Dave Brubeck, Boz Scaggs & Steely Dan
Geezers with something to say
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
Dave Brubeck: An octogenarian can still pound sense into the
keys. ["brubeck," by Mary
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
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
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.
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
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
Brubeck, Scaggs, Becker and Fagen are the kind with
something left to say.