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 Monday, 30 November 2015
Donald Fagen Wraps His Strange Trilogy With 'Morph The Cat' PDF Print
Written by Jonathan Casey   
Thursday, 02 March 2006
Photo: (c) 2006 Danny Clinch
Singer, keyboard player, and oddball songwriter Donald Fagen has laid bare his jazzy aspirations ever since Steely Dan's Pretzel Logic album, on which he covered Ellington's "East St. Louis Toodle-Oo" and aped Horace Silver's "Song For My Father" (compare to the intro of "Rikki Don't Lose That Number"). Never have I heard that side of Fagen dominate his music; even performances of Ray Bryant's "Cubano Chant" on the 2003 Steely Dan tour were enacted without the presence of Walter Becker or Donald Fagen onstage.

Morph The Cat is not a jazz album, and I wouldn't expect Fagen to claim it so. In fact, the drums, electric bass and rhythm guitar that open the album sound more like slowed down Kool and the Gang than anything else. Fagen is still working in the idiom of the brass-heavy '70s pop music he helped pioneer along with acts like Earth, Wind & Fire and Chicago, who combined driving pop rhythms with touches of the harmonic complexity of jazz. To me that crucial difference between jazz and pop is in the rhythm, and by no means does Fagen’s music swing. "Morph" sticks to the same locked-in grooves of Fagen's previous two solo albums, but since he is currently painting these three as a semi-related trilogy, it wouldn't make sense to stray too far from the formula.

Conceptually, The Nightfly (1982, Warner Bros.) started things out fairly innocently by imagining Fagen as a late-night radio DJ, while Kamakiriad (1993, Reprise) took Fagen into the realm of "high concept" with his vision of a steam-powered time traveling automobile. Here, a giant space alien called Morph The Cat descends on Manhattan and dazzles the locals until modern American xenophobia sets in. Romance and paranoia are conflated, death confronted; in other words: not the stuff of your usual pop fluff.

Photo: (c) 2006 Danny Clinch

In the Ray Charles fantasy "What I Do," Fagen matches the music with the subject matter, with a blue-eyed soul style that should be familiar to fans, from his work with Michael McDonald in the '70s to the New York Rock and Soul revue in the early '90s with Boz Scaggs (and McDonald again). A nice harmonica solo from Howard Levy buzzes above the laid-back beat and tasteful rhythm guitar, however I cannot fathom why four guitarists were employed in the service of this tune.

Fagen's latest succeeds most when it lets go a bit, and though by no standard does "Morph" feel loose or improvisational, it does come across more organically than Kamakiriad or The Nightfly. This is no doubt due in part to the presence of straight-ahead jazz talent like saxophonist Walt Weiskopf, who solos on "H Gang.” The brass section as a whole is top-notch, especially Marvin Stamm, whose lovely muted trumpet solo in "The Great Pagoda of Funn" makes up for the somewhat overcooked rock guitar noodling of longtime Fagen-cohort Jon Herington on the title track and “H Gang.”

For what it accomplishes in the jazz tradition of leaving room for long solos, "Morph" comes up short in the department of pop hooks. Nothing here has the instant catchiness of "Tomorrow's Girls" from Kamakiriad, an immediacy that was also lacking on the recent Steely Dan reunion albums Two Against Nature (2000, Giant) and Everything Must Go (2003, Reprise). Sure, "Cousin Dupree" won a Grammy in 2001, but can you hum it for me? I didn't think so. Here, "Brite Nitegown" might get stuck in your head, but not necessarily in a good way, and you may be surprised at how quickly the album arrives at the final reprise of the title track without introducing any other strong musical themes.

Photo: (c) 2006 Danny Clinch

Increasingly it seems that the instrumental side of Fagen’s records serve as a backdrop for the curious approach he takes toward lyric writing (the lyric sheet includes explanatory notes). This isn’t "smooth jazz," and while it could be classified as adult-contemporary, perhaps, thematically it's too clever and strange for that. Morph The Cat is an album that's too laid-back to get the blood flowing and too busy to be relaxing. Donald Fagen straddles many intersecting lines, which may make him unclassifiable, but also somewhat original. And, often, just plain weird.

Morph the Cat will be released domestically on March 14 (March 13 in the UK), and will also available in a CD/DVD set which includes a 5.1 surround sound mix.
Photo: (c) 2006 Danny Clinch

    Donald Fagen's North America Tour Dates
  • March 1st New Brunswick, NJ - State Theater
  • March 3rd Westbury, NY - North Fork Theater
  • March 4th Upper Darby, PA - Tower Theater
  • March 6th Washington, DC - Warner Theater
  • March 7th New York, NY - Beacon Theater
  • March 9th Boston, MA - Opera House
  • March 10th Atlantic City, NJ - Borgata
  • March 12th Ottawa, Ontario - National Arts Center
  • March 13th Toronto, Ontario - Massey Hall
  • March 15th Cleveland, OH - Palace Theater
  • March 16th Detroit, MI - Opera House
  • March 18th Chicago - Chicago Theater
  • March 19th Minneapolis, MN - State Theater
  • March 21st Denver, CO - Paramount Theater
  • March 24th Las Vegas, NV - The Joint
  • March 25th Temecula, CA - Pechanga Resort
  • March 27th Los Angeles, CA - The Wiltern LG
  • March 28th Oakland, CA - Paramount Theater
  • March 30 San Diego, CA - Viejas Concerts in the Park
  • March 31 Santa Barbara, CA - Arlington Theatre

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