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by Lorraine Feather

Walter Becker, as anyone reading this surely knows, is the co-creator of Steely Dan. He and his partner Donald Fagen did something which is all but forbidden in the music business, and got away with it. They popularized music which did not fit neatly into any category, and was - by turns or all at once - erudite, impassioned, and sacastic. On his own, Becker has produced many records, some with considerable commercial success. Others, he is proud to note, were so eccentric as to bring down the careers of the record executives who green-lighted them. Though this is an un-sanctioned Blindfold Test, tradition dictates that we insert a proclamation here: He was given no information about any of the music played. He agreed to keep his DAT sealed until our phone call, and in fact claimed to be in the company of a Price-Waterhouse representative (flown to Maui at his expense) for the entire interview. At his signal we played the tracks semi-simultaneously.

(1) BESSIE SMITH. Whoa, Tillie, Take Your Time (from The Complete Recordings Vol. 2. Columbia). Pre-1930.

WB: Yeah! All right, well, that was a smutty old blues song in the Dixieland style. This is the kind of music that I've enjoyed very much lately but am not very knowledgeable about. I'd be guessing if I said it was Bessie Smith; certainly she's the most famous exponent from that period. Definitely five stars. There was some sort of soprano solo at the beginning, it could have been Sidney Bechet. What was it called, "Whoa, Sylvie...?" Anyway, I'd like to say that the soprano solo at the beginning was much better than the clarinet solo at the end, yet you'd think that it would be the same guy. I also liked the false cadence at the end where they repeat it twice. Let me say also, and I thought you might have been aware of this at the beginning, but the soprano is near the very top of my Forbidden Instruments List. Instruments that should never be recorded, even if they must be played.

LF: Would the French horn be on that list?

WB: Definitely, although most of the instruments on that list are smaller than the French horn. If anybody ever came to any of the sessions I've been at with a French horn, they'd probably stop 'em at the door.

Now, of course, we have a whole new wave of sopranists that have never heard jazz, like they've only heard you-know-who. The most hated figure in pop music, ask any sax player. You have a gun with two bullets and you're in a room with Hitler, Mussolini and Kenny G., who do you shoot? Kenny G. twice, just to make sure. You never heard that one? I think Bob Sheppard told it to me three times.

LF: Well, I'm sure he'll be pleased to be down in print as the one who told it to you.

WB: Yeah, the Price-Waterhouse guy is here, duly noting all the names so no one is left out.

(2) JOHN TESH. Shock (from Live at Red Rocks, GTS Records). John Tesh, keyboards; Charlie Bisharat, electric & acoustic violin; Tim Landers, bass; Paul Via Piano, electric & acoustic guitar; Dave Hooper, drums; Brian Kilgore, percussion; featuring the Colorado Symphony Orchestra. 1995.

(Our connection was broken for about 30 seconds, at the end of which we were both at the drum solo part of the tape and I heard Walter say, "- premature orgasm?")

LF: What?

WB: Why is a drum solo like a premature orgasm?

LF: I don't know, why?

WB: You know it's coming, but there's nothing you can do to stop it.... but you know what, I'm gonna stop this now, I'm turning this off. All I can think is that this is some kind of vastly overblown musical pap that would be more appropriate for, you know, some kind of "Pap test " than for an official Feather blindfold test. What was it, like a John Tesh record or something? It sounded like one, then there was some guy playing the bluesover non-blues tonality, doing what Eric Gale has done with great success many times, but this time it didn't work. The bass player seemed to be soloing through quite a bit of the piece, maybe it's his record. I think that especially in comparison with the stylish and soulful first track - we citizens of the musical present must have gone wrong somewhere along the line, to have ended up wherever this guy ended up. I wouldn't give this any stars. Boy, that was scary.

(3) STARTLED INSECTS. Creatures (from Curse of the Pheromones, Antilles). 1987.

WB: Wow. Well, let me say for the sake of the readers that there were no live players that I could hear, just sequenced synthesizers and canned drums, and it was kind of an anxiety tango, a weird beat with every possible anxiety-producing tonality and synthesizer sound that this particular chap owned. I liked it pretty much. It would be good theme music for a sitcom where Daddy is a paranoid schizophrenic or something along those lines.

LF: Could you place it in a decade?

