“What you need to understand going in is that Royal Dan: A Tribute is largely about tone: this is a guitar record for guitarists, and will appeal greatly to the kinds of guys who can sit around for hours discussing the relative merits of vintage and modern distortion pedals. But it’s not all guitar-geek wankery.” —Rick Anderson, All Music review
Produce and arrange a Steely Dan tribute album, without outright mimicry or trickery. No small feat. It took a jazz-fusion great like L.A. guitarist Jeff Richman to even try, much less get the job done.
Back in 2006, Richman — riding on a high of tribute albums (Coltrane, Miles, Mahavishnu) — wanted to extrapolate a different tone in the music of one of his, and America’s, favorite bands. But Steely Dan was, is, and always will be a meticulous band, going over and over every note until it is clinically fine-tuned and pitch-perfect, almost to the point of bleeding the process dry. Anyone tackling this rock band with the jazz harmonies better know exactly what he’s doing and why. A tribute album of such high order could easily go left, into a vast morass of experimental hodge-podge, or a singular sensation on incessant repeat.
Richman does neither. Instead, with his groove and his all-star band of session musicians and superstars, he funks out most of Steely Dan’s hits in these accessibly rockin’, guitar-centric instrumentals.
Get a load of the personnel: (house band) Jimmy Haslip, Ernie Watts, Peter Wolf, Vinnie Colaiuta, (guitar heroes) Steely Dan’s Jay Graydon and Elliott Randall, Allman Brothers’ Jimmy Herring, Al Di Meola, Mike Stern, Steve Lukather, Robben Ford, Frank Gambale, Steve Morse.
Released on May 9, 2006 under the pop/rock/cross-over jazz label, the all-instrumental “The Royal Dan A Tribute” smoothly glides over familiar tunes in our Baby Boomer soundtrack, while injecting a few stylistic tweaks that make the average fan go, “Hmm… oh man, cool.”
Most of Steely Dan’s stuff, certainly all of the group’s hits, contained quirky words and quirkier music. The wonder of Jeff Richman’s tribute is that none of the chosen hits has a lick of vocals and isn’t the worse for it. In fact, the vocals aren’t even necessary. There’s plenty more to love with the full guitar effect and this innate sense of rhythm Richman himself possesses in unctuous grooves.
The original “Fez” never really made much of a dent on radio airwaves. It’s a strange, meandering little piece with a stranger chorus — “Never gonna do it without the Fez on” — that, for many rock-pop listeners, never really goes anywhere. (True jazzheads, however, geek out over the musical buffet.) But in the hands of the tribute recording band, notably featured guitarist Jimmy Herring, this tune rocks. He and the band maintain the familiar strangeness of the melody and simply amplify it in a head-bopping way through funky turns on guitar and sax throughout. No lyrics necessary.
Steely Dan’s most famous hit, “Peg,” starts off in unfamiliar but not unknown territory. The intro revs up immediately into the chorus and just flies as Robben Ford reconfigures the stasis like a classic rocker on steroids. The lazy, sexy, straining horns just add to the bluesy flight.
“Bodhisattva’s” frenzied melody is more than amply amplified in this stunning remake with Steve Morse at the helm. Definitely one of the hits of the tribute, as Morse keeps the complexity but adds some much-needed cross-over rock appeal. It sounds better, superior to the light-hearted, overly covert bit of exotica of the original with an almost heavy metal, but accessible, anthem for the masses.
“Aja” hints at the percussive wonder to come at the end in the beginning. Vinnie Colaiuta handles this brand of strut teasing in bold form. But the melody just takes too long to get there, losing a lot of the lifting, romantic notes which made the original such a lovely rock ballad. Although the sax and the keys do try.
The most transformative, yet still Steely Dan-esque song has to be “Dirty Work.” Mike Stern takes the vocally strong memory stamp of the ages and replaces it with a spiritual regeneration in his special effects. This is Stern doing Steely Dan with an airy advance, a time out of mind experience that’s deeply satisfying, almost mind-altering.
There’s one song on this tribute album that critics agree just doesn’t work. “Josie” simply sits there as is, before and after, Richman’s baby. It feels as if he’s dying to take this melody with him into his own original in his 6/4 vamp and 9/4 verse. As anything referencing Steely Dan, it kinda fails.
“FM” is another fail. Frank Gambale substitutes heaviosity for finesse. The entire remake seems overweight with grand gestures and pounding pulses, missing the important melody.
Elliott Randall does an admirable job of smooth-jazzing “Hey Nineteen.” But if you hated the song when it came out in 1980, you won’t hate it any less with all the delicate framework here. Think dressing a turd. Sorry.
Each of the 10 Steely Dan hits (cult and pop) on Jeff Richman’s “The Royal Dan A Tribute” is devoted to a special guest star. Each guitar hero tries to personalize his tribute track his own special way and, more times than not, makes you almost forget Steely Dan’s version in the first place.