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The Music of Steely Dan by Justin Morell Quintet

The music of Steely Dan is not unfamiliar to most mainstream and contemporary jazz listeners. Albums like "Pretzel Logic" attracted jazz fans with its nods to Ellington ("East St.Louis Toodle-oo") and Bird ("Parker's Band"). Their masterpiece, Aja", further cemented this relationship by relying heavily on formidable jazz talents such as Wayne Shorter, Victor Feldman, and Steve Gadd.

Justin Morell's quintet of Los Angeles-based musicians tackles the music of Steely Dan quite effectively on their new CD for Sonic Frenzy Records. Morell comes from a musical lineage, including his grandfather, songwriter Carl Fischer, and father, jazz guitarist John Morell. Justin currently spends most of his time as a studio musician on guitar and drums, as well as a recording engineer and producer. The other members of his group include capable LA session players John Daversa on trumpet, Tom Peterson on sax, bassist Todd Sickafoose, and drummer John Guerin.

A decidedly contemporary feel permeates this CD, no surprise since the band is focusing on rock tunes. But these Fagan/Becker compositions lend themselves very well to instrumental interpretations. Much of the music on this CD reflects the tempos and rhythmic feel of the original Steely Dan albums, but with straight-ahead 4/4 jazz time quite effectively used elsewhere. Morell stays away from top-40 hits and tunes that originally showcased jazz talent (such as "Aja", famous for the classic Wayne Shorter solo) and presents a program of lesser-known but equally solid compositions.

Of the eight tunes on this album, three are from "Gaucho" and two are from "Aja". Morell opens the CD with "Aja"'s "Home At Last" and also covers "I Got The News", my favorite track on the CD and perhaps the one that fits best with Morell's quintet instrumentation. "My Rival", "Third World Man", and "Babylon Sisters" are pulled from "Gaucho". The CD also includes a frenzied version of the title track from "The Royal Scam" and a thoughtful ballad working of Donald Fagan's "Maxine". Morell contributes an original composition, "End of the Line", as a tribute to the band.

The band's integration of these tunes into workable jazz performances is overall very good, and the soloing of the band members, most notably John Daversa and Morell, is excellent. The use of mostly clean guitar sound without piano or electronic keyboards gives the band a tight, balanced sound that never becomes heavy. Fans of the jazz-oriented playing on the original Steely Dan albums will find this CD a real treat.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Justin Morell Quintet
  • CD Title: The Music of Steely Dan
  • Year Released: 2001
  • Record Label: Sonic Frenzy
  • Tracks: Home at Last, My Rival, I Got the News, Third World Man, The Royal Scam, Maxine, End of the Line, Babylon Sisters
  • Musicians: Justin Morell, guitar, John Daversa, trumpet, Tom Peterson, sax, bassist Todd Sickafoose, bass, John Guerin, drums
  • Rating: Four Stars
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