WB: Somebody could have written and recorded that yesterday, but I'd say it was more likely sometime in the '80s, when the DX-7 and the Linn Drum Machine were king. An early midi thing. It sounded amateurish because of the old corny sounds, but I liked the tonality and I'm partial to things like that in a kitschy sort of way. I'd give it three and a half stars.

(4) BRUCE HORNSBY. The Tango King (from Hot House, BMG). Hornsby, piano, vocals; Jimmy Haslip, bass; John Molo, drums; J.T. Thomas, organ. 1995.

WB: That was Bruce Hornsby. What's his band called, the Electric Range? Kitchen Range? Basically this guy is such a good singer and songwriter, you gotta like most of what he does. This particular one, however, has some kind of a hokey 9/8 type of beat, and by the time you figure out what it is you've already been tired of it for two bars - but it goes on for another seven minutes . He's been trying to combine some disparate elements lately; this is kind of an attempted swamp groove, with a jazzy bridge and soloists. But the song is about The Tango King! I didn't like the bridge. I thought the soloists were understandably confused, but good players. Lester Young was said to have loved all kinds of music, except "hillbilly music." And here's a guy that's trying to make some kind of jazz-hillbilly fusion. I wish him all the luck in the world. I've liked some of his other records better, but I'd give this one three stars. The tenor player sounded familiar. The trumpet player didn't. Who was it?

LF: The sax solo was Bobby Read, the trumpet player was John D'earth, with an apostrophe.

WB: How come trumpet players have those apostrophes in their names like that?

LF: Well I - who else does?

WB: I dunno, I'm sure there are one or two others.

LF: Roy D'Eldridge?

WB: Yeah, haha, Roy D'Eldridge! Miles D'Avis.

LF: D'Izzy Gillespie.

WB: Maynar D'Ferguson.

LF: The vocals reminded me a little bit of The Band.

WB: Yeah, for a minute I thought what we were hearing was gonna be a new Band record. Actually I have this Hornsby record and I usually skip this track. I usually decided what tracks to skip as soon as I get something. Shows what a closed-minded old fart I've become, I guess.

(5) CHARLES MINGUS. Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams (from The Complete Candid Recordings of Charles Mingus). Mingus, bass; Roy Eldridge, trumpet; Tommy Flanagan, piano; Jo Jones, drums. 1960.

WB: (Laughing) Mingus and...uh...three drunks! That was Charles Mingus, and I think probably Roy Eldridge would be a good guess. During the drum solo I kinda thought it was Max Roach, but he was playing in such a weird style through the rest of the thing, kind of an old swing style. I'm sure that's a tune that has lyrics. The trumpet player probably had better days. I'd give it two and a half stars. (Later:) Roy Eldridge was big in the '30s. already a star by 1941 or '42. I think Dizzy Gillespie modeled himself after him for a while.

(6) FRANK ZAPPA. Zoot Allures (from Zoot Allures, Warner Bros.) Zappa, guitar; Terry Bozzio, drums; Dave Parlato, bass; Ruth Underwood, marimba; Lu Ann Neil, harp. 1976.

WB: Well, at first I thought it was the Floyd Rose All Stars. But I did suspect, and it was later confirmed, at least to my judgment, that it was Frank Zappa. There were some interesting tonal ideas in there, but it was very ponderous. I don't think I've ever heard music that seemed slower and less groovacious. I felt as if my life was being artificially extended. Some poor drummer was called in to play this tedious half-time beat. It was kind of stiff sounding. Frank Zappa used to play a lot of his solos through his wah-wah setup, just leave it partway on so that you get a particularly nasal and annoying tone.

Let me say that Frank Zappa was one of my heroes in the late '60s and early '70s, and some of the best concerts I ever heard were his from that period. Much of his stuff I'm very much in favor of, but I lost interest in the mid-'70s. Who was the drummer, Ainsley Dunbar?

LF: Terry Bozzio.

WB: Didn't have a chance. It wasn't Terry's fault.

(7) KID CREOLE AND THE COCONUTS. Gina, Gina (from Fresh Fruit in Foreign Places, Sire). 1981.

WB: I expected to hear Dr. Demento at the end of that instead of Lorraine. I have no idea who that was. A reggae song - "Gina Gina, he's just a ski instructor?' Well, as you well know, there's a fine line as to how funny a song can be before it goes over the line into the Spike Jones/Dr. Demento kind of area, and this one certainly does. Wherever you draw the line, this is on the other side of it. This is something that Donald and I hopefully learned, to try and stay out of that category, to be taken seriously in any way. I would give that about one and three-quarters stars.

