It’s a great idea, and for the most part, it works. The Royal Dan is the latest in a string of tribute albums put together by guitarist Jeff Richman (see this month’s “First Fret” section). And as you’d expect, he has gathered a slew of wonderful players to pay tribute to the music of Steely Dan.
Let’s face it, the music of Donald Fagen and Walter Becker is made for players who crave harmonic sophistication beyond the three-chord boogie.
This is a hard one for me not to love. Of the 10 cuts here, at least six are sure-fire Dan favories. Robben Ford opens things with a fine take on “Peg.” And yes, he was indeed one of about 20 guitarists Steely Dan brought in to track the solo on the original recording. And here he uses great tone while playing the melody, then expounds on it for the lead. Jay Graydon, who played the solo on “Peg,” is here, burning on “Home at Last.” The slow shuffle lets him use a liquid tone with gorgeous volume swells. Then, just when you really want it, he turns up the heat and cranks it up for a nasty, bluesy solo out.
Al Di Meola turns in a wonderful version of “Aja.” He states the original melody on acoustic, then fires off a solo that plays wonderfully with the song’s great changes that leave the listener’s mouth agape, especially if they’re a guitar player. Richman turns in a fine “Josie,” making it sound fresh. Jimmy Herring turns in a nice interpretation of “The Fez,” which is the perfect choice, letting him mix funk and jazz. Frank Gambale turns “FM” into an excuse to display his incredible chops. The sinewy guitar of Elliot Randall, who made a name for himself with Steely Dan, carries “Hey Nineteen.” It’s nice to hear him tackle this one.
A highlight was the surprising choice by Mike Stern; “Dirty Work” was on the first Steely Dan record, and is one of the band’s best pop songs, with no hints of jazz. Stern turns in a performance that transports the song from pop to jazz and back again.
A couple of the cuts didn’t work for me. Steve Morse tackles “Bodhisattva,” and while he’s certainly got the chops, it just doesn’t have the same feel. Same goes for Steve Lukather’s take on “Pretzel Logic,” where the arrangement sounds too much like an ’80s arena-rock band. Even Luke’s chops can’t save it.
All of the great players here are joined by Richman on rhythm guitars, Jimmy Haslip on bass, Vinnie Colaiuta on drums, Peter Wolf on keys, and Ernie Watts on sax, all of whom turn in sparkling performances.
As instrumental stuff goes, this projct, and the material it tackles, works on a number of levels.
This article originally appeared in VG‘s Aug. ’06 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.