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Speed of Heat is a Masterful Work

  •   12 min reads
Speed of Heat is a Masterful Work
Photo Credit : Jimmy Steinfelt | Guitar World

‘I wanted this album to be a reflection of why I play the guitar – exploring and traveling the path to furthering and expanding my musical horizons and, ultimately, bettering myself as a musician and guitarist’ - Jeff “Skunk” Baxter

By Elmer Mesina

(Legendary guitarist Jeff “Skunk” Baxter breezed through Manila recently and former journalist, obsessive audiophile, and DanFan Elmer Mesina managed to snag an interview that went well beyond the allotted five minutes. Lucky guy. )

You’ve heard his extraordinary and captivating guitar playing thousands of times – on groundbreaking, multi-platinum albums by Steely Dan (a band he co-founded) and the Doobie Brothers (with whom he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame), and on countless smash hit songs and albums where he has been featured as an in-demand, first-call studio musician.

But the one place you haven’t heard the exceptional and versatile talent of guitarist Jeff “Skunk” Baxter – one of the most-recorded guitarists of his generation, whose work has run the gamut from rock to pop to country to R&B and everything in-between – is on an album where he gets the opportunity to focus on the personal, on a record all his own.

That’s all changed with the release last year of Baxter’s masterful solo disc, Speed of Heat, on BMG/Renew Records.

But first, the inevitable question: What took him so long?

Baxter laughs good-naturedly. “Well, that is a good question. I don't mean to sound disingenuous, but it seems to me that the moment somebody leaves a successful band, the first thing they do is record a solo album. As for myself, I thought I would consider that down the road, because I hadn't had much time to really think about it, being immersed in so much studio work and record production, so I kept saying, ‘I’ll do it someday.’” He laughs again, then adds, “OK, so I had a lot of time to think about it.”

For music fans of all stripes, and particularly those who have followed Baxter’s remarkable career through the years, “Speed of Heat” will prove well worth the wait. The 12-song album is a riveting and rewarding musical experience that features a host of amazing originals co-written by the guitarist and his keyboardist/producing partner, CJ Vanston, as well as inspired versions of some of the great classics.

Baxter is joined by special guests such as Michael McDonald, Clint Black, Jonny Lang and Rick Livingstone, each of whom adds their own unique and remarkable musical talents to the project’s brilliant sonic mosaic.

Reelin’ in the Years

For Baxter, his own musical journey began early. Born in Washington, D.C., he spent much of his childhood in Mexico City, his family moving there so his father could take over the Latin American branch of the world’s largest advertising agency at the time, J. Walter Thompson. Thanks to his mother’s urging, he began studying classical piano at the age of five, and, at the same time, he was exposed to his father’s vast record collection.

“I think the combination of those two factors really laid the foundation for my love of music,” he says. Picking up the guitar at age nine, he was inspired by jazz guitar legend and studio ace Howard Roberts. Two of Roberts’ records, in particular, were fundamental to Baxter’s early approach to the instrument: “Color Him Funky” and “H.R. is a Dirty Guitar Player.”

“I studied and learned every note from every song on those recordings,” he recalls. “What impressed me so much about Howard’s playing was his mindset that every solo is a composition in and of itself, and that his playing was so accessible. His approach to playing the guitar had a tremendous influence on me and later in my career, I found that many of my colleagues, like Hugh McCracken, David Spinoza and Mitch Holder, all shared that same experience with Howard’s playing. I was inspired, as well, by guitarists like the Ventures, whose focus was on melody, and Les Paul, who was both a musical and technological innovator.”

While still a pre-teen in Mexico, he started playing gigs with local bands – one of them was a surf band that featured Abraham Laboriel (who would go on to become one of the most widely recorded bassists of all time). “It was a little like the Wild West,” Baxter recalls. “I played with a number of different groups back then. If you knew three chords and could solo with two fingers, you got the gig.”

While his family was still residing in Mexico, Baxter’s father sent him off to prep school in Connecticut, where he spent most of his vacation time working during the day at Jimmy’s Music Shop and Dan Armstrong’s guitar shop in New York City and doing gigs at night.

A couple of years later, while attending the Boston University School of Public Communications, Baxter did a stint with the Holy Modal Rounders, played bass with Tim Buckley, found work as a studio musician in Boston and New York City, and eventually joined the psychedelic rock band Ultimate Spinach, recording their third album with them, Ultimate Spinach III. After the band’s breakup, he relocated to Los Angeles, where he quickly immersed himself in the burgeoning studio session scene. He also did guitar repair and customizing in addition to designing innovative electronics for guitars and basses.

“I didn’t have any specific career trajectory in mind at the time,” he remembers, “but I did like the idea of being a session musician. Howard Roberts was a successful session player, and his career inspired me to move in that direction. Of course, I was just looking for any opportunity to play the guitar, and the LA studio scene offered me that opportunity.”

