Tag Archives: aja

Making Music with ‘Steely Dan’

Interview with Mike Connolly June 25th, 2004 San Jose, CA

Steely-Dan-Beacon-TheatreI have the good fortune to know Chuck Rainey for over 20 years. I first came in contact with Chuck while I was working at a Guitar String manufacturer. I was snooping through the Artist file and found a file named Chuck Rainey. I thought how could his file be lost in the artist roster. My heart almost dropped because Chuck was and is my favorite Bass Player. I got up the nerve to pick up the phone and give him a call. I did not know what to expect because at the time I was used to talking to Metal bands and musicians who were popular at the time with big egos not much talent but a lot of hair. What I found in Chuck was a humble, kind and generous man.

To me there are a handful of bass players who have sustained the span of time and have carved out specific roles in different styles of recorded music. Chuck on the other hand has carved a niche that has crossed over into many musical styles Jazz, Country, Gospel, R&B rock, Fusion, POP, Funk, Soul and many others. Chuck possesses a chameleon-like ability of stealing second bass with his interpretation of the music over and over. With Chuck it is were you put it or were you don’t put it, it’s were to sustain or were to chock, its were to sneak the chord etc.etc.etc

Chuck is one of the best storytellers I have ever met. He has very detailed memories of his career. We are going to try and give you a glimpse into Chucks view of the Steely Dan era and try to get a feel of what it was like to be in the sessions dealing with all the thing that go on that never seem to get asked. There will be many more interviews about many other artists Chuck has recorded with. So sit back, get your groove on and enjoy. – Michael Connolly

MC – What were some of the Artists / projects were you working at that time when you started to record with SD?
CR – Quincy Jones, Donald Byrd, The Ben Vereen Show, The Lola Falana Show, Robert Palmer, Barreta, Grammy Awards, Academy Awards presentations, etc.

MC – How familiar were you with Steely Dan before you got the call and what did you think of their music at that time?
CR – I was not familiar with them at all – had no idea who they were. At the time of doing the dates for the first time, I basically had no specific opinion of the music other than that I t was a job that was easy and I understood the concept. Actually it was a pleasant experience, because I love to play all kinds of music and this was a rare occasion to perform on a recording of what I call a ‘hard rock’ style of music.

MC- How did you first hook up with Steel Dan?
CR – Through Gary Katz, their producer. In was in the early 70’s, around 1973 or 4, and we spotted each other on the freeway going into Hollywood one day. At that time there were a lot of New York transplants in LA and it was always a ‘hoot’ to run across someone you knew and worked with of the New York days.

The very next day he called, we did the usual ‘what’s up with you’ and ‘how’s ‘it going’ thing which led to me being hired to come and play on a couple of ‘Dan’ recording tracks that ended up being on their ‘Pretzel Logic’ album.

MC – What equipment did you use on the sessions?
CR – My original Fender 57′ P-Bass going through a direct box. I was always a bit uncomfortable about not having an amp in the studio for my live monitor, but I was pretty much use to it by then because a lot of other studio situations were the same. The reason mainly being to avoid the sound of the bass getting into the tracks of the other instruments when recording.

MC – What was the mood in the sessions or the attitudes?
CR – Basically stoic in a way, but professional. With the personalities of guys like Jeff Pocarro or Bernard Purdy around, we were always pretty much OK with mood. Although sort of stoic at times, Gary Katz also was an uplift to mood swinging in a stall position. Mood in the recording studio is not something that the professional player is concerned with and most cases not even noticed. Musicians and music makers are already complex, strange and/or moody as a way of life to begin with and can or will function in the worst as well as the best of environments and the in-between.

Musicians that successfully make a living, cannot afford to have environmental moods affect what is musically being done. A jerk or egotistical person can play, write, produce good music while causing dim moods, etc., – they also provide the means and avenues for a musician and all parties involved to make a living. ‘Dan’ projects were never stressful to me.

Everyone makes choices from time to time as to what they choose to put up with while on projects. I’m fortunate to do something that is relatively easy for me to do for a living and learned the hard way to press on, get paid and hopefully cause a platform on which I can come back, get paid again and be a part of good music along the way.

MC – Did you have to read bass charts written for the songs or did you do your own bass lines?
CR – All my charts on all sessions were chord charts with no bass lines written. However there were occasions where Walter had great ideas, some worked out and some didn’t.

MC – How long did the sessions go for?
CR – They were always 6 hour dates that began at noon

MC – You and Purdy have a magical combination for a rhythm section what was Purdy like during the SD sessions and or in general?
CR – In general, Purdy is one of the greatest drummers that ever lived. I grew up with him musically in New York and he is a personal friend. If I were a drummer, I would play just like him. Working with him is like working with myself. He does exactly what I would do as a drummer, I know this is wishful thinking – but I trust that you get my ‘drift’.

