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Dave Brubeck, Boz Scaggs & Steely Dan

Geezers with something to say
by Mark Anderson

hese are geezers gone wild.

In a world eager to worship all that is young, Dave Brubeck, Boz Scaggs, Walter Becker and Donald Fagen have survived more than 250 summers combined. Their heydays are long past, their paths to the infirmary draw near, but they've all recently put out surprisingly lucid and worthwhile recordings in the name of jazz.

Dave Brubeck: An octogenarian can still pound sense into the keys. ["brubeck," by Mary Bergherr]

Becker and Fagen (well into their 50s) began a long string of masterful albums more than 30 years ago as Steely Dan. Scaggs (60 next year) helped define the mid-1970s with Silk Degrees. Brubeck (82) is among a small handful of jazz's eternal elite.

But 2003 is the here and now – and it's a time of What have you done for me lately?

As if speaking to that notion, Brubeck's Park Avenue South reveals an amazing old man still capable of pounding plenty of sense into the keys. The new album, drawn from two lively July 2002 shows at a lower-Manhattan Starbucks, offers an enthusiastic crowd, a swinging quartet, a few Brubeck originals and a batch of well-chosen, well-played standards.

The 10-song set kicks off with "Sunny Side of the Street," ends on "Show Me the Way to Go Home" and features inspired versions of "Slow Boat to China," "Love for Sale" and "Take Five" in between.

Dave Brubeck's Park Avenue South.

Especially strong is saxophonist Bobby Militello, an off-and-on Brubeck collaborator since the early 1980s. But longtime Brubeck drummer Randy Jones and bassist Michael Moore are impressive, too.

Brubeck, born in 1920, spent the '40s running a wartime band for General Patton before going to college. He enjoyed the '50s as his decade-long summit and hit the cover of Time magazine in 1954 – a VERY BIG DEAL in the pre-TV era. His flawless 1959 album, Time Out, became the first in jazz to sell a million copies; sales are strong to this day.

Renowned for pioneering odd time signatures and polytonality, Brubeck remains one of the few to ever bring jazz to the masses without watering it down. But his real reputation for cool came from storming college campuses (it hadn't been done) with his original namesake quartet. That quartet featured Brubeck's equal in genius, Paul Desmond, whose lilting alto sax informed the band.

Desmond, author of the quartet's signature song, "Take Five," died in 1977. But Brubeck has retained various combos ever since and impressively soldiers on.

Boz Scaggs' But Beautiful.

Boz Scaggs, a member of the original Steve Miller Band (circa 1968), isn't exactly the prototypical jazz crooner. Still, it's not a big stretch for a voice that's more silk than sandpaper to cover 10 familiar standards.

But Beautiful smartly employs a small and nimble jazz combo to frame Scaggs' familiar voice, and the players (John Shifflett, bass; Paul Nagel, piano; Jason Lewis, drums; Eric Crystal, sax) share the spotlight throughout.

"Never Let Me Go," "You Don't Know What Love Is" and "What's New" are graced with welcoming chords and lithe instrumental breaks. "Sophisticated Lady" explores a world-weary, soft-hearted elegance. A subtle take on the title song pits Scaggs' unhurried vocal against a drumbeat in delicate double-time.

Nothing breaks new ground, but the late-night sound is soothing, not somnambulant. The spare playing often veers toward brilliant and the project isn't cluttered with strings or vocal gymnastics. And then there's the obvious appeal for anyone who favors Scaggs' trademark singing. This new release is actually his second straight strong disc – 2001's Dig is also worth seeking out.

Steely Dan's Everything Must Go.

Steely Dan's latest, Everything Must Go, traffics in enough refreshingly off-kilter guitar lines to satisfy anyone with even the slightest interest. But six of the album's nine songs are strong – even after accounting for an outfit that seems to rock less and less with each new release.

Even so, the album's first two tracks, "The Last Mall" and "Things I Miss the Most," burst through the speakers with as much life as anything the band has done since Aja in 1977. That includes only two other albums, but it also spans more than a quarter century.

Steely Dan skirts easy categorization. Pop, rock, jazz and Fagen's quirky voice have always meshed nicely with top-shelf players to create the recordings. Still, without strong and consistent storytelling, the band's last five albums could quickly be written off as clever easy listening. But it's the rare Becker and Fagen storyline that isn't surehanded, sophisticated and redeemingly dark.

The new disc's gem, "Things I Miss the Most," finds Fagen singing a post-breakup list of things he won't miss before he admits his ongoing dread.

"... sometimes in the corner of my eye I see that adorable ghost," he confides. "And then, ba-boom, I remember the things I miss the most. The talk. The sex. Somebody to trust. The comfy Eames chair. The good copper pan ...

"The days really don't last forever, but it's getting pretty damn close ..."

Then comes the bridge with a switch from minor to major chords. "I had a little birdy friend," Fagen sings, "by morning she was gone. Birdy goodbye, birdy bye-bye ..."

It's a perfect Steely Dan moment.

As a teen in the '70s, I knew I'd gotten lucky by inheriting my uncle's Brubeck albums. I've added to them and mixed them in with everything else ever since. Whether that makes me a geezer probably depends on who you ask. We're all getting older. Are we getting any better?

Whoever said "You don't have to explain what you don't say" had it backwards. Don't say anything and you beg misunderstanding. Life's best moments are found within a God-is-in-the-details brand of charm.

Of course, there's always the danger of talking simply to hear oneself. In the end there are only two kinds of geezers.

Brubeck, Scaggs, Becker and Fagen are the kind with something left to say.

E-mail Mark at andersonenterprises@hotmail.com, and see more tripewriter.

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