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Donald Fagen brings the sound of surprise on The Third Story

Donald Fagen
Jacob Blickenstaff/Jacob Blickenstaff
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Donald Fagen in the audience at the WBGO Champions of Jazz Gala at Lincoln Center on May 1, 2018.

Just when you think you know all there is to know about Donald Fagen, he surprises you. There are legendary stories, traded like playing cards in chat rooms, fanzines, and merch lines. Along with his musical partner, the late Walter Becker (who passed away in 2017), Fagen influenced countless musicians, producers and songwriters by setting the gold standard in record production and arrangement with his band Steely Dan. This is known. There are the solo records, including The Nightfly (released in 1982), which was nominated for seven Grammys and continues to serve as a reference for hi-fi aficionados around the world 30 years on. This is known.

Much is known about Donald Fagen and his work, it’s true. But much is still left to be revealed. Stage fright, a general aversion to appearing on television (he and Becker lacked the large heads and “swaths of cheek” that they felt necessary to really make it on the small screen), and nearly 20 years with no touring created a mystique that endures to this day, despite the fact that they’ve toured regularly since the mid '90s.

Donald Fagen and Carolyn Leonhardt
Jacob Blickenstaff/Jacob Blickenstaff
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30215321A
Donald Fagen and Carolyn Leonhardt at the WBGO Champions of Jazz Gala at Lincoln Center, on May 1, 2018.

So Donald can surprise you. He does it not by telling you what happened, but rather what he thinks about it. Or more to the point, how he thinks about it. He tells you that Steely Dan has “more in common with punk than with the confessional California singer-songwriters” that they were often compared to. He tells you why Stravinsky was a precursor to funk music. He tells you what’s postmodern about his music; why making his first solo record was so personally disruptive to him; how he falls asleep; when he decided to finally grow up; and who he never wants to see again.

This conversation was recorded in summer of 2019. This summer, Steely Dan will be back out on the road playing to crowds of delighted fans around the country.

Leo Sidran is a Latin Grammy-winning multi-instrumentalist, producer, arranger, composer and creative coach. Since 2014 he has hosted an influential podcast called The Third Story, featuring interviews with musicians, producers, songwriters and creators of all kinds.