bacharach and Henry Mancini blush. Truly an entire career of melodic hooks and harmonies adorn this beautiful piece of music, a highlight from Morph the Cat. Chord progressions soar, then keep rising to inexplicable Icarusian heights, where they propel an angelic muted trumped and velvety horn chart. Heavenly music hovering over psycho moms and severed heads.
3. I Got the News (Victor Feldman): While Feldman conjures up images and sounds of percussion and vibraphone wizardry, he was also a first rate keyboardist as his iconic electric piano solo on “Black Cow” attests. Michael Omartian’s piano on Aja’s title track emits a beautiful glow, but Feldman’s slash and stabs that dance off Chuck Rainey’s funky bass and Ed Greene’s slippery skins are the true nightlife vision. Feldman’s mischevious ivories laugh and hiss and giggle over this dangerous liaison.
2. Any World (That I’m Welcome To) (Michael Omartian):: The day Jeff Porcaro slept in on the Katy sessions Omartian teamed with Wrecking Crew stalwart Hal Blaine, and struck a conversation etched in vinyl that is magic. Omartian adorns the tune with a sad beauty that’s almost heart wrenching for a Steely Dan recording. He fills the space in verse, chorus, and bridge with runs as much Debussy as Bill Evans including spectacular ad libs that lift the outtro with Michael McDonald’s mighty backing vocals.
1. Maxine (Greg Phillanganes): A young man’s summer fantasy with his belle is brought to fruition by Greg Phlllanganes, crack keyboard session player, composer, and artist. Phillanganes’ piano croons late teen love rich in sentiment under Letterman-like tight vocal harmonies. A wistful and youthful recapturing of 1960 Americana brimming with minor key optimism paints the storyboard red, white, and blue, and building to a remarkable July 4th firework show on 88 keys full of major 7th and 9ths.
5. Your Gold Teeth (Donald Fagen): Fagen acquits himself quite nicely on this track. He plays a jazz inspired Fender Rhodes solo which pushes a great song to even higher levels . Fagen shines in this deceptively simple effort.
4. Sign In Stranger (Paul Griffin): The late Paul Griffin had a habit of funking up a Steely Dan track, and “Stranger” is no exception. His playfully coy piano breaks work well with Rick Moratta’s laid back drumming and lay the bed for Fagen’s keen vocals. Griffin sneaks in and around the lyrics with the skill of a talented skater. Though many see The Royal Scam as a guitar album, Griffin’s piano suggest there’s much more here than meets the eye.
3. Green Book (Donald Fagen): Ted Baker handles the jaunty piano on this track, but Fagen expertly drives the Fender Rhodes, organ, percussion, and solo synth. His synth work in particular is memerable as he lays down on of the very few solos on synth and it works as he intertwines it with a Walter Becker guitar solo which was recorded weeks earlier. The Becker and Fagen seemingly play off each other, trading licks back in forth to the extent that you can see them standing toe to toe in the studio.
2. Glamour Profession (Rob Mounsey):: On the smooth drug jaunt, “Glamour profession”, Mounsey provided a distinctive piano presence offsetting the straight ahead electric piano of Donald Fagen. Mounsey’ s flourishes and riffs are brilliant. While not the essence of the song they add a grace and lushness expertly contrast the lyrics. The piano solo all but overshadows the end guitar solo of Steve Khan. Rob Mounsey’s work on this track is excellent.
1. Black Cow (Victor Feldman & Joe Sample): “Black Cow” instantly draws the listener in with a skanky clavinet hook by Sample. The song effortlessly moves from R&B to jazz, led by Feldman’s electric piano, which was played live with the rhythm section. Additionally, Feldman’s Fender Rhodes solo was played live with drummer Paul Humphrey, bassist Chuck Rainey, guitarist Larry Carlton and Sample all in the same room. The late, great Feldman laid down the anchor to what may be the crowning Steely Dan jewel.
S. VICTOR AARON
5. Do It Again (Donald Fagen): Fagen’s organ solo that follows Denny Dias’ electric sitar statement isn’t technically dazzling, but it’s got a slightly dissonant, haunting quality that’s hard to shake. Right from the start he establishes himself as a rock musician who prefers to go down non-rock paths.
4. Fire In The Hole (Donald Fagen): Here’s another Fagen highlight on Can’t Buy A Thrill, this time on piano. His percussive, strident side comes out in full glory, giving what might have otherwise been a sleepy folk tune a strong spring in its step.
3. Green Book (Ted Baker & Donald Fagen): Baker’s super-tasty piano accompaniment rounds out the funky edges, but Fagen handles all other keys (organ, Rhodes, synthesizer), and puts them all in roles that complement, not overlap. His epic synth/guitar battle with co-leader Becker stings so bad, as he works the lost art of the single-note synth solo with authority.
2. Dr. Wu (Michael Omartian):: Omartian’s contributions are a defining characteristic of Katy Lied, and I could have just as easily chosen almost any other song where his piano is found. For “Wu,” his touch is elegant with gorgeous small flourishes, modulating with precision as the song moves from the laid back verses to the arcing chorus. It’s archetypical Steely Dan piano and it’s sublime.
1. Sign In Stranger (Paul Griffin): Griffin, the hero on Don McLean’s “American Pie,” is completely cut loose for Becker and Fagan’s reggae rocker. His dominant right hand puts the punctuation on Fagen’s gangster-themed couplets leading right into the two-fisted piano solo that was essentially just a continuation of the busy comping he was doing throughout the entire song. Griffin does for “Stranger” what Rick Derringer did for “Show Biz Kids.”
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