Since September 2010, this blog has recorded the journey of this middle-aged man as I attempt to listen to all the music in my CD collection. CDs revisited in their entirety from start to finish - no skipping tracks, no shuffle. CDs only - no vinyl, no tapes, no downloads. And just as CD technology (and the album format itself) becomes obsolete. I'm no music critic, just a music junkie with too much time on my hands.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Steely Dan - Aja (1977)

Note: this release was originally purchased as a LP, later replaced by a CD.

This album scores a spot in my all-time top ten album list. Easily. An epic piece of jazz-rock suitable for any occasion. The writing, playing, and production is all impeccable. Fagen and Becker went out and got LA's best session musicians and the results are obvious. Just listen to Steve Gadd and Wayne Shorter tear up the title track. Or Jay Graydon's perfect guitar solo on Peg. Or Michael McDonald's incredibly close overdubbed vocal harmonies on the chorus of that same song. To better appreciate the album, I highly recommend checking out the documentary about the making of Aja in the Classic Albums series (available on DVD and occasionally shown on VH1. I got it from Netflix). There's also a great book by about the album in the 33 1/3 series. The album was recently added to the National Recording Registry, which is an interesting mixed bag of stuff. In any case, I'll be taking this one to the hypothetical desert island with me.

Billboard, 10/1/77, pg. 92
Cash Box, 10/1/77, pg. 16
Musician, No. 9, pg. 40
Down Beat, December 1, 1977, p. 24
click to enlarge

Peak on the US Billboard Top 200 chart: #3
Peak on Cash Box album chart: #3

Tracks: 7 tracks stretching out over 40 minutes. The only track I'm tempted to skip is Home At Last. I don't know if I could pick a favorite track even if someone put a gun to my head.

Personal Memory Associated with this CD: I was totally unfamiliar with this album when I first purchased it when I was in high school. I think it came in a batch from the Columbia Record Club (11 LP's for a penny!). I was hooked from the get-go.

This music also reminds me of many, many evenings spent on the back deck of my friend Richard's house on 6th St in BC. I often wish I could recapture/relive some of those evenings.

Liner notes: I poured over the original liner notes, trying to make sense of it all. Since they aren't included in my CD copy, I'll post them here:

It was about two A.M. on an unseasonably chilly evening in June when the phone rang. Having just put the finishing touches on a rather lukewarm review of the Leo Sayer concert out in Queens, I was anything but ready for the rapid-fire monologue delivered long distance from L.A. by a man who introduced himself as Steve Diener. After a half hour or so, I came to understand that this garrulous gentleman worked for ABC Records and was inviting me out to Hollywood to observe a Steely Dan recording session, the object being to compose an eyewitness account of the proceedings for a posh European publication. Of course, I was delighted at the prospect and perhaps even a wee bit flattered when I was told that the group had specifically requested my presence. I later found out that this was not entirely true.

In retrospect, I should have realized the assignment would not be all sweetness and light; in no way has Steely Dan made its reputation by catering to the rock press. In fact, their contempt for pop music critics was well known to myself and my colleagues. As it turned out, a little caution on my part would not have been out of order. By the end of the first session at Producer's Workshop in Hollywood, it had become abundantly clear to me that nobody in the "group" knew or cared who I was or what I was doing there. Several sessions later, after Donald and Walter had been apprised of my identity, there was trouble.

To make a long story short, I managed to attend perhaps a dozen sessions at three different studios and, on two occasions, attempted to interview the composers. Unfortunately, both cassettes were seized under grievous circumstances by a fellow whom I believe to be in the employ of the reluctant interviewees. The loss was inconsequential considering that fact that, at that point, my relationship with the belligerent song writing duo had become so strained as to produce a dialog that consisted mainly of threats, insults, and rude remarks. This, then was the raw material I had to work with. I had squeezed out about three thousand words when I heard from a friend in London that the aforementioned European magazine had folded.

It was not until a year later that I received a second phone call from Mr. Diener, now president of ABC Records, who informed me that the "guys" had specifically requested yours truly to write the liner notes for the new album and that a cassette copy of same would be forthcoming. Putting aside personal rancor, I gave "Aja" a listen. I have listened many times since.

When they made their recording debut in 1972, Steely Dan was more or less a conventional rock group comprised of six active members. Almost immediately, the roster began to shrink until, by the time "Pretzel Logic" was released, the two composers appeared to be dependent on the performances of a baffling array of crack session regulars. Thanks to their deliberately vague manner of listing album credits, it became virtually impossible to determine who was playing what on any given track (a practice that has persisted until now). This latest album, following on the hot heels of that depraved and cynical masterpiece, "The Royal Scam", represents a departure from the puerile brooding that has distinguished Donald and Walter's work up to now. In this writers opinion, "Aja" signals the onset of a new maturity and a kind of solid professionalism that is the hallmark of an artist who has "arrived".

Side One opens with "Black Cow", a catchy disco-funk number that defies categorization. Bitterly sarcastic lyrics are underpinned by cloying jazz-crossover harmonies, the whole thing propelled by an infectious, trendy beat. Featured here is Victor Feldman's thoughtful electric piano solo followed shortly by Tom Scott's earthy tenor sax.

The tile cut, "Aja", is a rather ambitious work in which a latin-tinged pop song is inexplicably expanded into some sort of sonata or suite. The result is a rambling eight-minute epic highlighted by Wayne Shorter's stately, rhapsodic solo which descends gracefully into a recapitulation of the vocal theme. The sensitive, sometimes explosive performance by drummer Steve Gadd may be his finest recorded work to date. The side closes with "Deacon Blues", an Edge City ballad enlivened only by Pete Christlieb's haunting tenor work and a tasty chart by Scott.

