Walter Becker – co-founder, co-songwriter, guitarist and bassist of the era-defining, jazz-savvy rock band Steely Dan – died yesterday. The news was announced on his official website. He was 67, and had missed Steely Dan performances in July.
With his partner in Steely Dan, Donald Fagen, in the 1970s, Becker bridged the gap between jazz fusion and popular music in ways that earned a rare confluence of critical and commercial success. Harmonic knowledge gleaned from postbop met the stuff of pop hooks, and Becker and Fagen made a habit of employing only the sharpest jazz and studio musicians to record their music, continuing that practice into their more recent years of consistent and successful touring. As a guitarist Becker was enormously effective, and influential. In a time of much loud and limited blues-based language in rock guitar, Becker was a kind of pop ambassador for the flourishing fusion school of the day. Bluesy string bends, quick-fire phrasing and a tastefully dirty tone gave his playing visceral impact, but his solos addressed the chord changes and the narrative of the tune in the style of a jazz musician.
JazzTimes reached out to some jazz artists who had performed and recorded with Walter Becker. What follows are their memories of the slightly more silent partner in Steely Dan.
Walter Becker was one of the funniest, wittiest people I ever met, and always the smartest guy in any room (unless Donald Fagen was also present, in which case they shared that honor). The depth of his knowledge on any subject was astounding; his curiosity about the world knew no bounds. His enthusiasm and knowledge about jazz music was especially profound. I remember him giving me a hard time about my album covers, suggesting I might sell more units if I had covers more like the Contemporary album You Get More Bounce With Curtis Counce, which featured a woman exuberantly examining herself with a stethoscope! In the manner of many who have understood perhaps too well how the world works, his point of view could be sharp and almost cynical at times, yet his true nature showed itself in his kindness, and his obvious joy at being around creative people and kindred spirits. He was someone who helped show what is possible that we didn’t know was possible, and he will be much missed.
Walter Becker was a really nice man. A very smart person, too. Flying Cowboys (Rickie Lee Jones, 1989) was the first time I got to work with Walter. He was a terrific producer as well as Steely Dan-ist. Walter wound up calling me for some more album work — until I told him I would be leaving a session at the scheduled end-of-day so I could go listen to the Korngold Violin Concerto being performed in concert with the L.A. Phil. He seemed stunned by my plans. I thought that would be it for our work relationship, but he surprised me by calling me for the Steely Dan tour in 1993 for Alive in America. The tracks from the 1993 touring band were added almost as an afterthought to the album, but I’m glad that the band with Drew Zingg and myself is represented on this album. “Third World Man” is a standout. “Green Earrings” is me trying to sound like Bernard Purdie, and Walter Becker’s “Book of Liars” is me trying to sound like me, I guess. I was conflicted for much of the trip, due to missing my jazz trio work, but it was fun to get the gig.
The Steely Dan call was a complete surprise. I had worked with Walter in the studio on several albums, but never expected that he and Donald Fagen would think of me for their band. The call went like this: I had just returned to my hotel room in Sardinia, Italy, after a concert with the ECM trio, and I said aloud to the empty room, “This is the only kind of music I want to play for the rest of my life!” Cue: telephone ring. It was my wife, who said, “You’ll never guess who just called.” “Who?” “Walter Becker!” So I agreed to meet the band in New York City for three-and-a-half weeks of rehearsal for a summer’s worth of touring. The band’s management sent me two cassette tapes’ worth of songs to learn, and I created cheat sheets of the basic beats for each tune (I couldn’t remember “Hey Nineteen” from “Bad Sneakers” when it came to the drum beats), shrinking and laminating my carefully notated parts for handy reference. I also practiced these most basic of beats with a metronome set to mildly different tempos so that I could feel the necessary confidence to “own” any tempo that Donald Fagen might count off at the first rehearsal onward. Fortunately, I gained his full trust and confidence thanks to this bit of preparation, as well as by watching his left hand when he played the Fender Rhodes electric piano; my bass drum foot stayed in sync with him, and for the rest of the tour it was “Hey band… WITH THE DRUMS!”
I suspect that both Donald and Walter were hoping for a bit more jazz voodoo on that tour than I was willing to impart; the recorded drum parts seemed so perfect to me that I could barely stray from the original patterns and beats (though I would never claim to being able to play with the pocket and funk of mssrs. Porcaro, Gordon, Keltner, Purdie, Marotta, and Gadd). All in all, a lot of fun to be part of a big rock-and-roll tour.
As the drummer, I was responsible for counting off the songs, and I used a metronome for that purpose. While Donald and Walter were not so picky when it came to interpretation (much to my surprise), they were absolutely nitpicking when it came to tempo (which should come as no surprise to anyone who has worked with a vocalist). During the lengthy rehearsal process, we would practice tunes at decimal-point tempi (118.5 BPM [beats per minute]), but were able to convince the guys to stick to whole numbers.
Speaking of “Hey Nineteen” and 118 BPM: after a couple of weeks of touring, I noticed that, when the band played that tune, the horns had a tendency to push the time a bit, and so I thought it might be a good idea to bump up the tempo from 118 to 119 BPM. And so I did, in Cincinnati, without telling anyone and thinking none were the wiser. The next afternoon in St. Louis at soundcheck, Donald and Walter walked onto the stage and called for the band to run “Hey Nineteen.” Then they both turned to me, looking up at the drums on the stage riser, and said, “Oh yeah, felt kinda…FAST last night.” I replied, “Wow, that’s really something that you guys noticed,” and they countered with, “Well, did you do anything different last night?” I said, “Uh, yeah, I changed the tempo from 118 to 119. That’s remarkable that you could tell!” They laughed a bit and then said, real serious, “Yeah, well… DON’T DO THAT AGAIN.”
My kids both got a big kick out of my doing the tour. Lots of audiences though, I noticed, were half “there” and half very much not there at all, and I could see in their far-away eyes and smiling faces that the music was taking them back to a comfort zone of when they were younger and discovering the world around them with much of this music as a soundtrack to their lives and loves. And that’s okay. Gosh, thinking about Walter and his being so very alive in my memories takes me back to a comfort zone. The man made the world a better place.
The story I always tell is my effort to lay down like a four-bar solo on “Babylon Sisters.” Knowing how they worked, I knew to save my best shit for like the 20th take since no matter what you played you were going to do it over and over. At one point Walter Becker said over the talkback after a few attempts: “No retrograde inversions!” And then I knew I was in trouble because I didn’t know what a retrograde inversion was! They did come up with something nice though and of course I was very proud to have played on that record. Those recordings were as good as it gets. He will be sorely missed.