It's definitely a sign of the times that one of the world's greatest all-around musical artists -- the guitar and keyboard virtuoso, master composer, and singing bassist, drummer and percussionist Mike Keneally (www.keneally.com) -- is part of a tribute act.
Thankfully, and predictably, it's not just a standard tribute to any pop or classic rock band or performer. ProgJect (www.progject.com) is the brainchild of Massachusetts-born drummer Jonathan Mover, whose recording and touring credits include Aretha Franklin, Joe Satriani, and The Tubes. Last year, he ventured out with Keneally, keyboardist Ryo Okumoto, vocalist Michael Sadler, and bassist Matt Dorsey to salute historical progressive rock titans like Genesis, Yes, King Crimson, Jethro Tull, Gentle Giant, Rush, U.K., and Emerson, Lake & Palmer.
"Jonathan is good friends with the drummer in my band, Joe Travers," the Arizona-based Keneally says by phone from Mover's home in Los Angeles as ProgJect prepared to fly to Chicago for an August 24 tour stop. "Jonathan called Joe one day in 2021 to talk about ProgJect while I was at Joe's apartment, so when Jonathan asked him about me, Joe was able to hand me the phone. I wasn't entirely sure I wanted to tie myself into essentially playing cover songs, but he made a strong case. He already had the vision, and the arrangements, for a whole set list. And it was a very thoughtful and thought-provoking approach to music that I loved."
ProgJect's first tour included two outstanding separate shows at the Funky Biscuit in Boca Raton on April 29, 2022, and the quintet returns to the venue for two more separate shows on Sept. 29 in slightly different form. Last year, ProgJect performed material by The Tubes, Yes, King Crimson, Genesis, U.K., Bill Bruford, Pink Floyd, and Emerson, Lake & Palmer. This time, Mover will again be joined by Keneally and Okumoto, with the remaining personnel drawn from the stable of talent the drummer has culled for the quintet, this time including guitarist/vocalist Marc Bonilla and bassist/vocalist Ric Fierabracci.
"I call us an homage band," Mover says, distinguishing the difference between paying tribute to an individual group or artist and saluting an entire sub-genre across the board.
"The band is on fire right now," Keneally says. "I suspect that, over the next six weeks or so, it might just be terrifying. I'm doing a lot more singing this time around, and we're all just so locked in with each other that everything feels really strong."
Each musician in ProgJect has notables on their resume, but Keneally is the quintet's best-known quantity because of a very prominent one on his list. Remarkably, his first professional gigs were as part of the band led by the complex, genre-defying composer, guitarist and vocalist Frank Zappa (1940-1993). After securing the position of guitarist, keyboardist and vocalist as a 25-year-old in late 1987, Keneally recorded and toured in the final 1988 ensemble led by Zappa, who would retire from touring after being diagnosed with prostate cancer. But ample live highlights of Keneally's time with his mentor exist, from the 1988 gem [i]Broadway the Hard Way[i] through the 2021 two-CD release [i]Zappa '88: The Last U.S. Show[i], recorded at the Nassau Coliseum in Long Island, New York.
The Long Island-born Keneally exploded with post-Zappa creativity in the 1990s, both as a bandleader and sideman. His explorative 1992 solo debut [i]hat[i] led to other highlights including the mind-blowing trilogy of [i]Boil That Dust Speck[i] (1994), [i]Half Alive in Hollywood[i] (1996) and [i]Sluggo![i] (1997). Concurrently, Keneally toured in the band of fellow guitarist, Long Islander and Zappa alum Steve Vai while singing and playing guitar, keyboards and percussion in an incredible quartet rounded out by bassist Philip Bynoe and drummer Mike Mangini.
The 61-year-old multi-instrumentalist's subsequent catalog includes true solo recordings on which he sings and plays all instruments (like [i]Nonkertompf[i], 1999), performs his compositions with the symphonic Metropole Orkest ([i]The Universe Will Provide[i], 2004), and collaborates with XTC vocalist/guitarist Andy Partridge ([i]Wing Beat Fantastic[i], 2012).
