Recording and sitting in with Donald Fagen

Howard with Donald Fagen
In 2006 I got the call to fly to NY and record on Donald Fagen’s new cd (first one in many years) “Morph The Cat”. After I walked into the studio and met Donald,  I asked him how he had heard of me. I figured it was The Flecktones, Kenny Loggins- something like that- but he told me that it was my playing on “A Prairie Home Companion” that made him call me. You never know…

I played on 2 tracks, “What I’d Do”, where I filled and soloed extensively, and “Mona”, where I played some fills and interacted with the textures. Afterwards we talked a lot about our mutual love of Jazz, especially John Coltrane, and discovered that both of us had gone many times to the Village Vanguard to hear the greats while in our teens, and that we both bought our Jazz records at the same shop on 8th St. in the Village. It was a great experience in every way.

He mentioned to me that he’d like to have me sit in with the band when they played Chicago, after the cd came out. I almost forgot about that until I got a call from his mgmt, telling me that Donald was coming to Chicago and wanted me to sit in. I checked the date, and the problem was that Chévere ( was playing that weekend at The Green Mill. Since I am the music director, I don’t miss a Chevere gig unless I really can’t make it. A devoted Steely Dan fan from NY who is a good friend of the band got in touch with me, telling me EXACTLY when in Donald’s set they were performing “What I’d Do”. If  I left The Mill as soon as the first set ended at 9, I could be down at The Chicago Theater in time to jump up onstage for “What I’d Do”, then hurry back to The Mill for Chévere’s 2nd set, only missing one tune (which we made sure was one that didn’t require my presence)

I went to Donald’s sound check that afternoon and ran through “What I’d Do”- it felt great. Got to play again with my friend Freddie Washington, the great bass player (we had played together with Kenny Loggins). Then I went to the Mill for the 8pm set with Chevere. At 9pm they had a limo waiting for me at the side door of The Green Mill. At 9:01pm I jumped in with my friend Craig, we drove down to the stage door of The Chicago Theater, and I went in and waited in the wings. Donald was very funny- he said something about me coming down the lake by hovercraft- and called me out on stage. It was a blast to play, as you can see in the pic (snapped by the guy from NY who had timed the set). As soon as I finished, it was into the limo and back to The Mill, where I jumped up onstage in the middle of the 2nd tune. The fine Chicago pianist Ben Lewis had been in the audience and filled in for me on the first tune, which he knew. It worked out perfectly.

When Donald returned to Chicago with Steely Dan the following 2 years, he asked me to sit in with them both times, too, which was a thrill. What a band! The July 2008 show was just about the best thing I’ve ever heard live. I hope to do it again.


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