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)

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