Keneally's own group also knows no bounds, featuring longtime bassist Bryan Beller, guitarists Rick Musallam and Griff Peters, and drummer Travers. Evidence includes the concert albums [i]Guitar Therapy Live[i] (2006) and [i]bakin' @ the potato![i] (2011) and studio efforts from [i]Wine and Pickles[i] (2008) through the new [i]The Thing That Knowledge Can't Eat[i], Keneally's first release in more than six years. During the 2010s, he also toured as a multi-instrumentalist with another Long Island guitarist, instrumental rocker Joe Satriani. He, Vai and Keneally were born within both a few miles and a few years of each other in New York.
"John Petrucci [from American prog band Dream Theater] and [fellow Zappa alum] Warren Cuccurullo are from there too," Keneally says, citing other progressive guitar examples from the island. "And any number of guitarists I'm forgetting. It's a strange phenomenon. I don't even have a theory for it."
A keyboardist for years before he took up guitar, Keneally sometimes plays both. As in simultaneously, with his left hand soloing on the neck of his guitar as his right hand tickles the keys. The duality is a summation of his approach to music, which has been as heavily influenced by the likes of Todd Rundgren and Joni Mitchell; John Coltrane and Thelonious Monk, and Steve Reich and Leonard Bernstein as by the multiple prog giants he salutes with ProgJect.
"My own music is definitely highly prog-informed and influenced, but I don't think it's prog," says Keneally. "So people can have a hard time wrapping their hands around what I do. But I grew up learning a lot of the ProgJect covers off of records as a teenager. And it means a lot to be able to stand out on a stage and play them now."
Other recent touring and recording activities include work with Canadian vocalist and guitar hero Devin Townsend, plus the occasional Zappa legacy project like The Zappa Band, which includes several of Keneally's band mates from 1988. There's also One Shot Deal, Travers' salute to Zappa. In addition to being one of the world's most underrated drummers, Travers is the longtime "Vaultmeister" for the Zappa Family Trust, which preserves the late musical giant's legacy. One Shot Deal includes several members, Travers included, from guitarist and son Dweezil Zappa's former tribute act Zappa Plays Zappa.
While he hopes to get Travers and his other band mates out on the road again under his own name soon, Keneally is currently locked and loaded into ProgJect's tour, which will close its second month of road work at the Funky Biscuit.
"I don't want to give away the new things we'll be doing since last year's shows there," Keneally says. "But Jonathan is so creative with medleys. When he gets an idea, he constructs a series from the original recordings and sends us his edited collages. For this tour, he realized that most prog music from the '70s that's endured was U.K.-based. But there were several American prog bands of that era that he really liked, so we'll be doing a 13-minute opus of six different U.S. prog groups, along with several other pieces we didn't play last year."
If You Go
See ProgJect perform separate 6 p.m. and 9 p.m. shows at the Funky Biscuit, 303 SE Mizner Blvd., Boca Raton
When: September 29
Info: 561-395-2929, funkybiscuit.com
John Michalak story - Sept. 28 issue of Florida Weekly
Anyone walking past 52-year-old Palm Beach County resident John Michalak might guess he was a college professor, a swimmer, or an accountant. That's because this area's musical version of Clark Kent usually turns into Superman at night, when he dons a saxophone rather than a cape to take the stage with local to international performers.
Over the past 30-plus years, Michalak has played in 35 different countries with star vocalists in Latin music (Julio Iglesias), rock (David Lee Roth) and easy listening (Engelbert Humperdink), plus South Florida-launched international dance music sensations like KC and the Sunshine Band, Gloria Estefan & Miami Sound Machine, and Ricky Martin.
Not bad for an Annapolis, Maryland native who moved south in 1989 to study music for a couple years at Palm Beach Community (now State) College in Lake Worth Beach.
"The father of a friend of mine in Maryland was a professional drummer here," Michalak says, "and he introduced me to the college's musical director, Sy Pryweller. So I started playing jazz seriously, though I didn't feel ready to commit to a four-year college. I eventually had dreams of attending the University of Miami, University of North Florida, University of North Texas, or another prominent music school. But I got lazy. I started getting gigs playing everything from swing to R&B to reggae, and it's been that way since. So I guess I started my Florida retirement in my 20s."