The Dan and The Doobies

©pic Ed Caraeff | Rock and Roll and Pics and Things

It was in Los Angeles, in 1972, where Baxter would become one of the founding members of Steely Dan, a group that also included guitarist-bassist Walter Becker, keyboardist-vocalist Donald Fagen, guitarist Denny Dias, drummer Jim Hodder and singer David Palmer. “At first, we thought about calling the band Big Nardo and the Eighth Grade, but that name seemed too long to fit on an album cover,” Baxter laughs.

“Then somebody came up with the name Steely Dan, and I said, ‘Well, that's interesting,’ because I've read everything William Burroughs has ever written. Works for me.”

With Steely Dan, Baxter’s distinctive playing spread across three now-iconic albums – Can’t Buy a Thrill, Countdown to Ecstasy, and Pretzel Logic – and a number of his memorable solos, most notably on “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number” and “My Old School,” would soon enter the lexicon of guitarists everywhere.

Continuing with his session work, Baxter stepped in to record with another band, the Doobie Brothers. “Steely Dan had opened for the Doobie Brothers at a number of concerts,” he says, “and the Doobies would ask me to sit in on numerous occasions, which led to me doing some recording sessions as a side man on a couple of their albums.”

The Music Museum of New England

When Fagen and Becker decided to take Steely Dan off the road, Baxter made the jump to join the Doobies full-time. He recorded the album Stampede with the band, and after singer Tom Johnston was sidelined for medical issues, he suggested that his friend, singer-keyboardist Michael McDonald, join the band. “Sometimes you just have to make a command decision,” Baxter says. “And, from what I can tell, this one worked out for everyone.”

Change Agent

His tenure in the Doobie Brothers coincided with smash hit albums that culminated with the multi-platinum, Grammy-winning Minute by Minute, after which it became evident to him that it was time to strike out on his own. “I very much enjoyed my time as a member of the Doobie Brothers,” Baxter says, “but if you are a change agent, change is something that one must be attuned to and you need to recognize when it’s time to move on. I wanted to play with other people, produce records, pursue my career as a studio musician and explore other avenues of musical expression.”

Carl Lender, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Over the next few decades, Baxter’s versatile talents were in demand by a veritable who’s who of music’s crème de la crème – Barbra Streisand, Dolly Parton, Rod Stewart, Bryan Adams, Ringo Starr, Glen Campbell, Carly Simon, Donna Summer, Joni Mitchell, Rick Nelson, to name a few – as well as film, TV and jingle companies. His career as a producer includes albums for Nazareth, Carl Wilson, the Ventures, Nils Lofgren, The Stray Cats, and a live album for Billy and the Beaters, including the #1 hit single “At This Moment.”

It was at a jingle session in Chicago where Baxter met CJ Vanston, a well-known and highly sought-after master of the keyboard and composer in his own right. Baxter took note of Vanston’s deft improvisational skills and thought, “If I ever do a solo project, I want to do it with that guy.”

As fate would have it, the two became firm friends, and once Baxter was ready to begin his own album project, he gave Vanston a call. The two set up at Vanston’s studio, the Treehouse, and during the next decade, whenever their schedules permitted, they got together to write and record.

Speed of Heat

The majority of the cuts on Speed of Heat feature Baxter and Vanston as the only musicians. “If it was anything involving guitars, bass or keyboards, we handled it ourselves,” Baxter notes, “but we wanted real drums and so we reached out to outstanding drummers like Jo Pusateri and Toss Panos to add their skills to the project, and their performances were exceptional.”

At first, Baxter eyed an album of all instrumentals, and to be sure, the record brims with a number of standouts. Close to the guitarist’s heart is his fiery take on the classic “Apache,” made famous by the Shadows and guitarist Jorgen Ingmann in 1960.

In and of itself, Baxter’s tour de force performance here is worth the price of admission – “A tribute to the original, but on steroids,” he laughs. “I have always believed there was something very powerful about that song, and that it was a tribute to a very noble race of people,” Baxter says. “That’s the mindset I put myself in for that performance.”

Speed of Heat is notable in that it features a rare vocal by Baxter himself on a riotously revved-up remake of a track he recorded back in 1973, Steely Dan’s “My Old School.”

This new version is a head-turning, high-octane view of the deep-pocket original, and that’s all by design. “I always felt that the song had a lot of rock potential,” says Baxter.

“That was my goal going in, to muscle it up. I had always suspected that it would hold up with a much more high-energy and driving interpretation.”

The guitarist proves to be a gutsy powerhouse of a singer, but he reveals that it came about by accident. “I used to sing that song when Steely Dan performed live, so I laid down a scratch vocal because I really wanted Steven Tyler to sing it. I sent it to Steven and he asked me, ‘Hey, who’s singing on this?’ I told him it was me, and he said, ‘Well, I think it’s really great. You should do it yourself!’ At first, I thought he was kidding, but he wasn’t, and since I suspect he knows a lot more about these things than I do, I took the shot and the reaction has been very positive. Thanks, Steve!” Toto keyboardist David Paich tops off the track with a killer organ solo, as well.