Side Two finds vocalist Donald Fagen admonishing yet another lover in a danceable ditty entitled "Peg". Jay Graydon's electric guitar threatens after the initial refrain. The composer's describe this piece as a "pantonal 13 bar blues with chorus". That's the kind of double- talk they were giving me towards he end.

We are now confronted by a stunning feet of pop legerdemain. "Home At Last", on first listening an unpretentious roadhouse shuffle, turns out upon close inspection to be a minor marvel of poetic grace and structural economy. At this late date, it would hardly seem possible for an artist to take Homer's immortal tale, so thoroughly exploited by Joyce in 1922, and educe from it new insights - especially within the narrow scope provided by the medium of popular song. Beneath the attractive, effortless flow of words and music, one discovers a lyric presence and fineness of perception that is a rare thing on disc nowadays. I can't say enough about this lovely rhythm-and-blues poem.

"I Got The News", a Manhattan-jukebox thump-along, serves as a vehicle for the coy pianistics of Victor Feldman, whose labors are capriciously undermined by Walter Becker's odd, Djangoesque guitar and pointlessly obscene lyric.

The final cut, "Josie", exemplifies Steely Dan's remarkable versatility. Rich with images of random violence, copulation, drug abuse, loitering with intent and other misdemeanors, this sociopathic jump tune is sure to become a classic zebra in the annals of Punkadelia.

-Michael Phalen

"It's going to be called "AJA." "The new one is coming soon, I heard the title will be AJA; all original material."
In recent months answers like these have been filtering out to musical corners everywhere. They are in reply to constant questions regarding the latest recordings by Steely Dan. The inquiries are directed toward the group, its producer, the progress in the studio, etc. In fact, any kind of information which serves to bring them and their music just a little closer is welcome. It is an "almost necessity" to those who follow and appreciate excellence in today's music.

Questions and the desire from fans, the music community in general, regarding major artists and their recordings are neither new or unusual. Various media, acting as a faucet that rarely shuts off, allow us to see the flow of artists' activity and help us to try to know their many sides on a career and personal basis. Yet with Steely Dan, the concern and curiosity has a certain difference. Call it a special flavor, as another level of respect comes into focus. This is simply because Steely Dan is at another level; a very special place both personally and professionally that is again demonstrated by the recorded music that is not far from these words which they have asked me to write.

My first exposure to the group began some years ago many miles from Los Angeles. Living outside the States I became fascinated by their music, but not only by what I heard musically. I believed by creating such music, the group represented an unusual depth of understanding concerning their work and themselves. By a set of circumstances and coincidences, I now live in the same city as Steely Dan. The situation has further closed in where, since the first listen, I have come to know and respect certain members of the group and among them have found a very special friend. I only mention this because it may explain that specialness that surrounds Steely Dan I know from personal contact. It is a specialness - or a buzz - or an atmosphere that I have personally heard people speak of all over the United States and in many other parts of the world. This quality I call the heart of Steely Dan. It directs and feeds the steady pulse of their creative energy; always exploring - never the sameness. It is always traceable to its origin, this heart. What makes up this heart? Simply, the tight common philosophy towards music and many aspects of life closely shared by the guys who make up the group.

You probably know that centuries ago, the Troubadour was a very special breed of man. In a world where people were mostly locked to their land, where art was not well understood by the masses; where commercialism, though limited, was important for bare survival, the Troubadour stood apart. He moved on and about in his own space. His world was measured on his musical output and flow on a daily basis. He continually sang, composed, practiced, made or repaired his instruments. He was a complete music entity drawing from things about him and converting them into song and music. He did this not only for the pleasure and satisfaction but importantly, for his own self as well. This atmosphere of total dedication, without sidelines, this completeness, is much of what I see as the heart of Steely Dan. I am sure countless others must sense this.

Moving up full steam to today's jet powered scene, to that tough to-get-to forefront of artist recognition and respect, there exists a reserved place for Steely Dan. In their own style and approach a place is theirs - because they have it down, totally covered or whatever you want to call it. These musicians, like the Troubadour, practically at the expense of anything else listen, think, play, practice, improvise, rehearse, compose, analyze, philosophize as to the music around. They are into and on top of the scene. Perhaps without their knowing, they break through the levels which are routinely called "standard" music professionalism.

As to AJA, Steely's latest offering, what are we to hear? More of that same musical excellence, of course. That heart has not been dormant since their last album, "The Royal Scam", but has been developing and probing towards its own goal. As I write this, I am listening to a tape of the latest album. Myself? - I hear those melodies which are true melodies - that cling to you. I hear those lyrics, which often say or describe their personal experiences but clearly have a message we can relate to in our own way. That voicing, although totally flexible and creative, is kept ultra-clean to enable us to understand their message. You'll recognize the musicianship - all of it - the tempo, punctuation, the marvelous blend of horns, voices, rhythm, and guitar moving in tight coordination. The result is a controlled, vibrant energy which Steely Dan emits without ever getting too, too heavy. As before, and perhaps more so now, you'll feel each song is a unique musical venture, not like the one before nor the one to follow. Yet, it all fits in very, very well. It's all tied together, to what I call the heart of Steely Dan - Walter Becker, Donald Fagen and their producer, Gary Katz.

Steve Diener
President, ABC Records

Exclusive photo courtesy of the Hambonian Archives.

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