Six Degrees of Steely Dan’s Aja
It used to be easier to pretend that an album was its own perfectly self-contained artifact. The great records certainly feel that way. But albums are more permeable than solid, their motivations, executions and inspirations informed by, and often stolen from, their peers and forbearers. It all sounds awfully formal, but it's not. It's the very nature of music — of art, even. The Six Degrees features examine the relationships between classic records and five other albums we've deemed related in some way. In some cases these connections are obvious, in others they are tenuous. But, most important to you, all of the records are highly, highly recommended.
The year 1977 was monumental, as musical moments go. It was the year punk broke, with culture-changing albums by the Sex Pistols, the Clash (in the U.K.), Talking Heads, the Ramones ("Rocket to Russia") and Blondie. The punks were biting and scratching against a mainstream dominated by megamillion sellers, typified by Fleetwood Mac's Rumours, which was No. 1 for 31 weeks, ahead of albums by the Eagles ("Hotel... California"), Paul McCartney's Wings, Barbara Streisand, Barry Manilow and Linda Ronstadt. In another part of town, disco ruled, and was creeping towards its commercial dominance with the release of "Saturday Night Fever" just before Christmas, 1977.more »
Steely Dan, as always, ignored it all. Mad scientists Donald Fagen and Walter Becker had already gotten rid of their band and quit the road for research and development in the studio, where they continued to refine the unlikely formula that had given them both hit singles and a cult following. The blend consisted of bewitching melodies, winsome pop hooks, sophisticated jazz chords and harmonies, precise arrangements played by Fagen and Becker and augmented by session musicians of unparalleled skill and substance and cunning lyrics that fell pleasingly on the ear, inviting analysis while defying interpretation.
Consider "Deacon Blues": the smooth jazz sax of Pete Christlieb, the melodic guitar solos of jazz-session stalwarts Lee Ritenour and Larry Carlton, and Fagen's plaintive singing about a suicidal jazz man determined to "drink scotch whiskey all night long/and die behind the wheel."
"Deacon Blues," "Peg" and "Josie" led the airplay, but "Home At Last" (sparked by story of Homer's The Odyssey and drummer Bernard Purdie's inventive semi-shuffle), "Black Cow" and the expansive, disciplined flow of the title cut contributed to making the album Steely Dan's best seller and biggest chart hit. One could probably do 60 degrees of Aja based on the sidemen credits alone.
The L.A. Woman
Mitchell and Steely Dan seemed to be on opposite end of the L.A. social set in the 1970s (Fagen and Becker didn't hang with Joni's Crosby, Stills and Nash crowd), but on Court and Spark, a hit three years before Aja, they shared plenty. The singles (in this case, "Help Me," "Free Man in Paris" and the FM hit "Raised On Robbery,") were uncommonly mature for their time, and were only... part of the mosaic of beauty and disenchantment on this album. Reed-and- woodwind player Tom Scott played a leading role as player and arranger (and on Aja, horns conductor) on both jazz-inflected albums. There was plenty of overlap among other sidemen as well: guitarist Carlton, of the jazz fusion Crusaders, did some of his most high profile work on these records, which helped establish him as one of the premier session West Coast session guitarists of his era. Mitchell's own jazz ambitions peaked shortly after the release of Aja, when she trumped the Dan duo by collaborating with Charles Mingus on the album, Mingus, released just a few months after the jazz giant's death in 1979. Court and Spark" closes with a rare Mitchell cover, of Annie Ross's scat vocal classic "Twisted." Guest vocalist on "Twisted" is actor/comedian Cheech Marin. The Dan connection? A few of us remember seeing the original "Do It Again" Steely Dan band in concert, opening at the Westbury Music Fair on Long Island in 1972 for none other than Cheech and Chong.more »
The Guitar Man
Listen to this "solo" album by session star Carlton and you can hear just how essential his guitar playing was to the Steely Dan sound of the '70s. The first notes of album "Room 335" sound like a distillation of every guitar solo and rhythm riff on "Aja." In fact, according to Steely Dan fanzine Metal Leg, Carlton asked (and was granted) permission to base "Room 335" on the changes of "Peg."... (The title comes from the name of both Carlton's home studio and his signature guitar, a 1968 ES-335 Gibson.) Carlton's drummer on this album is the late Jeff Porcaro, a Steely Dan band member and player on "Pretzel Logic," "Katy Lied" and "The Royal Scam." (Porcaro, who later was a founding member of Toto, was the highest paid member of their band in 1974 when, for $400, they lured him away from Sonny & Cher, where he was earning nearly four times as much.) The Dan dynamics are also audible in "Night Crawler," another first rate track on a very solidly funky jazz-rock record. But guitar freaks of all kinds shouldn't miss the fire of "Point It Up."more »
