Countdown To Ecstasy: Royal Academy Big Band Pay Tribute To The Dan

 RAM Hamish

There are some people, who I've never understood, who smirk at the mention of Steely Dan. "Oh," they say, "that's for people who like clever-clever chord changes, session musician name-dropping and impenetrable lyrics." So, the news that the Royal Academy Big Band was lined up to honour the 40th birthday of the classic album Aja (two years too late, by my calculations) may have caused this misguided segment of society to roll their eyes: "Of course, the Academy, the conservatoire... not exactly rock'n'roll is it." And, indeed, as the young big band assumed their places on stage they had an air of academic excellence about them, the trombone section resembling a particularly brilliant team off University Challenge.

But anyone with such suspect views would have been won over as soon as this magnificently talented unit kicked into 'Babylon Sisters', one of the greatest songs of the 20th century, no debate. With Hamish Stuart, the founder of the Average White Band no less, so comfortably stepping into the hard-to-fill shoes of Donald Fagen, the evening proved a revelation. I've never wanted to hear anyone but Fagen sing these sacred tracks, but Stuart met the challenge full on, bringing plenty of Fagen’s idiosyncratic slurring and whining, while adding his own phrasing and inflections to great effect. A trio of young singers complemented him impeccably: led by Sumudu Jayatilaka, often seen in Van Morrison's touring band, they clearly enjoyed delivering the sassy backing lines so important to the Dan thing – "so outrageous" ('Black Cow'); "you gotta shake it baby" ('Babylon Sisters'); "go to Las Vegas" (or is it "lost wages"?) ('Show Biz Kids') and "the girls don’t seem to care" ('FM').

This was largely the project of trumpeter and composer Reuben Fowler, who took on purely a conducting role. His arrangements proved a total success, never obscuring or competing with the essence of the music, a clever balancing act; with many twists and turns echoing some of the live renditions heard on Steely Dan gigs since the band resumed touring back in the mid-1990s. Given the harmonic possibilities embedded in this music, ‘over-arranging’ may have been a problem in some hands, but not here. It would be easy to see Tom Scott himself (horn arranger on Aja) applauding these luscious, imaginative charts, in which Gareth Lockrane’s flute and piccolo was often prominent in the voicings.

It’s far from the first time that Dan tunes have been heard in a big-band setting: in 1978 the Woody Herman band, in a collaboration with Chick Corea, released a really interesting album including 'Green Earrings', 'Aja', 'Kid Charlemagne' and 'FM'. Tom Scott was part of the sax section, alongside Joe Lovano, Gary Anderson and Frank Tiberi; Victor Feldman played keys along with Pat Coil and handled some of the arrangements with Alan Broadbent. And, only last month, drummer Jeremy Stacey took his outstanding Steely Dan big-band project to Ronnie Scott's, which also featured Sumudu. Fagen and guitarist Walter Becker were always jazzers in any case, often opening sets with bursts of Maynard Ferguson’s 'Fan it Janet' and performing their superb version of Duke Ellington's 'East St Louis Toodle-Oo'.

Possibly the most intricate, adventurous and challenging-to-play arrangement was for 'Gaslighting Abbie', an underrated tune from Two Against Nature that was given extra legs by Fowler, even featuring a cute scatting interlude.
There were more surprises in the song choices: 'Snowbound' from Fagen’s Kamakiriad album is a neglected gem, soulfully delivered here by Stuart. This was followed by 'Kulee Baba', an unreleased track from the Gaucho sessions with an intro reminiscent of Weather Report’s 'Birdland'.

The evening underlined just how extraordinary and timeless the Dan repertoire is; and how it connects through the generations. Amazingly talented young soloists like Alexander Bone (alto and soprano) and Harry Green paid homage to Pete Christlieb and Wayne Shorter respectively on 'FM' and 'Aja', and lovely guitar work on the latter did Denny Dias and Larry Carlton proud. And, yes, the Steve Gadd drum break was properly honoured.

For the encore we were treated to Stuart’s Average White Band classic 'Pick Up The Pieces'. At first the more straightahead in-yer-face funk was a refreshing change after the multilayered Dan chicanery, but this was the arrangement by the legendary Arif Mardin and soon, with clever breakdowns, beautiful wide voicings, trumpet battle and the like we were back in Dan territory.

Fagen’s in town next month on yet another Dan tour. There’s no doubt he would have fully appreciated Fowler’s arrangements and the Academy band. But maybe his Dan partner, Becker, who passed away last year, was a presence – and looking down with interest and pride.

Adam McCulloch (@mccullocha)

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website

If you do not change browser settings, you consent to continue. Learn more

I understand

Breaking News

Terri Lyne Carrington, Joe Lovano and Lu…

This year’s EFG London Jazz Festival, its 27th edition, runs...

Read More.....

Stanley Clarke Captivates With Crowd-Sur…

As Return to Forever bass legend Stanley Clarke (pictured above) opened...

Read More.....

Bro, Seim and Gustafsson amid the Scandi…

  As a snapshot of the great charm of Vossa Jazz's...

Read More.....

Laura Mvula, Melt Yourself Down and Alin…

  Love Supreme continue to expand the brand by bringing an...