LF: It was Kid Creole and the Coconuts. August Darnell is Kid Creole. He was in Dr. Buzzard's Original Savannah Band..

WB: Oh, I liked them. (Sings:) "Tommy Mottola.." Kid Creole and the Coconuts! I've heard they're very good live. A lot of people have tried to get me interested in them. Sorry Kid. My wife kinda vibed with one of his records, "Stool Pigeon."

(8) EMERSON, LAKE & PALMER. Promenade (from Pictures at an Exhibition, Cotillion). 1972

WB: At first I thought that was gonna be a power trio playing an instrumental version of "Incense and Peppermints." Then I realized it wasn't gonna be that, but I still wished it would've been, 'cause that would've been better than what it was: a ponderous series of unrelated minor triads played on an organ, then there was a solo played on a Moog synthesizer or some such piece of equipment. Not my cup of tea. Maybe it was Emerson, Lake & Palmer. One star.

(9) CHARLIE PARKER. Ornithology (from Charlie Parker, Vol. I, Warner Bros.) Miles Davis, trumpet; Charlie Parker, alto; Lucky Thompson, tenor; Dodo Marmarosa, piano; Arvin Garrison, guitar; Vic McMillan, bass; Ray Porter, drums, 1946.

WB: That was Charlie Parker. I thought the trumpet player might have been Miles Davis. The tenor player I didn't recognize or like, maybe Flip Phillips or somebody like that. A swing player that came up into the bop era but still had that big fruity tone, kinda like Coleman Hawkins. I liked the piano player, didn't know who he was. He only got to play a moment. There was no guitar solo and I was grateful for that. Maybe Barney Kessel? Charlie Parker sounded kinda in the middle of the Charlie Parker range, which would've been the best day in anybody else's life but just an average outing for him. He really had some cool things going every time he played, so I would give it four stars just for him.

(10) THOMAS DOLBY. Airwaves (from Blinded By Science, Harvest/EMI). Keyboards, programming, vocal, Dolby; electric guitar, Kevin Armstrong; bass, Mark Hayward-Chaplin; drums, Justin Hidreth; background vocals, Bruce Wooley. 1982.

WB: Well, that's of course Thomas Dolby's first album. Great songwriter, great producer. That particular tune had a powerful ambiance that reminded me of those apocalyptic "Heavy Metal"cartoons where you're wandering despairingly amidst the ruins. The Brooklyn-Queens Expressway after the collapse of the social structure or something. That particular tune didn't have as perky a beat as some of the others. That album had so many great songs on it, I'd give that one four stars. I actually had it in my car this week and was listening to it again. Maybe I'd give it four and a half. Just to get on Thomas' good side, should he ever stumble into this piece.

LF: I'll borrow this question for the original Blindfold Tester - What else would you have given five stars?

WB: If you'd played a different song from that Thomas Dolby album. Or almost any good Thelonious Monk record. A different Charlie Parker record. Or, you know, a different John Tesh record! Well, not a different John Tesh record, a different John Tesh. If there were another John Tesh that were a really great musician. Or if you'd played "Five" from that Lorraine Feather record.

LF: Oh, uh-huh. Because of the title?

WB: Because of the title, and of course the social pressure!

LF: I'm very flattered.

Going back and forth between the decades, what does it make you think about music now?

WB: It's dangerous to generalize, but that did occur to me, starting out the way you did and then moving to the John Tesh record, I could almost read your mind. The thing to remember, I think, is that nine-tenths of everything is shit. It certainly is tempting to come to the conclusion that modern more than one thing you played, there were clashes because they were trying to reconcile too many different styles and/or technological capabilities with music that didn't fit .

LF: Do you think people were more pure or more natural in the '40s or '50s?

WB: Well, at the beginning of something it's very exciting and fresh. Charlie Parker in the '40s is a good example of that, and Thomas Dolby is a good example too, 'cause he was one of the first guys to create interesting things with synthesizers and drum computers. As time goes on it becomes diluted. The Dixieland stuff sounds great to me, various things from the fifties, and a mish-mash of other stuff..rock and roll bands, field recordings. And of course the John Tesh record.

LF: The other John Tesh, you mean?

WB: Yeah. I've got everything he's ever done.

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