by Jeff Fiedler
Albums from the Lost & Found is a regular feature on thegreatalbums.com in which contributor Jeff Fiedler reviews and helps us rediscover great pop albums that seem to have been lost to time.
Rosie Vela might have seemed like one of the more unlikely personalities of the ‘80s to release a pop album at all, never mind one with Katz at the helm. The Texan native wasn’t really known at the time for being a musician. Rather, she’d been an actress (most notably co-starring in the famously expensive Kris Kristofferson/Christopher Walken film Heaven’s Gate) and, more famously, a much-in-demand frequent cover model for fashion magazines such as Vogue and Elle. But Vela also had a deep love of music and could both play synthesizer and write her own songs, and A&M offered her a deal, the former model releasing her first and only album, Zazu, in 1986, featuring nine cuts, all but one of them entirely self-written by Vela.
Vela’s backing band here coincidentally features several of the same former Steely Dan sidemen that appeared on Eye to Eye’s self-titled debut, including Rick Derringer (who plays on five of the nine cuts) and Jim Keltner. Strangely enough for a brand-new recording artist, Vela not only was able to elicit Katz as a producer, but she – no doubt thanks to the influence of Katz – was able to elicit both Donald Fagen and Walter Becker to serve in her backing band on the disc (Fagen playing on seven cuts and Becker on three of those), the two men appearing on record together for the first time since Steely Dan’s Gaucho album from five years earlier. [Considering that Fagen and Becker wouldn’t formally reunite on a studio disc until 2000’s Two Against Nature, this was no mean feat, and Zazu – not the easiest of albums to find these days – remains a coveted item among Steely Dan fans for this very reason.]
Zazu is admittedly a grower. Vela’s melodies are perhaps a bit more involved and the hooks less pronounced than perhaps her label might have liked, so Zazu’s deceptively catchy songs don’t quite sink in on the first listen. Yet the melodies are so lovely, the arrangements packed with so much pleasant ear candy, and the disc so inherently fascinating that even if you don’t quite take to the album upon first listen, it’s hard to resist going back and listening to it a second or third time, by which point the melodies have really started to work their way into your brain.
“Fool’s Paradise” is a perfect example of this; upon first listen, the chorus sounds needlessly complicated, but the melody is so intricate and the chorus’ ending so hypnotic that it lures you back in repeatedly until you realize that there are, in fact, some hooks here, albeit slightly subtle ones.
The entire first side of the album is awfully rock-solid, with “Fool’s Paradise” followed by the lazy, jazzy shuffle of “Magic Smile,” which would sound right at home on a mix tape next to Donald Fagen’s cover of Dion’s “Ruby Baby” that appeared on The Nightfly.
“Interlude,” the first cut on the album featuring both Fagen and Becker in the backing band, boasts the album’s catchiest melody and Vela’s most effortlessly smooth vocal (for someone who had never sung professionally before, Vela might not be terribly distinctive as a vocalist, but she’s surprisingly decent); ironically, both Fagen and Becker separately singled out “Interlude” and asked Katz if they could play on the cut when the producer first shared the album-in-progress with each man prior to their joining the project. The side-closing “Tonto” reunites Becker and Fagen with their former sideman Derringer, session man and King Crimson alumnus Tony Levin also joining in on the fun on Chapman stick.
The second side of Zazu isn’t quite as hooky as the first half, but it’s still nearly every bit as fascinating, Vela trying out a little bit of everything, adopting a bit of a rock flavor on “2nd Emotion” and closing the disc with the abstract and hypnotic title cut, which calls to mind a fusion of Kate Bush and David Bowie.
In spite of only modest sales for the album (aided in part by a slot as opening act on a tour by The Fixx), Vela did complete a follow-up album to Zazu entitled Sun Across the Altar in 1990, but by then, A&M had been sold to PolyGram, and disinterest from the new management resulted in the disc being shelved, Vela subsequently leaving the label, and the disc remains unreleased to this day, though a disappointed Derringer has asserted in interviews that the would-be sophomore album was even better than Zazu. Vela would go on to both co-star and sing in the 1991 movie Inside Edge before beginning work on a third album, which got sidelined after Vela was injured in an automobile accident. She would, however, return to the public eye in 2001 as a background vocalist on Zoom by Electric Light Orchestra, also singing behind the band and its frontman Jeff Lynne (Vela’s then-boyfriend) on the promotional tour for the album. [Together, Lynne and Vela would also co-write the Bernie Marsden song “A Woman Like That” for the 1998 film Still Crazy.]