The Joy of Sax
With Aja still high on the charts, Fagen and Becker used their clout produce a straightforward jazz album featuring two underappreciated tenor sax players, Pete Christlieb and Warne Marsh. Christlieb gave authority and authenticity to the solos and ensemble work on "Deacon Blues." He was mostly known around Los Angeles clubs as a muscular player with a solid tone and the ability to swing, but he made his living settled in to... a tenured chair in the Tonight Show band, a secure and reliable source of income for Southern California musicians. Marsh, a veteran 20 years older, had cut his teeth at the side of experimental pianist Lennie Tristano. In the liner notes to the original LP, the late critic Robert Palmer described Marsh's style as "wholly unpredictable. He will play double-time, half-time and apparently out-of-time in a single phrase." Fagen and Becker had recorded a tribute to their bebop sax hero, Charlie Parker, on their track "Parker's Band" on "Pretzel Logic"; on Apogee, they got to produce a bravura performance of Parker's "Donna Lee." They also composed one tune for the session, "Rapunzel." This maiden bebop voyage is based on the chords of Burt Bacharach and Hal David's "Land of Make Believe," which had been recorded by Dionne Warwick, Dusty Springfield, and the Drifters.more »
In The Funhouse Mirror
The band, led by longtime friends Donald Was and David Was, has parallels to Steely Dan that go way beyond the curious coincidence that the Donald was born Donald Fagenson. Fagen and Becker met at Bard College in upstate New York; Fagenson and David Weiss were schoolmates in Detroit. Both teams repatriated to Los Angeles to follow their songwriting muse, and both teams write with a pronounced satirical edge. Both Steely Dan... and Was (Not Was) were heavily influenced by black music; being from Detroit, Was (Not Was) draws more heavily from Motown, Parliament-Funkadelic and R&B; instead of jazz-rock musicians, they added R&B singers Sweet Pea Atkinson and Sir Harry Bowens to front the band.more »
The political satire is biting in "Out Come the Freaks": Steely Dan probably would not have used a sample from a Ronald Reagan sample, as W(NW) does on this album's "Tell Me That I'm Dreaming." That's hard to say for certain, since Steely Dan sat out the entire Reagan administration (in fact, they sat out the Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and Clinton administrations). It's fairly certain that Was (Not Was) trumpet and flugelhorn player Marcus Belgrave would have not been out of place on a Steely Dan session, as an alumnus of bands led by Charles Mingus and Ray Charles, among many others.
The Greatest Generation
TormÃ©, the great pop-jazz singer, was also the co-writer of "The Christmas Song" ("chestnuts roasting on an open fire") and during the 1960s, was one of the mainstream pop singers known for his outspoken disdain for rock. Steely Dan was among the few bands that made him change his tune in the 1970s, and he was an unabashed admirer. This 1988 release reunited Tormé with arranger and band leader Marty Paich. Back... in the 1950s, Tormé and the Paich Dek-Tette (10-piece) split the difference between big band and small combo with some delightful recordings.more »
By 1988, when this was released, Marty's son David Paich was well-known as a member of Toto (with Jeff Porcaro) and a veteran of sessions with...Steely Dan. Among the percussionists playing with the Dek-Tette is Joe Porcaro...father of Jeff. TormÃ©, and the elders Paich and Porcaro may have been goofing on the kids when they performed two Donald Fagen songs on this album: ("The Goodbye Look" and "Walk Between Raindrops," both from Fagen's solo debut "the Nitefly"). But the arrangements sparkle, TormÃ© swings, and Danophiles find a lot to love here.
Also on this album is a rendition of "Spain," a Chick Corea song with lyrics written by Al Jarreau. Torme and Paich aren't the only ones who saw a connection between Corea and Steely Dan. Big band great Woody Herman, who did an album called "Chick Donald Walter and Woodrow," which consisted exclusively of big band arrangements of songs by Corea and Fagen and Becker. (Included on Herman's 1978 album were versions of "Aja" and "I Got the News").
TormÃ©'s other known foray into rock, by the way, was fronting Was (Not Was) on a track on the follow up to "Out Come the Freaks," the 1983 album "Born to Laugh At Tornados." TormÃ©'s showpiece: "Zaz Turned Blue," a suave ditty about sex and strangulation.