Long Live Chuck

WHEN I WAS AT MY FIRST NAMM show as BP’s Editor, in January 1990, I met Chuck Rainey.

From July/August 1993

WHEN I WAS AT MY FIRST NAMM show as BP’s Editor, in January 1990, I met Chuck Rainey. Once I got over being tongue-tied in the presence of a man who had played on so many of my favorite records, I asked Chuck if he’d write an instructional column for our new magazine. He said he’d think about it. He eventually said yes, and Chuck’s column, Improvisation, debuted in the Summer ’90 issue. The first installment was called “Rhythm,” a subject about which Chuck wrote the book.

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He continued to contribute to BP for more than two years. His columns offered some insights into his amazing style, but to really experience Chuck’s artistry … well, you have to listen. And there’s no better place than on Steely Dan’s Aja, released on MCA in 1977. Richard Johnston took a look back at that album in his July/August 1993 Classic Revisited review, and his incisive analysis (reproduced here) is still right on the money—just like Chuck’s playing.

Chuck Rainey is now in his seventies, and he had a mild stroke last fall. Fortunately, I’ve gotten word that he’s on his way to a complete recovery and has a bass back in his hands. That’s great news. Working with Chuck on his BP columns was an honor and a privilege—long may he groove.

On Aja, Chuck Rainey plays on all the tracks except “Deacon Blues” and is paired with a varied cast of drummers, from the brilliantly technical Steve Gadd to Rainey’s session soulmate, Bernard Purdie. Chuck dominates throughout, radiating a relaxed, grooving presence whether he’s sitting in the pocket, executing one of his signature 16th-note ornaments, or reaching briefly into an alternate register for a fill that’s at once surprising and inevitable.

Aja’s “Peg” was among the band’s handful of Top-40 hits, meaning we rank-andfile bassists were charged with covering Rainey’s part: an eloquent little suspended- 4th double-stop in the introduction, a sliding triad figure on the verse, and a cheery descending pentatonic lick leading to the chorus, with its devilishly accented octaves and understated thumping. A broad reading of the track makes for a damn nice bass line. But it’s Rainey’s little variations that really kick the song along, and they require total command of time and articulation to execute: a ghosted note here, an octave shift there, those tasty 16th-notes many have tried to imitate.

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The most ambitious track on Aja— thus one of the most ambitious rock songs ever—is the title tune. It spins out its many-layered lyrics (“Double helix in the sky tonight/Throw out the hardware, let’s do it right”) across a broad tapestry of shifting harmonies and rhythms, building through a long and meditative, yet precisely arranged, solo section led fearlessly by Rainey and Gadd. (It’s been said Gadd recorded the tune, drum solos and all, in one take—a feat of frighteningly prodigious musicianship.)

Aja’s other bass highlights include the evocative sliding double-stops and shifting accents on “Josie,” the percolating contrapuntal interplay with Purdie on “Home at Last,” and the tightly controlled use of space on “I Got the News,” typical of the way Rainey makes the duration of every note important throughout the album.

A platinum seller and Grammy winner (for engineering), Aja reached a pinnacle in its melding of musicality and quirky world view, and it brought wider recognition to Chuck Rainey.