Music fans will have no trouble recognizing the unmistakably expressive voice of Michael McDonald on the haunting, gripping ballad, “My Place in the Sun,” which, among its many attributes, features a wonderfully evocative guitar solo. “CJ and I wrote the song with Michael,” Baxter explains. “Crafting this recording was a special treat. Because I knew that Michael enjoyed the antiphony of call and response, I thought a little bit about how Rod Stewart and Jeff Beck worked together. I wanted to do something in that vein with Mike, and I think it came off exceptionally well. You can really feel the chemistry between us on that track.”

Country superstar Clint Black reveals his mastery of musical eclecticism with his powerful and compelling vocal performance on the swaggering yet shimmering pop gem, “Bad Move,” which includes an incendiary lead guitar and organ duke-out between Baxter and Vanston. “Clint really outdid himself on this song,” says Baxter. “I played it for his wife (singer-actress Lisa Hartman Black), and when she heard it, she asked me, ‘Who is that?’ I said, ‘That’s your husband. He is a really amazing and multi-faceted musician.’ She said, ‘No, really… ?’ It genuinely surprised her.”

Blues singer and guitarist Jonny Lang had a similar reaction when he listened back to his own performance on “I Can Do Without.” A soul-soaked, grooving blues rocker on with Baxter and Lang engaging in an epic, call-and-response guitar escapade, the song reverberates with Lang’s robust singing, punctuated with moments of sinuous falsetto.

“It’s always a thrill when you can provide an opportunity for a musician to discover a different side of himself,” Baxter says. “I remember when Jonny listened to the finished track and he said, ‘Wait a second. That’s me?’ I laughed and said, ‘That’s you, my friend. You blew everybody’s mind on that one!’”

As the album unfolds, it reveals more treasures, like “Insecurity,” a stomping R&B growler that sees Baxter’s deliciously whacked-out soloing and Vanston’s powerful keyboards. The forceful vocals are courtesy of Rick Livingstone, whose association with Baxter goes back to the early ‘90s, when they were members of the short-lived supergroup The Best that also included Joe Walsh, Keith Emerson, John Entwistle and drummer Simon Phillips.

“That was one of those great ‘let’s see what happens’ songs,” says Baxter. “One of the writers is Tim Torrance, who was a guitarist in the band, Sneaker, that I had produced back in 2001. We asked Rick to sing on it, and he knocked it out of the park!”

The guitarist once again revisits his back pages for a spine-tingling re-imagining of Steely Dan’s first hit single, “Do it Again,” this one built around a spacey, slithery, almost hallucinatory R&B groove over which Baxter drizzles unorthodox, jazz-tinged leads. “I have tremendous respect for what we did on the original,” he says, “but when CJ and I took a look at how we might approach it from a very different direction, we fell into a greasier shuffle feel and groove.” He laughs. “What made it so enjoyable for me was that I got to say, ‘OK, if I were king, how would I approach it?’”

What Baxter does with “The Rose,” known to millions from Bette Midler’s multi-million-selling original from the film of the same name, is nothing short of magical. His pedal steel performance is sensual and spiritual, stately and soaring. “I don’t think anyone has ever done an a cappella performance on pedal steel, and I wanted to showcase and revel in just how beautiful it’s voice can be. I was thinking about my dad, and I wanted to try and say something musically that would honor his memory, as well. All in all, it was a profoundly moving experience for me.”

Rounding out the album is a grand collection of instrumentals that presents a 360-degree view of Baxter’s limitless skill and creativity.

Highlights include the thoughtfully sophisticated “Giselle”; “Ladies from Hell,” which he describes as “a musical journey through the history of Scotland”; the hyper-rocking title track, “Speed of Heat”; and the luminous ballad “Juliet,” radiant with dreamy, glistening guitar lines and a lyrical nylon-string interlude that aches with emotion. “When I played it for my daughter, she said, ‘It’s a sunrise,’” Baxter recalls. “For me, it doesn’t get much better than that.”

“One approaches making a record with so many expectations, but I can honestly say that the finished album met and exceeded all of them,” Baxter says. “It was immensely gratifying when my musical peers would come up to me and say, ‘Hey, I heard you’re making a solo album. I would sing on it,’ or ‘I’d really like to play on it.’ Having the support and encouragement from one’s peers and colleagues is something very special.”

“Throughout the entire process, and with CJ Vanston’s extraordinary talent and support, I strove to achieve something new, compelling, singular and gratifying with each track,” Baxter says.

He adds: “There were so many amazing moments during the creation of this record. For me, I wanted this album to be a reflection of why I play the guitar – exploring and traveling the path to furthering and expanding my musical horizons and, ultimately, bettering myself as a musician and guitarist. I’m proud of everything I’ve accomplished so far, but I learned years ago from my father that you cannot and should not dwell on your accomplishments and successes, and that an individual should move forward and strive for self-improvement and knowledge. For me, this project is a major step in that direction. I believe this collection of songs and performances fulfills that goal and trust that those who listen come away with the same sentiment.”

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