John Beasley Remembers Steely Dan's Walter Becker: 'He Had a Way of Getting Everybody Laughing'
John Beasley considered the late Walter Becker an essential mentor and a key figure in his own career.
The Grammy-nominated keyboardist, composer and arranger started working with Becker on Rickie Lee Jones' 1987 album Flying Cowboys, which led to Becker signing Beasley to Windham Hill Jazz and producing his first two albums, 1992's Cauldron and 1993's A Change of Heart. Beasley -- whose credits include Miles Davis, Chaka Khan, Dianne Reeves, John Patittucci and many others -- also worked played on Becker's 1994 solo debut 11 Tracks of Whack and worked with Steely Dan from 1993-2000.
He was at the 38th annual Detroit Jazz Festival on Sunday, launching his latest album John Beasley Presents MONK'estra, Volume 2 when he learned of Becker's death.
Below is a transcript of an interview with Beasley and his recollections of his late friend, collaborator and mentor.
I'm shocked. I wasn't ready for it at all, and it happened. I found out in the morning and I was dealing with checking everybody in, so I was kind of preoccupied. I had breakfast with Adam Rogers and Bob Sheppard; The three of us knew and worked with Walter a long time ago, so we kind of commiserated and gave each other a big hug and went back to our day.
Walter was a mentor to me. Of course I was a Steely Dan fan, and I met him when I was in my mid-20s and he hired me as a young guy to play on this Rickie Lee Jones record and we kind of hit it off. I wasn't really able to be there that long; That was when Miles Davis called me, and I didn't know what to do. So I talked to (Becker) and he, of course, said, "Well, you gotta go," so he kind of pushed me out the door. And while I was out with Miles he got a production deal at Windham Hill and he signed me to my first record deal and produced my first two records, and we became really close.
I worked on several other projects he produced, and he always had interesting things to say and I started to realize that all those left turns in Steely Dan music, that this was the guy that maybe inspired all those kind of fast turns -- left turns, I called them back then -- the uneven phrases, maybe, or sort of a jump or modulation out of nowhere, that kind of thing. He was so creative and unusual that way. he wasn't like your normal songwriting form or anything like that. He loved those surprises.
And in the studio he always had interesting things to say, very witty things to say about the music -- but all positive. It was never, "This sucks, you gotta do this" or "You gotta do that." He had a way of getting everybody laughing but, of course, a sarcastic way of looking at your own music -- and his own music -- that kind of kept you in check.
He was a great editor, kind of cutting fat out of a tune. I remember tracking with him and working with Peter Erskine on a tune of mind and working out the drum pattern, and he always came up with something that I never would have thought of but that made total sense, mostly with the rhythm section or the forms of the tunes. At the time I was also doing studio work, movie stuff and pop records, and polyphonic synthesizers were everywhere. Walter didn't like the notion of an analog pad or a string pad or anything like that. He liked a drier production, and I came to love that. He knew how to streamline a track so that the rhythm section always felt good, and I got a sense of how to program a synthesizer in a way that didn't cloud the track in a way.
I spent many months in Maui working on 11 Tracks of Whack and I lived in the house in the back of his house and spent a lot of time in the car driving to the studio with him, just becoming friends and getting to know his family. So we became pretty close. He listened to a lot of music and he had a very wide palette of music that he liked. He loved mainstream jazz, so we were always listening to Tommy Flanagan and he turned me on to Paul Bley and he loved Rick Garland. But the next CD he'd pop into the car would be, like, a ska band or even a punk band. Walter would always find interesting artists in a particular genre, even, like, gangsta rap. That was kind of unexpected to me, but it opened my horizons because I was listening to the jazz and funk of the day, and he introduced me to a lot more than that.
I used to love the mystery that those guys had, he and Donald, the same way I loved it about Miles Davis. (Becker) wasn't mysterious once you got to know him, but I loved that their personal was, to me, so mysterious. When he had his imprint on Windham Hill he wanted everybody's portrait to be on the cover of their albums. I was like, "No, man, I want to be like you guys. I don't want my picture on there. Let 'em wonder what I look like." The compromise is my first record has a very dark photo of me on there, but I really was like, "No, I want to be like you guys."
I haven't really heard much of him in the last seven or eight years, unfortunately. He was a bit of a recluse the last few years. I just hope he was OK. I hope he didn't struggle. It didn't really hit me until (Sunday) night and (Monday) morning, until I was at the airport and reading the New York Times obituary and flying and had some quiet time. I'm still kind of processing it. He meant a lot to me and always will.