MC – Larry Carlton?
CR – Larry is an excellent musician and a good friend. Going to work and knowing that Larry was the guitar player was always a plus for any musician.

MC – How many times were the songs recorded/changed?
CR – Many times! Every chance I get when complimented on my playing on ”Aja”, I also say that I had many many opportunities in rehearsing and recording the whole project many times.

MC – Did they try different musicians on the same music that you recorded?
CR – Always – I’m sure they did! ‘Aja’ is the best example. Just about every song on the album has a different and that drummer did the whole album.

MC – Were you and the other musicians able to offer different changes to the structure of that music?
CR – I only know about myself – No

MC – There was a time when you did some work with WB what was that about?
CR – During the period between the recordings of ”Aja” and ‘The Gaucho’, Walter was doing some recordings in Hawaii and LA on material explained to be his own project. I think that Donald had recorded his solo album ‘The Night Fly’ during this time. Walter contacted me and sent me a tape to listen to before sending for me to come to LA and record.

The material was typical Steely Dan and I wondered for a quick minute if he was attempting to do a solo album. It did not matter to me if he was or not – I was just a bass player happy to be thought of for good projects and successful people.

I listened to the music memorizing the songs and how I was going to play them. In the past all of Walter and Donald’s songs were written out on a chord chart guide by the guitar player or piano player on the sessions, but this time I had to learn each song without a chord sheet.

When I got to LA a few weeks later for the recordings, Walter had chord charts available, prepared I believe by Dean Parks. I remember how interesting it was to see how the charts differed from what I had heard on the initial tapes. As a matter of fact it was a great theory example for improvisation. What one hears is what one plays to, however an extended chord can be called various things that depend on what note is called the root of the chord. In preparing a chord chart someone initiates exactly what the chord is to be called and what note is to be played in the bass part.

The chords on the charts for these songs were strange but also musical and I was awed by the difference of what I heard as to what the chords actually were. As a matter of fact, I found the actual charts to be extremely difficult to play bass parts that were not mundane – a lot of the chords had the bass note not on the tonic of the chord and that made it difficult for me to create bass patterns.

Also strange to me was that Walter was amused and congratulatory, even with blushes, in regard to what I had come up with before I saw the charts, but insisted that I create something over the actual chord that was written with the bass part showing to be the 3rd or the 5th of the actual chord. Kind of dumb to me and also to one or two players in the group, but again I’m just a bass player in the eyes of the situation and one who was happy to get out of Dallas/Ft.Worth for a musical and progressive breath of fresh air.

To me, the music did not go anywhere exciting as did other ‘Dan’ music and I have no idea as to what ever happened with the project after that – my involvement was what it was, I got paid and enjoyed the experience.

MC – How was DF to work with and did he contribute to the musical direction?
CR – As I have mentioned earlier, it was hard from my perspective, but not stressful. The piano players on the projects had more one on one time spent with him. My contact and relationship was more with Walter and Gary or whoever the person was that wrote out the chord charts.

MC – As a bass player, how do you compare or think of yourself as a contributor to Steely Dan’s success?
CR – In listening to all of my bass tracks, I hear a style of playing that is consistent with many recordings that I have done before Steely Dan recordings. The style, touch and sound of how I approach the feel of music is known and connected to my legacy as a bass player. All in all, I think that the bass parts stand head to head with everything else in the production.

I have great pride in that and feel that my contribution was as successful and equaled to the greatness of the music. I also know that if not for the music (melody, lyric and chord progressions) written by Walter and Donald and the fact that someone was having confidence in me as a bass player, we would not be having this conversation regarding my participation with one of the most successful and talked about music of the century.

MC – What was it like to deal with them personally in the recording studio (WB) (DF)?
CR – I was very excited and elated to be around musicians and music that I had not environmentally been privy to during my career and as I got used to them, I became more aware their individual personalities – as is the case in any new found situation or environment.

Walter seemed a bit strange but was very personable and friendly, I guess it’s a bass player thing in a good way. I have found bass players to be a bit weird or intimidated by my presence on projects that were shared, but Walter was a real cool guy and I liked him ‘right of the bat’.

Donald didn’t seem strange, he was strange and before I go any further, I need to say that there is nothing wrong with being strange. Everyone has their ‘niche’ and reasons for appearing and or being strange, including me. With Donald however, it took quite a while to look past what appeared to be an introversion of his character and to accept him as he was without any prejudices, after all we were attempting to make music and making music was my job, expertise and passion.

It was interesting to hear what and how they were thinking about the music they were recording and always refreshing. Dealing with both of them was very challenging, but something that I looked forward to doing because I wanted to and I liked the music. I noticed that unfortunately it was not the same and was stressful for others – or at least it felt that way.

