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Steely Dan's Donald Fagen talks hanging with new band of millennials, the Nightflyers

Donald Fagen and the Nightflyers, named after his debut solo album, The Nightfly, will perform Steely Dan staples as well as Fagen’s solo tracks.
Donald Fagen and the Nightflyers, named after his debut solo album, The Nightfly, will perform Steely Dan staples as well as Fagen’s solo tracks.
Published Aug. 7, 2017

Donald Fagen likes what his new band the Nightflyers brings to the table.

Sometimes he has seconds.

"It's great hanging around with 20-somethings," Fagen, 69, said in a teleconference call from upstate New York. "They know all the good places to eat. I've been eating a lot of exotic foods for me, things I don't usually do. … It's like the menus say stuff like your protein will be such and such, your carbohydrates will be such and such. I'm more of a grilled cheese guy, you know?"

A simple sandwich for a complex musician. Fagen's career as co-founder of Steely Dan and then four solo albums is off book, apart from music industry norms creatively and professionally.

When the music industry zigged, Steely Dan guided by Fagen and Walter Becker zagged, adding jazz to rock while subtracting concert tours for two decades, holed up in studios crafting rock classics.

Teaming with musicians one-third his age rather than the usual polished suspects is just Fagen's restless soul showing.

"I'd love to go into the studio with these guys," Fagen said. "I've got some new material. … On the road I'm hoping to show the guys some of the new stuff I've been writing, and it'll be fun developing that with a band. … I don't think I've done that since the early '70s, probably."

Named for his 1982 album The Nightfly, the five-piece band includes lead guitarist Connor Kennedy, 22, who joined Fagen on the conference call.

Kennedy was asked what Fagen expects from him and the other Nightflyers.

"Perfection," Kennedy said, laughing. "We fix things when they're broken, or we try to. It's been pretty diplomatic, I think."

The pair have begun writing songs together that may eventually emerge on Fagen's fifth solo project.

Fagen didn't go far to find the Nightflyers, a loose-knit group of musicians in upstate New York, near Fagen's Woodstock home. He caught them last year at an annual Bob Dylan birthday tribute concert.

"I was really impressed by what a good band they were," Fagen said. "They were just there and they were really good. … I don't think they're the stereotypical millennials. They have a real sense of tradition and soul."

Fagen and the Nightflyers prepped for their 25-city tour with a series of secret shows at nearby Hudson Valley clubs. One show reportedly featured 17 songs including Steely Dan staples (Josie, Reeling in the Years), Fagen's solo tracks (I.G.Y., New Frontier) and intriguing covers (Beast of Burden, Shakedown Street).

Fagen doesn't worry about entrusting his music to artists who weren't yet born when it was written, who needed a crash course in Steely Dan's mu major chord complexity.

"These guys have actually taught me a few chords that I forgot," he said.

This tour allows Fagen to dip into his solo works live, something that doesn't happen often when touring with Steely Dan or on Dukes of September tours alongside Boz Scaggs and Michael McDonald.

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"The solo stuff … is really cinematic and different from the music of the time when we recorded it," Fagen said. "Really different from music you hear today."

With noir qualities, a questioner proposes. Fagen calls it fair.

"It's egotistical to put myself in the position of having the same bigger-than-life personality of people in noir literature like Philip Marlowe," Fagen said. "But I am attracted to that sort of thing. … There's something about that vision of life that seems truer to real life than what passes as realism. There's romance to it, there's cynicism, skepticism and also humor. That's become part of my style."

Contact Steve Persall at tampabay.com or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall.

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