Hardly. Michalak has since also shared stages and studios with guitarists Carlos Santana and Hiram Bullock, vocalists Patti LaBelle, John Legend, Dion, Carole King, Jose Feliciano, and Jon Secada, vocalist/multi-instrumentalist Edgar Winter, bassist Victor Wooten, trumpeter Nat Adderley, drummer Duffy Jackson, pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba, and percussionist Sammy Figueroa (appearing on his "Best Latin Jazz Album" Grammy Award-nominated releases in 2006 and 2008). He'll perform with Figueroa and Rubalcaba at the Kravis Center for the Performing Arts in West Palm Beach on October 7, along with guest trumpeter John Daversa.
"Gonzalo is on Sammy's latest recording, 'Searching For A Memory,'" Michalak says, "which is dedicated to his late father, the singer Charlie Figueroa. It's a really interesting project, and Sammy does some singing as well as percussion on it. Gonzalo and the lead singer on the album, Aymee Nuviola, both sound great. She's on the Kravis Center show as well. I'm waiting to get charts for this material before we do our one rehearsal in Miami the night before the show."
Michalak also has a long-standing area jazz-meets-world music group called Urban Gypsy, performs contemporary worship music in church, and plays a variety of other South Florida gigs in different configurations. His versatility -- on tenor or alto saxophones, plus flute within practically every style imaginable -- may be his greatest of multiple musical strengths.
The multi-wind instrumentalist's longest-standing tenure with an international star has been aside Madrid, Spain native Iglesias (who turned 80 years old this week), with whom he's performed on-and-off since 2001. Tour dates were scheduled for the United States and Europe during the second half of 2020 before Covid-19 intervened, after which Michalak started a career in real estate by default.
"I last toured with Julio in 2019," Michalak says. "I'm not sure if he plans to tour again. In 2020, I started doing mortgages as a loan officer. I'm still licensed, and I may take it up again, but I've been keeping busy with gigs since live music picked up. I have tons of solo shows in resorts that aren't even open to the public, and I'm performing a lot in the Central Florida area with big bands, small groups, and in other settings."
As amiable and unassuming as he is talented, Michalak's advanced listening skills in the studio and on stage (often referred to in the music biz as "big ears"), plus his reputation as a team player, have heightened his workload and resume both near and far.
"Singing with John is very much a conversation," says vocalist Julie Davis-Dow, of Pompano Beach-based jazz duo Davis & Dow. "He's so conscientious. It's not just about him. It's about how we all sound together."
"John has a rare combination of mind-blowing technique and exquisite musical taste that all musicians strive for," adds husband and seven-string guitarist Kelly Dow.
A father of three, Michalak's sons are following in his footsteps on multiple levels.
"My 20-year-old son has his own rock band called Burning Glass," says Michalak. "Evan is their drummer, and he's also in the jazz combo at Palm Beach State College with their bass player and one of the guitarists. Now he also wants to attend Full Sail University in Winter Park to study composing, arranging and production. My middle son is 16 and plays drums and percussion, and my 14-year-old son plays saxophone and piano."0
Estimating that he plays tenor sax close to 75 percent of the time and alto sax nearly 25 percent, Michalak's first two influential mentions are tenor masters Sonny Rollins and the late Michael Brecker.
"Sonny's incredible, and Michael was the guy everyone was talking about when I entered college," he says. "I'd also mention Cannonball Adderley, Sonny Stitt, David Sanborn, Gene Ammons, and younger players like Joshua Redman and Chris Potter."
Making a primary living as a full-time musician has likely never been more difficult than right now in the digital age, when artists have a surplus of resource materials, and even studio recording technology, literally at their fingertips on laptop computers and cellular phones. Yet Michalak earns extra superhero points for accomplishing just that.
"I don't have a real day job now," he says. "I'm just a vintage saxophone collector and dealer, and I do some occasional teaching, whether virtual or in person. One of my students just graduated from the Frost School of Music at the University of Miami."
