Friday, August 17, 2018

Aja (AM10)

Aja (AM10)
Artist: Steely Dan
Released: September 23, 1977
Recorded: January to July 1977
Producer: Gary Katz
Tracks: 1. Black Cow - 5:10; Aja - 7:57; Deacon Blues - 7:33; 4. Peg - 3:57; 5. Home at Last - 5:34; 6. I Got the News - 5:06; 7. Josie - 4:33 
Players: Donald Fagen - lead vocals (all tracks), synthesizer (all tracks but 4), police whistle (2), backing vocals (2, 5, 7); Walter Becker - bass (3), guitar (2), guitar solos (5, 6, 7); Victor Feldman - electric piano (1, 3, 7), vibraphone (5, 6), piano (5, 6), percussion (2, 4); Joe Sample - electric piano (2), clavinet (1); Paul Griffin - electric piano (4), backing vocals (4); 
Michael Omartian - piano (2); Don Grolnick - clavinet (4); Larry Carlton - guitar (1, 2, 3, 5, 7), guitar solo (6); Denny Dias (2), Dean Parks (3, 6, 7), Steve Khan (4) - guitar; Jay Graydon - solo guitar (4); Chuck Rainey - bass (all but 3); Paul Humphrey (1), Steve Gadd (2), Bernard Purdie (3, 5), Rick Marotta (4), Ed Greene (6) - drums; Jim Keltner - drums (7), percussion (7); Gary Coleman - percussion (4); Tom Scott - tenor saxophone (1), lyricon (4), horn arrangements; Wayne Shorter (2), Pete Christlieb (3) - tenor saxophone; Michael McDonald (4, 6), Timothy B. Schmit (2, 5, 7), Clydie King (1, 3, 6), Sherlie Matthews (1, 3, 6), Venetta Fields (1, 3, 6), Rebecca Louis (1, 6) - backing vocals; Jim HornBill PerkinsPlas JohnsonJackie Kelso - saxes/flutes; Chuck Findley, Lou McCreary, Slyde Hyde - brass

Known for their unique mixture of jazz and rock, Fagen and Becker were real New Yorkers who attained a certain west coast flair. Most of the session players (an incredible 36 of them!) were from California and this infused an unmistakable California vibe on each track. Aja represented a sonic fusion of east meets west, a truly bi-coastal affair.

Including seven songs, a touch under 40 minutes in length, the album opener "Black Cow" is a lyrically descriptive plunge into a turbulent relationship with a New York setting (Rudy's, Greene Street): "I can't cry anymore while you run around./ Break away./ Just when it seems so clear that it's over now,/ drink your big black cow and get out of here." (For curiosity's sake, a black cow is a root beer float.) Take your pick with regard to meaning, though: an ode to self-doubt, a commentary on nightlife, a reference to Hindu culture (cows are sacred)?

The stunning title track is mainstay, tour de force Dan. The arrangements are of a separate world of sophistication with a myriad of textures perfectly blended: the lyrics, the backing harmonies, the incredible Denny Dias guitar solo, the incomparable Wayne Shorter sax, the drums – there were few bands that could pull this off. Unlike the story motif from "Black Cow," the lyrics from "Aja" instead paint a picture, establish a mood, an erotic exoticism with references to Asia (angular banjos, banyan trees). Nonetheless, this is pure California fusion. 

The jazzy back-to-New York style of "Deacon Blues" features Larry Carlton on guitar and as co-arranger. The thought-provoking chorus with the classic sing-a-long lyrics, beautifully accompanied by gospel backing vocals, support the song's theme of winner v. loser: "I'll learn to work the saxophone./ I’ll play just what I feel./ Drink scotch whiskey all night long/ and die behind the wheel./ They got a name for the winners in the world./ I want a name when I lose./ They call Alabama the Crimson Tide./ Call me Deacon Blues." It's  shear perfection.

Aja is one of this reporter's go to LPs (alongside Blue, The Cure's Disintegration, or New Order's Lowlife) but I've often criticized it's top-heavy layout - Side Two's tracks do not compare with that opening trio. But that's not fair. Side One is unparalleled - if there was such a thing, an AM11 - yet each of Side Two's tracks are earmarked tens. Aja is another example of how one track (or tracks) belittles everything else around it (think "Bohemian Rhapsody" or "Layla"). In the hands of lesser gods, Aja may have proven disjointed and gimmicky, but Becker and Fagen's studio wizardry has made a sublimely cohesive album in which the whole is somehow still better than the sum of its uniformly perfect parts.