‘Give It Everything’: Locals Gather at New Canaan Music for Session with ‘Steely Dan’ Touring Members


New Canaan’s Will Cuoco, back home between his junior and senior years at the University of Vermont, dropped by his old workplace on Friday night to attend a night of music with two professionals currently touring with one of his favorite acts.

Will Cuoco grabs his guitar before the seminar. At New Canaan Music on June 23, 2017. Credit: John Bemis

Steely Dan, an innovative jazz rock outfit that attained global fame in the 1970’s and ‘80s, has been “very influential for me,” Cuoco, a 2014 NCHS graduate, said as he and others gathered at New Canaan Music downtown to see and play with a pair of the band’s touring members, keyboardist Jim Beard and guitarist Jon Herington.

“They strike that perfect balance of complexity and accessibility,” Cuoco said. “I’m so curious as to Beard and Herington’s own process, I’ve heard them talk about having every note fit together, making everything choreographed and pre-planned. I’m personally wondering how to avoid a song becoming too structured.”

Young guitarists pay close attention as Herrington demonstrates his improvisation. At New Canaan Music on June 23, 2017. Credit: John Bemis

Seats at the event cost $100, and by 7:45 p.m. 16 musicians and fans sat down across from Herington and Beard as they answered questions about their careers, improvisation techniques, musical philosophies and songwriting tips.

New Canaan Music hosted the evening of music, discussion and instruction at its space down “the alley” on Elm Street—soon to move to Main—after owner Phil Williams a mutual friend of the Steely Dan members came up with the idea.

He and Weston’s Ray Bryant, a longtime friend, saw that the Herington and Beard had a free date in their touring schedules between gigs at Manhattan jazz club Iridium and a performance at Weston’s Lachat Town Farm, where Bryant serves as director of their musical events.

The crowd sits focused, eager to engage. At New Canaan Music on June 23, 2017. Credit: John Bemis

“It’s amazing being around this level of musicianship,” Williams said. “I’m excited to get such talented people back into New Canaan and back into the store.”

Jim O’Neill, manager at New Canaan Music, was particularly excited for the seminar as a lifelong fan of Steely Dan.

“ ‘Aja’ is my favorite record of theirs, and ‘The Royal Scam’ is a close second,” O’Neil said. “I love everything about them, the arrangements, the solos, the playing, the interesting lyrics.”

Friday’s seminar wasn’t the first time a Steely Dan member had come in the store, according to O’Neil: Founding member and guitarist Walter Becker has been in.

The shop fills to capacity as Herington and Beard run through original numbers. At New Canaan Music on June 23, 2017. Credit: John Bemis

“Phil said that a guy came in, checked out a lot of Mandolins and knew everything about every instrument,” O’Neil recalled. “It wasn’t until the next day when he went to a concert and saw a poster for a Steely Dan concert that he realized it was him.”

Herington and Beard performed a variety of music between discussions, featuring everything from 60’s pop hits to jazz standards to original compositions. Each musician offered similar advice to those seeking to make a living with their art.

“My friend Lenny Pickett always says in these masterclasses, ‘If you don’t eat music, breath music, dream music and live music, get out,’ ” Beard said.

Steve Levine (left) inquires of Herington (right) and Beard (center) about their songwriting. At New Canaan Music on June 23, 2017. Credit: John Bemis

Herington added: “Play music only if you love it so much that you have to, follow your heart. It’s a hard life, so only pursue it if you have to and are ready to give it everything. Only so many are able to do well playing music, but if you really love it, it won’t matter how well you’re doing.”

Those in attendance represented a wide age range, and agreed that Steely Dan were central in their own musical development.

Steve Levine, a pianist, said it’s helpful to see musicians like Beard and Herington in such an intimate setting.

“When you think of the greatest musicians of all-time, when it comes to rock n roll composition, it’s Steely Dan,” he said. “No one has crossed that bridge between jazz-rock-fusion and pop before and made it accessible. So these are the guys you want to know. Even if you only walk away from this sort of session with one pearl of wisdom, that’s all you need. You’re just hoping some of the magic rubs off.”

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