Paying it forward, to both his kids and students, is befitting of the mild-mannered musician, whose South Florida career since his arrival more than 30 years ago only continues to go up, up and away.
In the KNOW
When: See John Michalak perform in Sammy Figueroa's "Searching For A Memory," featuring Gonzalo Rubalcaba and Aymee Nuviola, at 7:30 p.m. on October 7, and as the featured soloist at 6:15 p.m. on October 20 with the All That Jazz house trio.
Where: Rinker Playhouse at the Kravis Center for the Performing Arts, 701 Okeechobee Blvd., West Palm Beach; All That Jazz, 3491 N. Hiatus Rd., Sunrise.
Cost: $55 + up for the Kravis Center performance.
Info: 561-651-4444; 954-572-0821, www.facebook. com/saxjaminc
Steely Dan's "The Second Arrangement" story - August issue of Palm Beach Arts Paper
Even if you don't recognize the name Roger Nichols (rogernichols.com), you've almost certainly heard his work. That's because his most heralded efforts, and six of his eight Grammy Awards, stem directly from the entire recorded output of Steely Dan, the omnipresent California-based band that's fused pop and rock; jazz and R&B for 50-plus years.
Nichols (1944-2011) had the good sense not to pursue the often fickle, fleeting glory of the celebrity side of show business. Instead, he chose to make Steely Dan's celebrity co-leading songwriters -- vocalist/keyboardist Donald Fagen and guitarist/bassist/vocalist Walter Becker (1950-2017) -- sound glorious with their ever-present all-star ensembles from the opposite side of the board as their recording engineer.
Those ensembles have featured a who's-who of modern music, including guitarists Larry Carlton, Denny Dias, Dean Parks and Jeff "Skunk" Baxter; bassists Chuck Rainey and Tom Barney, saxophonists Wayne Shorter, Chris Potter, Cornelius Bumpus and Tom Scott, drummers Steve Gadd, Dennis Chambers, Jeff Porcaro and Peter Erskine, and backing vocalists Michael McDonald and Timothy B. Schmit.
Before Nichols succumbed to pancreatic cancer at age 66, he lived a life of comparative peaceful anonymity with his wife, Conrad ("Connie") Reeder, in nearby Jupiter.
"Roger and I sold a place in Miami and moved to Jupiter in 2003," Reeder says, "because we liked being close to the ocean and having the space for his recording and mastering room. In 2010, Roger got a job teaching in Los Angeles, and we were in the process of relocating when he got sick."
While packing up the house several months after his death, Reeder and their daughters Cimcee and Ashlee Nichols came across what would prove to be a figurative Holy Grail for Steely Dan fans -- a cassette copy of the original studio recording of a lost song called "The Second Arrangement." The track was practically complete, even though the reel-to-reel master copy had been mistakenly erased by an assistant engineer in 1979.
That technician has purposely and successfuly remained anonymous in order to continue working in the industry ever since, and the never-released song had practically been forgotten, other than the sub-par bootleg versions with inadequate vocal quality that surfaced, plus Steely Dan's lone live performance of it.
"We tried to reconstruct it, but we just didn't have the heart to do it over," Fagen said of the song on stage at the Beacon Theatre in New York City in 2011, promising it would never be played live again.
A re-recording had been attempted with Nichols and longtime Steely Dan producer Gary Katz, but Fagen made the decision to scrap it. Luckily, Nichols had the foresight to keep a low-fi document of the original studio recording, because a newly remastered version now exists as one of the few pluses of the Covid-19 lockdown. More on that later.
Had the song been more high-tech than an outdated cassette reference tape, the family might certainly have done more than stow it away in a safe in 2011. They recognized its significance, but having spent ample time around Fagen and Becker, they also knew that Nichols and his two associates were extreme audiophiles. As known for their quest for sonic perfection as for their fusion of styles and Fagen's often-cynical lyrics, the Steely Dan co-leaders bonded with Nichols, in fact, over that quest starting with their 1972 debut album [i]Can't Buy a Thrill[i].
