That one time Donald Fagan and Walter Becker got a good jazz record made and released by a major record label’s jazz department
In 1978 saxophonists Warne Marsh, a ‘cool’ disciple of Lennie Tristano and Pete Christlieb, a more ebullient player who worked on Steely Dan recordings as well (he played the iconic tenor solo on Aja’s “Deacon Blues), went into the studio with Becker and Fagan at the boards and recorded the album Apogee.
The album, which is as straight-ahead post-bop as it gets, was released by the Warner Brothers Jazz Department (remember when there was such a thing?} as a result of Becker and Fagan’s enthusiasm for the project. Becker and Fagan were flying high, with Aja having spent a number of weeks on the Billboard album charts. Even so, getting a major label to release a straight-ahead jazz recording with no gimmickry was a pretty big accomplishment. My guess is that these guys wanted to recreate one of those fantastic blowing session albums from Prestige or Blue Note that pitted two tenor sax players against each other: Johnny Griffin and Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis or Sonny Rollins & John Coltrane (Tenor Madness) or Dexter Gordon and Wardell Gray.
In any event, the album is a classic, especially since many of Marsh’s recordings are hard to come by (though this has improved in the digital age). The pairing of Marsh and Christlieb hardly seems intuitive, but they turn out to be very complimentary players, and according to Robert Palmer’s liner notes, they came up with the idea of recording together themselves. “Tenors of the Time” is a high-powered blowing session worthy of any of those aforementioned tenor battles while “Magna-Tism” finds the two horns intertwining in a fine filigree of notes before they untwist for separate solos and rejoin for a couple of final choruses that are joyous indeed. The two also cover the standards “I’m Old Fashioned” and “Donna Lee” as well as a bebop composition by Becker/Fagan entitled “Rapunzel.”
At the time of its release, Fagan commented that the album was basically “for tenor freaks” and that is pretty much true. Since neither Christlieb nor Marsh was over-recorded, Apogee is a unique document that exists largely because of the success of Steely Dan and their ability, for that brief window in the late 1970s and early 1980s, to do whatever they wanted.