Mark Masters Ensemble – Everything You Did, The Music of Walter Becker and Donald Fagen – Capri 74123-2, 72:28 ***½:
(Soloists include Tim Hagans trumpet; Billy Harper- tenor sax Peter Erskine- drums; Gary Smulyan- baritone sax; Gary Foster- saxophone; Hamilton Price- bass; Sonny Simmons- English horn; Brad Dutz- vibes; Anna Mjoll- vocals)
Doanld Fagen and Walter Becker of Steely Dan were perfectionists. They would take their time recording albums, experimenting with different groups on individual songs looking for just the right combination. Their success was hard to replicate on the road, as their it took the studio and many mixes to get the sound they craved. Their use of jazz musicians was impressive for a rock group, but the blend they found merged their rock stylings with a soulful edge (especially with their use of female soul singers to add the spice they were looking for). Early Steely Dan issues used Phil Woods, Larry Carlton, and Wilton Felder, and on their 1977 classic, Aja, they persuaded Wayne Shorter aboard as well as Pete Christlieb, whose solo on “Deacon Blues” helped make that track one of the most memorable tracks of their career. (In my opinion, Aja was the high point of their recorded output.)
Steely Dan were especially loved and known for the catchy hooks and sassy background vocals backing the inimitable voice of Donald Fagen. Mark Master’s Ensemble includes vocals by Anna Mjoll. I found her vocalese on “Charlie Feak” less effective (and sometimes distracting) than her full-on vocals on “Black Cow.” Everything You Did includes three tracks from Aja, but most of the other seven tracks are less well known, giving the ensemble more room to stretch out into freer territory with out the listener searching for licks and hooks that the Aja tracks would elicit.
“Show Biz Kids” lets Hagans and Billy Harper improvise openly, while Louis Fasman’s trumpet burns, and the immediately recognizable Gary Smulyan with his strong bottom end takes off. The under appreciated veteran Gene Cipriano (normally known for his saxophone) blows on the English horn on “Do It Again,” as does Sonny Simmons, while the lower register is also featured by Stephanie O’Keefe on French horn, and John Mitchell’s bassoon – all instruments not normally featured in a big band on the same track.
“Black Cow” adds more unique voicings, this time on the bass clarinet of Brian Williams. “Josie” cooks driven by Erskine’s steady time, and Billy Harper going off on a tear. His acerbic tone is immediately commanding. “Fire in the Hole” has the orchestral feel of a movie soundtrack as Gary Foster’s alto sax provides an air of intrigue. It’s a beautiful track.
“Aja” provides only hints of Steely Dan’s famous version as Tim Hagans on trumpet, and David Woodley on trombone kick hard. The Ensemble enters with Fagen’s and Becker’s melody lines.
For fans of Fagen and Becker, who wish to explore Steely Dan’s fascination with the jazz idiom, Everything You Did might peak their fancy.
TrackList: Show Biz Kids, Bodhisattva, Do It Again, Charlie Freak, Black Cow, Josie, Fire in the Hole, Kings, Aja, Chain Lightning