Thanks, Walter Becker

Those of us who have been around awhile have seen many musical heroes pass away over the last couple of years, but today’s news of Walter Becker’s death is especially personal to me.  Steely Dan was, is, and always will be my number one.

In part that’s because their coming of age between 1972’s Can’t Buy a Thrill and 1980’s Gaucho corresponded to mine, in part that the jazz filling my parent’s home when I was a child set my ear for Becker and Fagen’s complex work, and in part that my guitar hero worship was locked on the incredible solos Steely Dan teased out of guitar icons on every album.  Mostly, though, it’s because Becker and Fagen’s perfectly crafted pieces of recorded music never grow old for me no matter how many times I listen to them.

What Walter Becker and Donald Fagen each contributed to Steely Dan’s complex musical compositions, poetic and snarky lyrics, and marathon studio efforts is unknown and likely has no answer.  Like Lennon and McCartney, the fusion of Becker’s and Fagen’s talents was complete and their work permanently joins their two names.   Condolences, Donald, for losing your longtime friend and collaborator.

Walter, thanks for a soundtrack that’s brought me so much joy for many decades.   While I can call to mind pretty much every note of every track you created, I’ll send you off with the Dan’s official greatest hit.  No more pristine, perfectly crafted track was ever put on vinyl.

Catching Up With My Favorites

Over the past few years I’ve come across a few artists that have taken places among my favorites.  So this week I’m checking out what’s new with Lake Street Dive, Snarky Puppy and Chris Thile.

In an amazing convergence, Chris Thile performed with Snarky Puppy at a recent live show.  Chris jumps in to play jazz mandolin at about 2:30. You’ll hear Snarky Puppy’s band leader Michael League say, “We got six minutes, Chris Thile you got four-and-a-half!”. Suitable homage from one supremely talented musician to another.

Chris also dropped by the Steven Colbert show where he played his Punch Brothers song “My Oh My” with Jon Batiste & Stay Human. You don’t often get to see Stay Human play a full song, so check out their work including Batiste’s fantastic piano accompaniment. You’ll see why Thile exclaims “This band!”.

Lake Street Dive’s members seem to have taken time over the winter for some side projects.  Listen to Rachel Price tap into her jazz roots with a 1930’s Gershwin Brothers tune, in a duet with Brooklyn-based guitarist/singer Vilray.

And LSD’s base player, song writer, backing singer and all around super talented Bridget Kearney put out her own album “Won’t Let You Down” a couple of weeks ago. Here’s the video from “Wash Up”.

Roland TR-808 – Iconic Drum Machine

Ikutaro Kakehashi, the founder of Roland Corporation, died on April 1st at the age of 87.  Roland has produced a huge range of electronic musical instruments and effects since its founding in 1972, and Kakehashi developed MIDI, the Musical Instrument Digital Interface that sits at the heart of electronic instrument communication. But no product or invention by Kakehashi and Roland has had more impact on popular music than the TR-808 drum machine.

Manufactured for three years beginning in 1980, the 808 has been used by innumerable artists for nearly 40 years, and it’s said that the 808 is to hip hop what the Fender Stratocaster is to rock and roll.  The 808 was built just before sampling became widespread and produced 16 synthesized approximations to sounds from a bass drum to a handclap.

The first hit record to use the 808 appears to have been Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing” from 1982.   Listen to the opening bars and you’ll immediately recognize the iconic sounds.

Soul Sonic Force’s “Planet Rock”, also from 1982, is credited with cementing the 808 into hip hop’s early vocabulary.

Whitney Houston used the 808 to set the beat for her 1987 hit “I Wanna Dance With Somebody”.

In 2008, Kanye West built his fourth studio album around the sounds of the 808, and even named the album “808’s and Heartbreaks”. The drum loop in “Say You Will” is all 808.

If you want to get the full scoop on this history of this important piece of technology, here is the trailer to “808” the movie!

Vibes Master Gary Burton Calls It A Career

A few weeks ago jazz vibes player Gary Burton announced he was staging the final tour of his 50-plus-year career, and this past Friday he played his last show at the Jazz Kitchen in Indianapolis.  Not many artists have devoted themselves to this unusual instrument, and I wonder if anyone will ever again play it with Burton’s virtuosity.

According to a feature by NPR, the first use of the instrument in a jazz recording was by Lionel Hampton in 1930 on “Memories of You” by Louis Armstrong.  Legend has it that shortly before this recording, jazz drummer Hampton had come across the instrument at NBC studios, where it was sometimes used to play the network’s distinctive 3-tone identifier chime.

Thirty years after Hampton introduced the instrument, a 17-year-old Burton began his career recording with guitar virtuoso Hank Garland.  Here’s a track from that era with Burton right up front.  The drummer on this track is Joe Morello, Dave Brubeck’s longtime collaborator.

Here are some pure shots of Burton from 1966 and 2010.  Jaw dropping.

And here’s a duet with frequent collaborator Makoto Ozone from 1995. Burton chose Ozone to accompany him on his farewell tour. And if you haven’t had enough, here’s a link to a post from a couple of years ago featuring Burton and  another frequent collaborator, Chick Corea.

Anderson .Paak – Grammy Bound?

At the 59th Grammy Awards, airing tomorrow night, the Best New Artist category is quite diverse.   There are two new country singers, Maren Morris and Kelsea Ballerini, a DJ duo, The Chainsmokers, who had a hit called “#SELFIE” that has almost a half-billion YouTube views (don’t add one, I warn you), and two hot hip-hop artists, Chance the Rapper and Anderson .Paak.

While he might be a long shot for the Grammy, .Paak’s music is in the hip hop vein I really like.   Thanks for the introduction to him, Ben!  His arrangements use real instruments, which may owe to .Paak being a very fine drummer himself, melodic vocals, a solid foundation of R&B, and Southern Cali jazz fusion mixed in.

.Paak performed “Am I Wrong” live on French TV about a year ago, and closed the song with an apropos David Bowie tribute.

It didn’t take American TV too long to catch up to the French. Steven Colbert hosted Anderson’s first American TV performance in March of last year.

.Paak produced a video for “Come Down” from his recent album “Malibu” using friends and family from Oxnard, California. And, yes, he apparently honed his drumming skills backing a gospel choir as a kid.

If you want to hear a bit more from .Paak, how many hip hop artists can pull off an NPR Tiny Desk Concert.  Forward about 3-1/2 minutes into the set to hear “Heart Don’t Stand a Chance”.