thatsthewayRecord producer Hal Willner made a name for himself in the 1980s compiling tribute albums featuring a wide range of artists and styles. The two I was aware of at the time were That’s the Way I Feel Now (1984), celebrating the music of Thelonious Monk, and its 1985 follow up Lost in the Stars, celebrating Kurt Weill. For me the stand-out track on the Monk tribute was “Reflections”, played by jazz guitarist Steve Khan with Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen on synthesizer. Khan had previously showed his interest in Monk on has 1980 solo acoustic album Evidence, which featured a nine song Monk medley nearly 20 minutes long. And in a 2011 Wall Street Journal interview, Fagen was depreciative about his own playing, while acknowledging that he started out as a hard-core jazz fan. “I’ve always thought of my style as quirky. I always thought I could do something the way Thelonious Monk does, where he has his own eccentric way of improvising that wouldn’t require great speed. But it seems the more I practice, the worse I get.” On his 1982 solo album The Nightfly, Fagen poses as a late night DJ, and beside his deck there’s a Sonny Rollins record. Rollins and Monk played the most famous version of “Reflections” on the 1957 Blue Note album Sonny Rollins, Vol 2.

The Rollins and Monk performance is remarkable for the spontaneous interplay between the saxophone and keyboard throughout. Khan and Fagen are doing something different: after a 32-bar statement of the original tune, Khan, and then Fagen provide their own variations, for 32 bars each. I imagine these are planned solos rather than spontaneously improvised – Steely Dan have in the past been criticized by both jazz and rock purists for using written-down solos. Fagen’s solo in particular is beautifully crafted, especially as it reaches the end, sliding effortlessly into the final 16 bar coda restatement. If the 1989s synthesizer sounds dated to some it really doesn’t matter, as Fagen plays it like a real instrument, with feeling.