Studio Campfire Stories: “Black Cow” (feat. Phonte & Sy Smith)

Production work on …just visiting three began on December 22nd, 2010 following a phone conversation I had with Phonte discussing songs that I wanted to recreate for the new album. One of the songs that had my full attention at that particular time was Steely Dan’s “Black Cow.” I was already familiar with the song and the legendary Aja album that it comes from, but for some reason around this time, the song was hitting me a bit differently – I was beginning to break it down into individual parts and mapping out the different possibilities for the song in my head, which usually means that I am ready to sit down and start working on it. I took some time out to listen through it a few times to pick up on not only the instrumentation, but the overall “feel” of the record. In the past, I actually stayed away from this song because it’s one of those joints that I enjoy so much that I would want to be able to do it justice if and when I ever decided to tackle it (as was the case with Minnie Riperton’s “Perfect Angel” on …just visiting too). I’m a strong believer in completely trashing a song if I don’t feel like I’ve done it correctly. Luckily, with “Black Cow” I knew it was a keeper after I programmed the drums, then learned and recorded the bassline… Now, the TOUGHEST part about covering this song?!?! Learning. Those. Damn. Chord. Changes. Steely Dan…. WHAT were y’all ON creating this joint?! Whewww!!! Honestly, I took a couple of days to practice the chords on the keys before even sending it to Phonte as a demo run…I finally sent the demo to Phonte as just the drums, live bass, and one keys track… We got back on the phone to discuss additions. My partner in crime, Sy Smith was scheduled to be on the East Coast to knock out a couple of solo shows, so the goal was to have her head on down to NC to record her vocals. The Foreign Exchange touring guitarist, Chris Boerner got the call to play those same chord changes overtop of my demo version… We actually laughed having to learn those changes later on at a soundcheck in Chicago… But he nailed it as usual. Next, we had to cover some of the horn parts. Phonte put in the call to the “go to” trio of woodwind instrumentalists consisting of Stan Graham on trumpet (“Flight of the Blackbyrd” & “If I Could Tell You No”), Andrew Kleindienst on trombone (“All Is Well With Love”) and Matt Douglas on saxophone came through once again… We later gave the trio a group name: Wind Parade.

One of the best parts about working on a song with a vocalist or a collective of vocalists is… well, actually HEARING the vocals over your music! In this case I was extra hyped up because after working on the demo version for “Black Cow”, I immediately jumped over to start working on the music for “Marzipan.” So to have received the vocals to that FIRST joint was an accomplishment – It always kinda serves as the album’s “ice breaker” to where, this is the project’s first major progression….NOW we’re off and running. And what a helluva progression it was. To hear Phonte “Donald” Fagen holding down the lead vocals almost brought back the same feeling I had hearing his vocals for our cover of Toto’s “Africa” four years prior. Right as I was thinking and saying to myself while listening to the first couple of bars, “You’ve GOT to be kidding me…. THIS is CRA….. *out of nowhere the harmony part with Sy comes in “Yooooooooou were high!!”* ……………………*BLANK STARE* “…OH ok, these kats are TRULY whylin’ out right now!!” From there, I re-laid my key parts which included the rhodes solo, added a live hi-hat to complete the drum pattern, and some additional strings at the end to add some dynamics. I know that I’ve heard that Steely Dan isn’t too keen on people sampling them, but I would LOVE for Donald Fagen and Walter Becker to hear our version just to get their thoughts… That would be an honor.

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One thought on “Studio Campfire Stories: “Black Cow” (feat. Phonte & Sy Smith)

  1. It's great to hear the background "happenings" of the ultimate creation of each joint! Thanks for sharing Zo! Makes me appreciate all that's involved…all elements….how complex and challenging it can be. You get even more respect from me….you and the entire crew that contributed! CRAZY TALENTED!

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