For most of his life, Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Donald Fagen has been a musical innovator, constantly looking for ways to traverse genre boundaries. Between co-founding Steely Dan, being a member of The Dukes of September and a solo artist with a handful of albums to his name, Fagen has found much success and popularity through his relentless pursuit. He’d be forgiven if he were to coast on past successes.
But on his current tour, he’s teamed up with a new band called The Nightflyers (a nod to his first solo album The Nightfly, released in 1982), with whom he’s worked for the last few years near his home in Woodstock, NY. The Nightflyers are unlike the other bands Fagen has performed with lately, as they’re all in their 20s. The band features Connor Kennedy (guitar, vocals), Lee Falco (drums, vocals), Brandon Morrison (bass, vocals), Will Bryant (keyboards, vocals), and Zach Djanikian (saxophone, vocals). The tour setlist includes many Steely Dan favorites as well as material from Fagen’s solo albums.
Fagen said in a recent press conference that the band has energized his playing so far on the tour.
“You know, especially when you get older, you don’t get that much of an opportunity to have these kinds of peak experiences, but playing every night is fantastic. I think it keeps you young, especially playing with these guys.”
Prior to their August 29 performance at the Riverside Theatre, we caught up with the band’s guitarist, Connor Kennedy, to find out more about the collaboration.
What do you recall of the first time you heard Donald’s music?
I don’t actually remember the first time I heard Donald’s music or Steely Dan’s music. But I think it was “Aja” that caught me initially. From there I really got into the Aja record and then started exploring other stuff. For a long time, I was really interested in the first records. “Can’t Buy a Thrill” is one of my favorites still. And of course, Donald’s solo albums, like Nightfly and Kamakiriad and Morph the Cat and Sunken Condos. I got into all of it.
How did get introduced to Donald originally?
I met Donald about five years ago. So 2012. He came to check out a gig I was playing at, and he invited me to sit in with his band The Dukes of September, which was him, Michael McDonald and Boz Scaggs. I was 17 at the time. We’ve kept in touch ever since.
Before this tour, the band tended to play mostly smaller venues. What’s it like to be playing larger venues like the Riverside Theatre, thanks to Donald?
It’s been fantastic. It’s funny, making that transition, after the first few shows…we’ve played hundreds and hundreds of gigs at this point of our lives already. All that experience adds up and is useful every time you step onto the stage. We’re all extremely grateful. It’s a real treat to be traveling around and meeting different people.
Has Donald given you any tips on the road?
In terms of his music and translating it from these studio recordings that we have all listened to…translating them to the live setting, there have been a lot of musical tips he’s given out. Which is coming from his own experience of playing a lot of this music for a long time now with Steely Dan on the road. Just subtle variations in the arrangement that serves the purpose of playing them in a large setting and a big stage, and conveying the most important parts of the song appropriately. Sometimes it’s not the same as it’s on the record.
How do you think you and the band put their own spin on the songs?
Not coming from a background in jazz, we play the stuff differently than somebody else might. It’s happening on its own, I think. We’re still trying to play the music the way people want to hear it. But I think there’s something different happening without us trying.
Do you feel you have a lot of freedom with arrangements?
Yeah. I think I might have the most freedom of everyone in the band only because I’m playing a lot of solos. And there’s all of these iconic guitar solos on all these songs. But Donald has actually encouraged me to not play things note for note. I’m not that kind of guitarist, anyway. I’m not as interested in learning other people’s parts. I don’t think I’ve played any solo the same twice on this tour so far.
After this tour, what do you have planned?
Personally, I don’t have anything planned. Other than continuing working on my own music. Working on Donald’s music for this tour has already been a great mind-expanding venture for me musically. I’m excited by what new directions that can inspire in me. And obviously if he wants to work on some of his music and wants me involved, I’m happy to be and hope that does happen.
Anything else people should know?
Yeah, I hope we see a lot of people at the Riverside Theater. We’ve done about ten shows now and we’re looking at a whole bunch of new material, which we’ll probably have together by the time we get to Milwaukee. The stuff we’ve been playing has been feeling great. The audiences, so we hear, have been totally loving the shows, which is great. I hope the Milwaukee audience will feel the same way and come on out and see a rock and roll show.