Back in the 1970s, for the most part, the jazz and pop worlds rarely ever collided. Yes, you had fusion, but we’re talking smooth jazz-pop, the kind that stressed carefully constructed songcraft instead of over-the-top instrumental chops. And then, Steely Dan swooped in.
Singer/bassist/guitarist Walter Becker and singer/keyboardist Donald Fagen have enjoyed a successful, four-decade run (albeit with several extended hiatuses) that has yielded such classics as 1972’s Can’t Buy A Thrill, 1977’s Aja, and 2000’s Two Against Nature, the latter of which landed the duo four Grammy Awards (including Album of the Year).
In the wake of 2003’s Everything Must Go, Steely Dan has focused solely on roadwork. As a result, Becker began stockpiling songs, which eventually served as the basis for his second-ever solo effort, Circus Money, coming out via Walter’s own 5 Over 12 imprint (admittedly via Mailboat), the album arrives 14 years since Becker’s last solo effort, 1994’s 11 Tracks of Whack.
“[I’d] finally got to the point where I’d been thinking about it so long, I had a lot of ideas for the songs and things I wanted to do — and perhaps a few too many different ideas on how to do it,” says Becker. “At that point, Larry Klein [the album’s producer] and I — who have been friends for a while — said, ‘Well, let’s make a record. What do you say?’ So we started to work on the thing and quickly narrowed it down from amongst the menu of 10,000 choices that I had created in my mind for possible ways to do it — themes, permutations, and so on. Just sat down, and we started writing the songs. Writing off and on — together and separately for about a year — we had the tunes, and went in and started working on it.”
Two factors figured prominently in the creation of Circus Money (whose title — and song of the same name — came from when Becker took some friends to the Big Apple Circus in New York City one Christmas season). First was Becker’s growing obsession with reggae-dub music (via a Steely Dan roadie) and second was hooking up with Klein.
“One of the problems for somebody like me is that if you stop to write for a year or two, by the time you get back in the studio, you have sort of a start-up curve — of getting everything set up in the studio and figuring out how you’re going to do things again,” says Becker. “And Larry was doing that as he went along, so that was a big help. And he’s fun to write with — smart, funny guy. Good sensibility to combine with mine — similar sensibility. And as a producer, he’s got a very rare quality of letting things happen and directing them only to the extent that they need direction. And when he does have a suggestion to make, it’s always a good one. It’s always a well thought-out and sound thing. Generally speaking, making records and making music, there’s too much talk about it, and not enough doing of it. And Larry knows when to listen. He’s great in that way — great instincts, too.”
Becker also made it a point to surround himself with some familiar faces in the studio. Although his long-time musical partner, Fagen, doesn’t appear on the album, a multitude of Steely Dan touring vets do.
“Ted Baker, who was playing with Steely Dan for quite a while — and who I’ve worked with as a great keyboard player — played the first few dates, and then he had to go do a weekend with somebody on the road,” says Becker. “So, at some point, Jim Beard came in and did a few of the dates that Ted wasn’t there for. And on some of the dates, they played together — that was sort of my favorite band, when they were both ther