"We're all perfectionists," Nichols said of himself, Fagen and Becker in Ben Sisario's 2011 obituary of the engineer in the [i]New York Times[i]. "It wasn't a drag for me to do things over and over until it was perfect. It would have driven a lot of other engineers up the wall. In my own way, I'm just as crazy as they are."
That combined craziness resulted in more iconic releases through the '70s -- like [i]Countdown To Ecstasy[i] (1973), [i]The Royal Scam[i] (1976), and [i]Aja[i] (1977). The group's output slowed afterward, continuing with [i]Gaucho[i] (1980), the live [i]Alive In America[i] (1995), and its two most recent studio efforts, [i]Two Against Nature[i] (2000) and [i]Everything Must Go[i] (2003).
"The Second Arrangement," with its lilting rhythm and reggae undercurrent, could've been a [i]Gaucho[i] single alongside "Hey Nineteen," and wouldn't have sounded out of place on [i]Aja[i], Steely Dan's preceding commercial blockbuster. The lost track's vibrant chords, and uplifting vocals by Fagen and backup singers, offset typically dark Steely Dan lyrics hinting at loneliness, distrust and frustration.
All three women Nichols left behind have connections to the late engineer that go beyond familial. Connie is a professor and published poet who has a recording career as a vocalist dating back to the mid-1970s; Ashlee is a film and TV editor, and Cimcie is a certified practitioner in sound therapy and vibrational medicine. So they all had plenty to do other than obsess over a found cassette. Yet during the Covid-19 pandemic, Cimcie found time in isolation to focus on her father's archival materials, and especially "The Second Arrangement."
The two daughters want to put together a documentary on Nichols' life and achievements, and they post occasional finds on Facebook to increase interest and awareness. In August of 2020, Cimcie unveiled a photo of a cassette marked "Second Arr." Unbeknownst to anyone, the tape also included "Were You Blind That Day," a track that would morph into "Third World Man" on [i]Gaucho[i].
"We've never played it," she wrote to introduce the tape on the Facebook page they'd created to honor "The Immortal" Nichols at www.facebook.com/Roger.The.Immortal.Nichols. More on his nickname later as well.
"Probably smart to play and transfer at the same time," Cimcie continued. "What should we do with it? It feels like a magical treasure that my mom has kept safe for decades. Good job, Mom!"
It didn't take long for the Dan-fan floodgates to open. With much of the world also in quarantine, requests to hear the song poured in immediately.
"The reaction was way more than any of us expected," says Reeder.
Of course, the normal 40-year-maximum shelf life of a cassette had already been eclipsed, so the Nichols sisters resisted the urge to plug it into the nearest tape deck, lest it disintegrate. Instead, they waited until September of 2021, when they nervously went to the United Recording studio in Los Angeles with a videographer in hopes of documenting the long-awaited climactic moment. Recording engineer Bill Smith had transferred the cassette's tape spools into a new case with fresh reels as a necessary precaution.
A higher-tech digital audio tape (DAT) of the song was also discovered in the archives. Both tapes have since been digitally transferred, and if you want the most poignant experience of the lost artifact, check out "Second Arrangement DAT" within the "Cimcie Shares All" link on YouTube (www.youtube.com/@iamcimcie). It's the video of both sisters experiencing the full range of emotions in the moment at the L.A. studio -- exulting, laughing, bopping, hugging, crying and dancing to the realization that their discovery was still intact after all those years. Reeder was there virtually via Zoom.
There's additional archival footage of Fagen and Becker in the video, along with the sisters interacting with them as children. And at the end, you see a framed copy of the cassette and sheet music to "The Second Arrangement." The family plans to auction the package, which will also include a Wendel drum sample pack -- one of Nichols' revolutionary technological inventions that's now present throughout the recording industry -- to help offset the costly tape transfers and raise funds toward his documentary.
"We have amazing interviews, many done right after he Roger died," Reeder says. "Some of the interviewees are also unfortunately gone, which further inspires us to continue. There are current talks with several film companies. We have a lot of in-house talent, but it's hard for us to look at Roger's picture or hear him talk without crying, even after all this time. So it will take an outsider to help us get to the finish line."
