In pop music, Steely Dan’s hybrid of pop, jazz and R&B represents an artistic standard few can match.
Steely Dan — the musical enterprise of songwriting team Walter Becker and Donald Fagen — hit its commercial peak during the 1970s. That decade, the prolific Becker and Fagen released seven albums, selling more than a million copies each.
The duo’s songs — “Reelin’ in the Years,” “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number,” “Peg,” “Hey Nineteen” — were hit singles then. They’re classics now, whose meticulously crafted sheen hasn’t diminished.
When Fagen and Becker’s “Jamalot Ever After” comes to the UNO Lakefront Arena on Saturday, July 26, the duo’s fans will show up to hear songs from such beloved Steely Dan albums as “Aja,” “Gaucho” and “Can’t Buy a Thrill” as well as Fagen’s solo debut, “The Nightfly.”
Becker and Fagen dismantled their partnership in 1980 but reunited in the early 1990s. During the pair’s long separation, Fagen stayed active in music, releasing “The Nightfly,” writing songs for Diana Ross, Manhattan Transfer and Jennifer Warnes and producing albums for Rickie Lee Jones and many jazz artists. Becker dropped out of music and moved to Hawaii.
Becker and Fagen worked together again when Becker produced Fagen’s second solo album, 1992’s “Kamakiriad.” Also in 1992, Becker toured with Fagen during the New York Rock and Soul Revue’s summer tour.
More collaborations followed, including 1993’s All New Steely Dan Orchestra tour and 1994’s Citizen Steely Dan Orchestra tour. Work for the first Steely Dan album in 20 years, “Two Against Nature,” began in 1997. New York City-based guitarist Jon Herington entered the Steely Dan universe near the end of recording for the project. His freelance work with keyboardist Ted Baker, a Steely Dan session player, opened the door.
In 1999, Fagen and Becker were looking for a guitarist to play for “Two Against Nature.” Baker suggested Herington and gave Fagen and Becker a copy of the guitarist’s 1992 album, “The Complete Rhyming Dictionary.”
“They listened to it, I got call and the rest is history,” Herington said from New York.
After doing session work for “Two Against Nature,” Fagen and Becker invited Herington to tour with Steely Dan. The group performed in North America, Europe and Japan and did PBS and VH1 TV specials.
“Two Against Nature,” released in February 2000, debuted at No. 6 on Billboard’s all-genre Top 200 album chart. At the 2001 Grammy Awards, the album won four Grammys, including album of the year. Becker and Fagen were subsequently inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
“So it was the right time to join,” Herington said.
Since 1999, Herington, a musician schooled in jazz whose roots are in blues and rock, has been working with Becker and Fagen in Steely Dan, with them separately for their solo projects and with Fagen, Michael McDonald and Boz Scaggs in the supergroup Dukes of September.
And Steely Dan activity has only increased through the years.
“Yeah, it keeps on coming,” Herington said. “It’s a great band and a great vehicle for me.”
Herington first played Steely Dan songs when he was a young musician performing in New Jersey bars. He especially loved early albums “Aja,” “Gaucho” and “The Nightfly.”
“They’re all masterpieces to me,” he said. “Although I have learned the entire Steely Dan catalog, it’s amazing how many great songs are on even the very early records.
“With these guys, the forms of the songs, the instrumental composition and the lyrics are all fantastic. It has staying power and depth. So it’s not surprising that people are still listening to these songs and that we still have audiences to play for.”