Read More.....

Empirical get set for Distraction Tactic…

Multi-award winning London four-piece Empirical release the second part of...

Read More.....

Thrice is the charm for APA Cole Porter …

Say what you like about America (and I frequently do)...

Read More.....

Blue Note President Don Was To Receive P…

Don Was, the President of the iconic Blue Note Records...

Read More.....

Brad Mehldau finds Gabriel on Biblical n…

Revered US pianist Brad Mehldau is set to release his...

Read More.....

Tommy Smith and the SNJO dazzle with a m…

The world premiere of Norse Myths took place at Aberdeen...

Read More.....

David Sinclair 1935 – 2019

David Sinclair, one of the most insightful and affectionately-regarded photographers...

Read More.....

Kinch and Siegel lead the collective sto…

Ousted from its Colston Hall home by the builders, the...

Read More.....

Mark Nightingale's Big Band Go Large At …

  Trombonist Mark Nightingale is the most accommodating of virtuosi. He’ll...

Read More.....

Open letter leads protest at cuts to Rad…

Over 500 leading musicians from across the jazz, folk and...

Read More.....

Guinness Cork Jazz Festival director’s ‘…

The Irish jazz world has been shaken by the sudden...

Read More.....

George Coleman, Jimmy Owens and Frank Lo…

The Annual SAM Benefit concert will be held on 13 April...

Read More.....

Cécile McLorin Salvant, Makaya McCraven …

The first names have been unveiled for this year’s EFG...

Read More.....

Turville's Quintet Dare To Dream At Brig…

This is the last show in the tour and there’s...

Read More.....

Durrant At The Double With Duo Of Improv…

Phil Durrant and Martin Vishnick (pictured) launch, Rifinitori di Momenti, their forthcoming...

Read More.....

GoGo Penguin, SEED Ensemble and Marquis …

The wider jazz programme for this year’s Love Supreme Jazz...

Read More.....

Branford Marsalis Quartet Muster Technic…

  Bookended by a short opening solo piano set from Nikki...

Read More.....

Snarky Puppy announce Royal Albert Hall …

Grammy-winning powerhouse group Snarky Puppy are gearing up for a...

Read More.....

Waithe On Song At Huntley Conference

  Along with Allison & Busby and New Beacon, Bogle L’Ouverture...

Read More.....

Turquazz: Anatolian Jazz & Roots Fes…

The inaugural Turquazz: Anatolian Jazz & Roots Festival – a...

Read More.....

Saxophonist Seamus Blake launches new al…

Acclaimed saxophonist Seamus Blake releases his new album, Guardians of...

Read More.....

Taborn's Finessed Tapestry Of Textures F…

  The large number of musicians at this sold-out show says...

Read More.....

Abdullah Ibrahim, Gregory Porter, Yazz A…

The full line-up has been announced for Cheltenham Jazz Festival...

Read More.....

Irreversible Entanglements + Matana Robe…

  Matana Roberts (above) is so relaxed tonight her short opening set...

Read More.....

Jazz FM Awards nominations celebrate gia…

The names for the 2019 Jazz FM Awards were revealed...

Read More.....

Patchwork Jazz Orchestra premiere ‘Badge…

The London-based 17-piece Patchwork Jazz Orchestra are set to release...

Read More.....

NJYO, JCM, friends and family pay tribut…

As Jon Hiseman would say: “If you are going to...

Read More.....

Sons of Kemet, Moses Boyd, Nubya Garcia …

The programme has been announced the inaugural We Out Here...

Read More.....

NCO hit bullseye with CTI at Ronnie Scot…

Tomorrow’s Warriors’ role as a springboard for emerging talent in...

Read More.....

Countdown To Ecstasy: Royal Academy Big …

  There are some people, who I've never understood, who smirk...

Read More.....

Melt Yourself Down, Laura Mvula and Kama…

The second edition of Love Supreme at the Roundhouse takes...

Read More.....

Michel Legrand 24/02/1932 – 26/01/2019

The prolific French film composer and pianist Michel Legrand was...

Read More.....

Hamasyan In Inspired Orchestral Manoeuvr…

The Brussels Jazz Festival is a relative newcomer, but this...

Read More.....

Making The Cut Mpu 300x500px

Subcribe To Jazzwise

Advertisement

Call 0800 137201 to subscribe or click here to email the subscriptions team

Get in touch

Jazzwise Magazine,
St. Judes Church,
Dulwich Road, 
Herne Hill,
London, SE24 0PD.

0208 677 0012

Latest Tweets

@tristan_bath reminds me of David Grubbs' stuff with Portuguese guitarist Manual Mota, also earlier Taku Sugimoto r… https://t.co/9pOKMJT8N5
Follow Us - @Jazzwise
Terri Lyne Carrington, Joe Lovano and Lucia Cadotsch added to EFG London Jazz Festival https://t.co/Jui9we2s9p https://t.co/Nk1XZnR3sG
Follow Us - @Jazzwise

Newsletter

© 2016 MA Business & Leisure Ltd registered in England and Wales number 02923699 Registered office: Jesses Farm, Snow Hill, Dinton, Salisbury, SP3 5HN . Designed By SE24 MEDIA