DONALD FAGEN — The Nightfly (review)

DONALD FAGEN — The Nightfly album cover Album · 1982 · Pop/Art Song/Folk Buy this album from MMA partners
4.5/5 ·
Chicapah
Donald Fagen and I have something in common. We both spent our pre-teen years (for the most part; he’s a tad older) forming opinions about the world as stuff rapidly filtered into our psyches through the rose-colored glass sieves that were the 50s and early 60s. Not the least of which was our impressions of what this magic thing called music was.

In my case music came at me from many angles and, being addicted to my record player, I tried to be indiscriminate and found traits to enjoy in all of them. Dad listened to cowboy music (not C&W, per se). Mom was partial to syrupy renditions of popular airs from orchestras such as Mantovani’s. My big sister was into whatever was being aired on “American Bandstand” so her tastes ran the gamut from Little Richard to Pat Boone. Add the low-cost “Greatest Classical Composers” albums mom would occasionally buy at the supermarket and I was absorbing a lot of genres. But the most mysterious of all was the one I didn’t hear at home. Jazz. One of my neighborhood chums’ pop was an audiophile (back then a “Hi-Fi enthusiast”) who’d invested heavily in his system and made it clear that it was strictly off-limits. Of course, that didn’t stop us from fooling around with it while he was at work. My pal Joe would carefully put on an LP by Brubeck, Coltrane or Miles Davis and crank it. I remember being in awe of what was entering my ear canals. My brain was being taxed to the limit in an effort to download the maze of complex notes and translate them into something I could grasp but it was exhilarating. My memory of those taboo listening events is that of unadulterated wonder.

When Beatlemania exploded I, along with millions of others, focused my attention on the glamour of rock & roll almost exclusively. But Donald never let go of his original fascination with jazz so when it came time for him to make his first solo album he invited the aural love of his life to join him. The result is “The Nightfly,” simply one of the best specimens of pop/jazz on terra firma. There were plenty of jazzy nuances in the songs he wrote and recorded as half of his successful partnership with Walter Becker in the career of Steely Dan but in ‘82 he was his own boss at last and didn’t have to pretend to be a rock star anymore. As his note on the sleeve indicates, these tunes were intended to encapsulate the fantasies he entertained as a youngster while reeling in the whirlwind of sounds he heard broadcast on late-night radio. For him this must’ve been a beautiful catharsis and one I can readily relate to, as well.

He opens with the frisky “I.G.Y.” Slick synthesizers coupled with electric piano establish a perky, light ska shuffle that’s irresistible. It’s not so far from the trademark Steely Dan flavor as to alienate his fan base but it definitely indicates he’s intent on evolving and that jazz inflections are going to be a large factor in this project. His lyrics express how as post-war adolescents we were being shown often the Jetsons-like utopian future we could look forward to. “Undersea by rail/ninety minutes from New York to Paris” and “We’ll be eternally free and eternally young,” he sings. Amazing how unrestricted optimism can be so blatantly false. “Green Flower Street” is a bouquet of streamlined funk cleverly arranged as only Mr. Fagen can. The star of this tune, a sort of West Side Story in Chinatown deal, is the impeccable Larry Carlton’s guitar solo that’s like something out of a dream with its silky edges and swirling-in-butter density. Donald’s delightful version of Dion’s “Ruby Baby” earns the Oscar at this gala, though. The beginning is a jazzy tease that’ll have you snapping your fingers like Sinatra, then Fagen’s mesmerizing chord construction grabs your full attention and pulls you helplessly into the song where the background singing flows like warm oil. The piano solo from Greg Phillinganes is superb and when the whole thing modulates up a step it engulfs you in a flood of endorphins. A fun party breaks out toward the end and you’ll find yourself hoping that it goes on past sunup. It is greatness. “Maxine” follows and it features lush four-part harmonies aka Manhattan Transfer but in this case they’re all multi-tracked and precisely layered by Fagen alone. The tune’s gorgeous progression is true blue to the rich heritage he’s paying homage to, the words about being in lust but having to wait until he and his lady love are old enough to have legal sex are naively romantic and Michael Brecker’s tenor sax ride is brilliant.

“New Frontier” is a danceable ditty with a nifty but subtle double-time backbeat. It sounds like it could’ve been an outtake from Steely Dan’s “Gaucho” sessions but that’s a compliment, not a stab. Carlton’s guitar lines are sly as a fox in a tuxedo and I love how Fagen lets the scintillating groove coast on its own without overburdening it with unnecessary embellishments. The daydream lyrics about a man inviting the sexy girl next door down into his backyard bomb shelter in order to survive Armageddon’s fallout displays his famous wit. “She’s got a touch of Tuesday Weld/she’s wearing Ambush and a French twist/she loves to limbo, that much is clear/she’s got the right dynamic for the new frontier,” he gushes. “The Nightfly” is unlike anything else on the album but its unfamiliar atmosphere is charming, not confusing. Hard-hitting accents give it a unique drive independent from Jeff Porcaro’s unyielding, straight drum pattern and that conflict creates a pleasant tension. I hate to sound like a broken record but Larry Carlton once again delivers perfect guitar runs that compliment the song like a $100 haircut. Donald perceptively captures the sad essence of a lonely graveyard-shift radio DJ with lines like “I’ve got plenty of java/and Chesterfield Kings/but I feel like crying/I wish I had a heart like ice.” “The Goodbye Look” sports a playful Caribbean bounce but he avoids making it oppressive, trusting his studio cats to lay down an engaging feel. Like all the songs on this album it’s hard for me to criticize what consistently sounds so damned good. Just when I start thinking (as I did on this cut) I’ve found a weak spot he delivers an infectious chorus like “I know what happens/I read the book/I believe I just got the goodbye look” and I have to bow to his genius. Carlton solos. ‘Nuff said. His playing is tasty as crème brulee. Fagen wisely opts to go out with a spirited number, “Walk Between Raindrops,” that makes me smile every time I play it. Its electronic shuffle beat harbors a breezy countenance akin to a joyful stroll along the beach strand as Donald gifts you with a sweet Hammond organ ride to accompany you. The no-frills finale ends the album like a contented musical sigh.

This release was one of the first to be fully digital (a risky venture at that time) yet it sounds like it was recorded yesterday. If there’s anything I find to be inferior to what he produced with Steely Dan, it’s in the word processing. What makes records like “Aja” and “The Royal Scam” distinctive masterpieces is more than just flawless musicianship and composition skills, it’s the mind-bending lyrical content that ushers them into legendary status. Those songs’ poignant observations of human existence in the modern era are surrealistically tragic, humorously self-effacing poeticisms at their most fluent and I miss that edge on “The Nightfly.” Without his pal Walter’s input the zing is diminished in the tales Donald tells here but it’s a minor infraction. A mere dent in the chrome bumper of a showroom car. Anyone who’s heard it will agree. This is an album any jazzer of consequence would be or is already proud to own.
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snobb wrote:
more than 2 years ago
Great review. I heard this album for the first time somewhere in mid 80s. Generally it is not a kind of music I like, but I return to this album regularly and I really enjoy this music, it has something special inside.

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