Steely Dan. My daughter and I caught Steely Dan at the Beacon Theater last night in New York. Backed by 10 musicians, including four horns, guitarist Walter Becker and keyboardist Donald Fagen [pictured] were spectacular as always, running down about 15 of their spring-loaded songs and two encore numbers.
The duo continue to seem like obsessive characters from an R. Crumb comic, and their rich catalog of songs with restless melody lines and seductive soul-funk and reggae rhythms make Steely Dan the most ingenious jazz-rock fusion group from the 1970s. The true art of Steely Dan's music is in the word textures of songs and Fagen's hip and raspy vocal delivery. Consider these from I've Got the News:
In your Lark
You're a mark
You're a screamer
How to hustle
Is a rare
I don't care
Got the muscle
I got the news
When the full house last night wasn't singing the words to complex songs in full-throated unison, the audience was on its feet dancing. If you're unfamiliar with Steely Dan, take a listen to the album Aja at iTunes, the group's magnum opus.
Isn't it about time songwriter Fagen was awarded a special citation Pulitzer—"for his profound impact on popular music and American culture, marked by lyrical compositions of extraordinary poetic power?" That's the same wording used to hand one to Bob Dylan last year. To me, Fagen's lyrics are a lot more interesting and poetic.
Long ago and far away. Back in the mid-1940s, two types of bands roamed the landscape. There were the big-name outfits like Harry James, Count Basie, Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman that were signed to major record labels and booked into major arenas cross-country. And then there were hundreds and hundreds of smaller orchestras known as "territory bands" that earned a solid living filling the gap when marquee bands were elsewhere.
As saxophonist and big-band veteran Hal McKusick [pictured] told me Friday night, the number of smaller bands on the road back in the 1940s was staggering. "One time, we [Boyd Raeburn's band] arrived at the Stevens Hotel in Chicago to find 50 bands checked in," he said. "This was true in most big city areas of America at one point."
One territory band that worked the Philadelphia and Atlantic City area was the Bob Sheble Orchestra. Sheble was a drummer who in 1945 played with the Benny Goodman Sextet, when the group consisted of Goodman, Red Norvo on vibes, Mel Powell on piano, Mike Bryan on guitar, Barney Spieler on bass and Sheble on drums. Sheble formed his own band in 1946 and had some local success. In the band's trumpet section was Joe Techner, who later played in Elliot Lawrence's band between 1948 and 1951.
Drew Techner, Joe's son, sent along an email last week with a link to one of the Bob Sheble band's few existing recordings, I'll Close My Eyes. It can be found here. Sheble died in 1952, along with his wife, in a North Carolina auto accident. It's the type of tragedy that befell so many musicians who learned to drive later in life, took unnecessary risks behind the wheel, and often misjudged roads and the inexperience of other drivers.
Drew posted the text from two newspaper obits at YouTube (click on the "more info" link in the upper right-hand corner of the YouTube clip). Here's one of the articles:
"Time Chronicle (Jenkintown), April 10, 1952: Services Held For Couple Who Died in Crash - Robert Sheble And Wife Of Accident in South - Robert Sheble, 29, son of Mr. and Mrs. J. Howard Sheble, and his wife, Martha, were killed Sunday night in an automobile accident near Faison, North Carolina. Mr. Sheble, a popular band leader, and his 23-year-old bride were enroute in a station wagon for a Florida vacation. With them was Raymond Sharp, 22, society columnist for the Evening Bulletin.
Mr. Sheble succumbed to head injuries and Mrs. Sheble died of internal injuries. Sharp was treated at a hospital for lacerations and abrasions. North Carolina State Police said the station wagon collided with a school bus containing 40 Negro adults and one child. The bus was not a student vehicle but was used for school personnel. Ten passengers were treated at the hospital.
The threesome left the Sheble residence at West Valley Green road, near Bethleham pike, Whitemarsh, Sunday morning. The accident occurred at about ten o'clock Sunday night. Whitemarsh Township police received word of the fatal accident and informed the elder Sheble, whose home is next to Robert's house, at 2:30 a.m. Monday. Mr. Sheble took a plane to the scene shortly afterwards.
A native of Rydal, the youthful veteran of World War II is survived by his parents and two brothers, Richard of Plainfield, N.J.; and J. Howard, 3rd, of Alexandria, Va. The couple had been married only three years and recently moved into their new home, built adjacent to his father's. Young Sheble had been a member of the U.S. Army Band and recently was with the Howard Lanin Orchestra, Philadelphia.
Mrs. Sheble, the former Martha Claflin, is survived by her mother, Mrs. William Claflin, Philadelphia. Funeral services were held yesterday afternoon at Bringhurst's Funeral Home, 2000 Walnut street, Philadelphia. Interment was private."
Just a look at a little-known big bandleader whose untimely death left him nearly forgotten. Thanks for sharing, Drew. For more recordings by the Sheble band, type his name into YouTube. You'll find a handful there. There's also a clip of Joe Techner [pictured in white shirt on trumpet] with the Elliot Lawrence band playing Gerry Mulligan's Elevation here.
The Subject Is Jazz. Video documentarian Bret Primack [pictured with Roy Haynes and Sonny Rollins] posted several great videos this week from the 1958 TV show The Subject Is Jazz/Swing. Here they are...
One O'Clock Jump with Ben Webster and Paul Quinichette is here.
Flying Home with Ben Webster and Billy Taylor is here.
John Hammond talks, Ben Webster swings here.
Frank Sinatra's roots. New York Sun critic and author Will Friedwald [pictured] sent along links to two interesting audio clips put up by The Original Project, a site devoted to posting the earliest known recordings of songs made famous by other artists.
The clips are original versions of Sinatra songs. The first is a French song called Comme d'habitude (As Usual) by Claude François, a melody that was adapted by
Paul Anka for
Bill Finegan and Tommy Dorsey. WFIU's David Brent Johnson, host of the station's Night Lights jazz program, put together a show in 2006 on Dorsey's post-war band, which included
many Bill Finegan arrangements. To hear David's show on this Dorsey band in all its glory, go here. The CD, Tommy Dorsey and His Orchestra: The Post-War Era, is out of print. David's show gives you a rare opportunity to hear much of it for free.
Cincinnati jazz. Rick Kennedy, an Ohio corporate executive who also writes magazine articles in his spare time, wrote a fine piece for Cincinnati Magazine last August on the city's popular Blue Wisp jazz club and its struggle to remain open after the owner's death. To read the article, go here.