Because of the music presented to me, I gained great respect for them both. I never listened to the words of the material if and when they were available, the music style and melody thoughts were the catalyst that I liked a lot and seemed familiar.

I recalled hearing something familiar in their music from a band that was signed to A&M a year or so earlier – I can’t recall the name of the band at this moment

MC – Talk a bit about DF and his ‘Nightfly’ recording project.
CR – This was probably the one ‘trying time’ that I had with Donald and Gary. I tried very hard to accommodate them, but this time the mood and scene was something that I just did not care for.

I was living in Boulder at the time and Gary’s office booked and sent for me to come to LA and participate on Donald’s solo project. Upon arriving in LA, Gary asked me to be on standby while they worked some things out and that they would call me to come over and overdub to some tracks that they were preparing for me.

So the first day, I spent in my suite at the hotel in Brentwood waiting for the call. This was annoying to me, in that I was there to play not sit around. The following day, I went over to the studio just to be around and check out what was going on. They had no tracks of music value, no demo’s and no melodies, instead they had laid down a drum machine track to a song and Rick Deringer was there laying down a guitar track.

I left after a while going back to my hotel suite to sit through a 5.2 earthquake and scratch my head over being there. Later that evening they called me over to the studio and I sat through what I felt to be the dumbest music situation ever. Donald was trying to write out a simple byone figure for me to play and I was insulted.

For one, in the past there were never any guest or on lookers in the studio while we were working, but this time there were two women just sitting there. The other thing was that Donald Fagen had no professional experience in writing out anything musical, he did not have that skill. If he, Walter or Gary had an idea they would just hum it. All the writing out of anything was done by someone who professional knew what they were doing, but here I find my successful educated self in the presence of someone attempting to impress his guest by doing something he could not.

After I finally figured out what he was trying to write, I showed him how easy it was to write it and asked him why didn’t he just hum it like he always had in the past. I also told him he was wasting his time and mine. It was probably the first time I ever confronted him in that way and he probably didn’t like it, especially in front of the guest. Anyway, we got through laying down 2 tracks and I went back to my hotel and called Gary and complained.

I don’t remember if I went back the following day or not before going back to Boulder, but I do remember being professionally insulted by the whole trip. I was paid very well, but at that point I knew that my days of trying to work with him in the future were numbered and here I found myself not practicing what I would preach to someone else. That’s OK though, I’m not perfect and I can be pissed off too.

I am somewhat disappointed or appalled to have done so much creativity for Walter and Donald only to find that my creativity was claimed as theirs or Donald’s in publications. There is a book out on the market entitled Pop Bass Lines and in it are two Steely Dan or maybe one from Donald’s solo album that I and I alone created the entire part, but the credit says, by Donald Fagen. I feel sorry for him, because his Spirit must be sad because of his egotism.

When I was writing columns for Bass Player Magazine, I included a passage that I played on the bridge of ‘Peg’ for a Jamerson style study in improvisation and the magazine received a call from Hal Leonard, the publisher administrator of the song and claimed that the magazine and I were in violation of using the pattern without permission and demanded add space in the magazine for payment.

The bass pattern on the bridge of ‘Peg’ is totally my creation and it’s crap like that among other things that causes reasons to be angry with Walter and Donald – as they openly admit too on the ‘Remaking of ‘Aja” project. I don’t know what the specifics were or are of the problems that some of the other players have with them, but I certainly have mine.

In speaking of the ‘Remaking of ‘Aja” project; a few months after participating in the project, I began to receive positive E-mails from fans in Europe in regards to the DVD that was out and began attempting to get one through the producer, the ‘Dan’ manager and even Walter only to be completely ignored after several attempts on all fronts. I still don’t have it and refuse to buy it. This kinda tells me what frame of mind they are in on all fronts and I accept it all with no problem. Musically, the whole world knows of my contribution and I enjoyed most of it very much – there will never be a next time.

MC – What was Gary Katz’s contributions/ involvement/t in the SD sessions and how was it for him to inter act with WB ,DF and the musicians?
CR – Gary was the producer and contractor on all dates. He was the eyes and ears of the record company responsible for musicians, recording studio, fees to arrangers and musicians, etc. He acted as and seemed to be a member of ‘Dan’. His interaction with Walter, Donald and the musicians was as if he were a partner and member. If it was anything less or more, it certainly was not apparent to me.

MC – What other Katz productions did you record on?
CR -The Mirettes, ‘Eye To Eye’, Jr. Parker, ‘The Night Fly’/Donald Fagen are the ones that first come to mind, but during the New York days back before album projects came into being a way of recordings productions, Bernard Purdy and I frequently worked with Gary on ‘singles’ projects.