With Steely Dan, Nichols won "Best Engineer Non-Classical" Grammy Awards for [i]Aja[i] (in 1977), the soundtrack's title track to the film [i]FM[i] (1978) and [i]Gaucho[i] (1981). In 2000, he pulled the trifecta in winning the "Album of the Year," "Best Album by Duo or Group" and "Best Engineer Non-Classical" awards for [i]Two Against Nature[i].
The late engineer's two other Grammys came in 1997 for producing the "Best Children's Album" by John Denver (1943-1997), and one posthumously in 2012 for special merit and technical contributions, which included inventing the futuristic Wendel drum sampling computer. Nichols also worked as an engineer and producer with the likes of Frank Sinatra, Toto, Frank Zappa, the Beach Boys, Stevie Wonder, Diana Ross, James Taylor, Bela Fleck & the Flecktones, Roy Orbison, Rosanne Cash, Al Di Meola, and Crosby, Stills & Nash.
Like Tom Dowd (1925-2002), who produced and engineered recordings by Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, the Allman Brothers Band, Cream, John Coltrane, Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Derek and the Dominos, Lynyrd Skynyrd, the Spinners, the Coasters, Rod Stewart, Eddie Money, and the Drifters, Nichols was also previously a nuclear physicist.
Dowd, in fact, worked on the Manhattan Project in the 1940s before turning to music and becoming a renowned multi-tracking genius. An excellent 2003 documentary by Miami-based director Mark Moorman, [i]Tom Dowd & the Language of Music[i], spearheaded by daughter Dana Dowd, could prove a precursor to one about Nichols' life and career. That film includes footage of its star working at Criteria Studios in Miami, not far from where he lived (and died of emphysema at age 77).
"Tom was a good friend," says Reeder. "He and Roger were on the board of directors for the South Florida NARAS [National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences] chapter until Tom died. A great guy, and they had a lot of fun talking about their past. We're very proud of Dana and her perseverance. She's been a huge encouragement for our girls to carry on their own dad's legacy and not give up on finishing the documentary."
Obviously more of a touring legacy act than recording artist for the past 20 years (and set to open for The Eagles during that group's stated final tour starting in September), Steely Dan does have a small subset of detractors -- usually rock purists resistant to the use of jazz chords and its mantra of technical perfection.
There's also those opposed to Nichols having been fired by Steely Dan, with no advance warning, when the [i]Everything Must Go[i] recording sessions resumed at River Sound in New York City in 2002 after having been suspended because of the 9/11 attacks several months earlier. Time hasn't healed the fracture between the family and Fagen, who Reeder says won't be consulted for the forthcoming documentary.
"Neither he nor Walter reached out to Roger when he was dying," she says, "so we are not inclined to reach out to him about anything. Gary Katz, however, has been very supportive of our girls' efforts."
As is a swath of musicians, and obviously beyond, in paying homage to the most successful band ever named for the vibrator from William S. Burroughs' 1959 novel [i]The Naked Lunch[i]. Like other transplants to Los Angeles between the 1950s and 1970s (Fagen was born in New Jersey; Becker in Queens, New York), Steely Dan joined a unique, heady legion of genre-splicing artists whose uncommon song forms will continue to be studied in music schools, like singing guitarists and composers Zappa (from Baltimore) and Joni Mitchell (Fort Macleod, Alberta, Canada).
Much of Steely Dan's credit is due to the sonic wizardry of Nichols, who was born in the music-rich San Francisco Bay city of Oakland, California, and nicknamed "The Immortal" early on by Fagen and Becker. That's because they saw him defy death by unknowingly touching two improperly-grounded tape machines simultaneously in the studio, which theoretically should've killed him. Instead, it only made him stronger.
"The face plate on one of the machines was completely melted," Nichols recalled in a 1993 interview, "but I didn't feel a thing."
Steely Dan's fan base certainly would. The remainder of Nichols' years spanned nearly another 40, and included marriage to Reeder, the births of their daughters, and all of his Grammys other than the one awarded posthumously.
However mortal, that's a once-in-a-lifetime version of a second arrangement.