Steely Dan and A Life’s Work? Wha?
A while back I was chatting with a friend about A Life’s Work and I said music influenced it, and all my work, in a big way. My friend asked me to elaborate and I couldn’t really articulate it at the time, but here’s an example of what I mean, with apologies to those of you who can’t stomach Steely Dan. (I do understand why some folks hate this band, I really do.)
In May I stumbled upon a TV show called Classic Albums and watched an episode devoted to Steely Dan’s Aja album. (My relationship with Steely Dan has been tumultuous: loved them in the 70s, hated them in the 80s, 90s, 00s, appreciate them now.) When it came time to talk about the guitar solo in Peg, my ears perked up. The studio solo by Jay Graydon is possibly my favorite rock and roll-fusion-jazz-whatever 26-seconds of guitar ever put down on vinyl. I would have said that no matter what decade I was in.
I went online to find out more about the solo and came across this intriguing montage on YouTube. It features five Peg solos, the original and four versions done by four guitarists who played the song live with Steely Dan. They’ve always worked with exceptionally talented musicians, and this clip is further proof of that.
[Sadly, the video has been taken down. No matter, the post is still relevant. And here is the Krantz solo.]
Depending on how big a guitar geek you are, there can be a lot to discuss here. But I want to focus on how much each solo diverges from the original.
Why this focus?
When we see a pop act perform live, we expect them to play the songs close to the recorded versions. We don’t expect radical reinterpretations. This is a broad assumption, I know, but run with me on this. (This does not apply to jazz, blues, and gospel, where reinterpretation and improvisation are expected.)
Let’s use a handy-dandy scale. Let’s say 1 is an exact reproduction of Graydon’s studio solo, 2 contains a lot of elements (i.e., the phrasing, the rhythm, the glissando, the scale runs, the string bends) of the studio solo, 3 contains some of the elements of the studio solo, 4 contains a few elements of the studio solo, and 5 is a completely different solo. Again, I’m just rating how different they are from the studio recording; these numbers do not refer to quality, nor how much I like or dislike them.
I give Drew Zingg a 4, Georg Wadenius a 2, Wayne Krantz a number completely off the charts, something like a 99, and Jon Herington a 3.
When I first heard the solo from planet Krantz, I was very startled and couldn’t imagine it in the context of the song. I suspect there are several reasons why he might have played the solo the way he did — perhaps Krantz is an iconoclast and needed to destroy this very iconic guitar solo before he could make it his own, or maybe he simply did not want to be a slave to Graydon’s work, or perhaps he wanted to buck the listeners expectations, give them something radical. It’s sonic in a way that would fit in a free-jazz freak-out tune, but it’s strange sounding in the fusioney world that Steely Dan inhabits. It’s a bit experimental.
So, how do these solos influence A Life’s Work? Well, it gets me thinking about how far out there to go with the film. With a “commercial” film, you don’t want the viewer to be “taken out” of the film, whereas this is often what experimental films deliberately do. There are many commercial documentaries and many experimental documentaries. Applying the Peg solo scale, 1 being a commercial documentary and 5 being an experimental one, I’d say I would like A Life’s Work to be somewhere around a 3.
As the edit continues, I must continually ask, how far out is too far out? I don’t want to lose people, but I don’t want to lull(aby) them with the same old song, either. I’m not looking to redefine the documentary, but I wouldn’t mind challenging some of its conventions. In my fantasy world, A Life’s Work starts off in familiar documentary waters and gradually, imperceptibly, takes the audience to some more challenging seas, perhaps to a place where the shoreline is a little foreign, or maybe not visible at all. And how will the edit takes us to these seas? Good question.
As I see it, there are two main challenges: 1: Keeping in mind that my comfort level for strange waters is higher than most people’s comfort level. 2. Keeping my eyes fresh so that the strange does not become commonplace. If I edit with eyes accustomed to strangeness, I fear I’ll drift further and further into stranger and stranger waters until both the viewer and I are lost in a fog without compass or sextant.
Okay, no more nautical imagery in this post.
When I come across something like the Peg solos, it crystallizes these questions for me. And that is one way that music influences A Life’s Work, Rachel C.