MC – What is your opinion of SD last few CDs compared to the ones you recorded on?
CR – I think that the magic was over after ‘The Gaucho’ recording and that’s not meaning to say that the following recordings were not good – they are good records. Somehow I feel that the last few CD’s sound more like a group emulating Steely Dan, rather than the recordings actually being Steely Dan.

My opinion has absolutely nothing to do with me not playing on those recordings. As a matter of fact, very few recording artist are able to continue making astounding mega hit popular top chart records, ‘there is only so much in the gas tank’ of any artist.

MC – Why do you think that you or Purdy, Carlton or any of the players who were on the songs that made SD what they were at the time were not given the proper credit or asked to do the tours?
CR -With exception of the ‘Greatest Hits’ CD’s, I think we were given proper credit, no more can be done than to list on the original recordings the names of the musicians. As far as touring with them, they may be a bit strange but are certainly not gluttons for the attitudes and punishment that financially secure sidemen can dish out if and when things get funky from management or WB and DF.

The recording studio scene is much different than being in a touring band. When attitudes and charades of egoism appear in a band by financial and career secure musicians, a life of hell is in store for management and leaders, not mentioning salary’s to fit each individual’s worth. They absolutely did the best thing for them in those respects.

MC – On the instruments that they play, what is your opinion or impression of Walter and Donald’s musicianship?
CR – Contrary to what I’ve heard and read about their playing, Walter is definitely a good bass player for what he envisions about his music. However, like Paul McCartney, he is not a bass player’s bass player or one of the ‘cats’ per say, who functions in all kinds of music genres – he is however a legit bass player with bass player skills. He is also the same as a guitar player.

All musicians have limits and he having a limited physical inability to play what he sometimes creatively hears causes him to work with other bass players that have more experience in organized music. As a guitar player, the same applies.

Donald is in the same category as a piano player. He is an adequate musician for his songs, but just lacks the experience(s) and playing ability of other piano players with more ability and experience.

Walter and Donald both are aware of their short comings, which is more than I can say for other musicians who really think that they are competitive with all musicians. They both are aware of how far they can go with their musicianship and know when it’s necessary to involve someone else in order to satisfy what the concept of their music needs.

MC – You have had and are still enjoying a stellar career in participating in many successful recordings. How do you compare your work with Steely Dan in comparison to those other successful projects that you have been involved in?
CR – Basically anyone born after 1975 makes no connection to me in organized music and that includes musicians and music makers, unless of course they have ears to know where, when and who the current music styles came from.

Even the current artist and musician’s surviving from the era of the music before 1975, have moved into what is current today. I am basically considered and thought of as an ‘oldie’ by the current standards of thought in the arena of today’s music scene .

The Quincy Jones, Donald Byrd, Aretha Franklin, Gary McFarland, King Curtis, Herbie Mann, Marvin Gaye, Lowell George, Roberta Flack, Donny Hathaway, Rascals’ of yesterdays music era is not known nor are they a main subject matter in and of today’s music enthusiast. If and when they are, those recordings are copied and the basic listener has no knowledge of where it came.

Musicians participating in the hit’s of the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s are indeed unsung hero’s and soon forgotten as time passes. The bulk of my fan base through E-mail, clinic appearances and stage performances are 90% based on being recognized as the bass player on many Steely Dan recordings. Where I came from musically and the great music hit’s that I was involved in before Steely Dan has meaning to me, but the current bulk of my reputation today is because of Steely Dan.

Musically, I feel that out of all the music that I have participated in and enjoyed, At the top of my list is ‘Aja’ along with Quincy Jones’s ‘Summer in the City’ and Bobbi Humphrey’s ‘Harlem River Drive’. Noticing however, that without Steely Dan in my career, I would not be as known or legendary in the sight and ears of the world’s community of music. Despite the things that I have said in this interview that may seem negative, I applaud my spirit for preparing and causing a path professionally for me to participate in Walter and Donald’s music. I have been to many mountain tops in music, but the ‘Dan’ was the highest and best known to more people.

MC – What is your favorite SD recording?
CR – Oddly enough, my favorite recording is one that I was not aired on. I remember playing the whole ‘Gaucho’ project and liking in particular the song ‘The New Frontier’, but they obviously felt that they got a better performance with another rhythm section that included Anthony Jackson on bass. So, the SD recording that I listen to more than any of the ones that I played on is ‘The New Frontier’. Anthony has a great feel on it and I really like the song and the groove.

If your asking about a track of their recordings that I was aired on, I would put ‘Kid Chalemane’, ‘Green Earrings’ and ‘Aja’ at the top of a list if forced to make one. Actually I like all my tracks equally, but I think it’s also the song structures as well as what I played on them that has me a fan of the music.