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Donald Fagen's latest, Sunken Condos, might be his (and Steely Dan's) strongest record since 1982's The Nightfly. It finds Fagen confidently crafting his idiosyncratic take on jazz-rock - harmonic twists, infectious grooves, Beat-inspired narrators chorusing about life on the fringe.

That Fagen should develop a singular point-of-view informed by rock and soul and jazz and William Burroughs places him in a distinguished club matched by few of his songwriter-producer brethren. His tales - inhabiting a universe parallel to those crafted by Randy Newman or Paul Simon or Joni Mitchell - feature antiheroes who reveal themselves in and around the origami folds of his music. If these craggy characters are a little off, transversing a netherworld of grift and subversion, ramblers, wild gamblers, so much the better. Like film noir and Lenny Bruce, Fagen would never have existed without them.

Sunken Condos is an instant classic, summoning musical references to Steely Dan's storied albums: Countdown To Ecstasy, Katy Lied, Guacho, Aja. That last record, issued in 1977, is a milestone achievement in pop music's march to adulthood. My own march, as well. 

Which leads to a personal disclosure: As a nascent radio guy, fresh out of school, I found myself managing an indie rock station, partnered with a shock jock later to be known as The King of All Media. (Yes, that Howard Stern). Natural curiosity (coupled with endless exposure to that period's rock, to be sure), led me to seek more progressive musics. A chance discovery of station discards yielded Aja - a disc tossed precisely because it was labeled jazz and did not fit anyone's idea of worthy programming.

My education was about to begin. Wayne Shorter (whose towering solo on the title track epitomized the "jazz" portion of my expectations) led to the study of Weather Report, which opened the door to Joe Zawinul, which begat the world of Cannonball, which aimed the kliegs squarely on Charlie Parker. Soon, Miles and Prez and Billie and Louis floated by in a Magritte-style dream of time travel, enabling me to absorb the history of jazz. Presto, an authority was born! Aja was the portal.

Far from merely brandishing a stun gun illuminating one guy's path to jazz enlightenment, Fagen always demonstrated fealty to the cause, a command of that history, which serves as the root of Sunken Condos, though his other influences speak as loudly. I'm not sure there's a bad track on the album. Each features a signature flourish we've come to expect of him: hip instrumentation (melodica, muted horns, violin, vibraphone), layered vocal arrangements, syncopated funk. Two drop-dead tracks stand tall above all: "Miss Marlene," which follows a hipster bowler's cartoony death ("Ran into the dark street/At University Place/Cab came up so fast/We saw your laughing face"); and a moody B.B. King blues, "Weather In My Head," reflecting the stormy confusions of a tortured protagonist ("They may fix the weather in the world/Just like Mr Gore said/But tell me what's to be done/ 'Bout the weather in my head").

Fagen's co-producer on Condos is tour band member Michael Leonhart, well known in jazz circles as a trumpeter/multi-instrumenatlist and son of bassist Jay Leonhart. (Sister-vocalist Caroline is a travel partner as well.) He deserves much credit for the record's synchronized efficiency and purposeful feel - a co-conspirator in the march to perfection. Man, these moving parts purr sweetly, aligning perfectly with Fagen's persnickety and legendary attention to detail.

It's musical alchemy, enacted in the service of a reluctant leader who, while reelin' in the years, continues to evince a self-reflexive edge - a shadowy outsider tip-toeing around the mainstream middle, lending commentary, daring his audience to follow the turns of a pretzel logic alternately funny, surreal, world-weary, sophisticated, street-wise. Sunken Condos proves that among contemporary music makers, Fagen's as badass as it gets.


Jeff Levenson is a label executive, writer-producer, and jazz journalist. His affiliations include posts at Half Note, Sony, Warner Bros, Downbeat and Billboard. He currently produces the annual Thelonious Monk Instrumental Competition, and has authored and/or produced events for the NEA, the US State Department, the White House, the New School for Social Research and the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame. His credits include collaborations with Michael Brecker, Herbie Hancock, Branford Marsalis, Bela Fleck, Arturo Sandoval, and McCoy Tyner. He has produced and/or supervised six Grammy albums - 2 winners, 4 nominees. He currently chairs the National Jazz Committee for the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, serves as Board Governor for its New York Chapter, and digs the company of jazz musicians.


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