Tuesday, August 23, 2011

August 23: Steely Dan, "Aja"

Artist: Steely Dan
Song: "Aja"
Album: Aja
Year: 1977

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Though it makes almost no sense, for the few bands in music history for which there is no accurate description, majority of publications and critics seem to do little more than place them in a category that is almost entirely completely unlike the actual music of the band in question.  In nearly every case, this ends up creating a stereotype around the group that does not represent them properly, and one can argue that this misrepresentation leads to many likely fans never exploring the music of the band due to the perception created by critics.  While a number of bands have fallen victim to such distortion, few have been mislabeled as severely as avant-rock icons Steely Dan, as in most cases, they are placed under terms like "soft rock," and yet this is far from the truth.  Blending together the worlds of jazz and rock in one of the most distinctive and in some ways confrontational manner in music history, Steely Dan represent the epitome of a group that is determined to make their music in their own way, regardless of the norms and styles by which they are surrounded.  This has resulted in some of the most original, genre-defying music in history, and nearly every one of their records is in itself a turning point in music history, making the entire Steely Dan catalog some of the most important music ever recorded.  Though they had many other songs that found greater commercial success, there is no question that every musical side of Steely Dan, as well as the duo's exceptional talents as songwriters are at their best on the title track to their phenomenal 1977 album, Aja.

As the decades have passed, a massive number of musicians have spent time as a member of Steely Dan in one way or another, yet it is the minds and talents of Donald Fagen and Walter Becker that have been the catalyst behind the groups' sound the entire time.  It is their brilliant compositions and leadership that have been able to push the boundaries on all forms of music, and one would be hard pressed to find more skilled performers than one finds in this pair.  "Aja" is a perfect example of their exceptional abilities, as the song itself goes thorough a number of different sections, each having its own unique feel, yet working perfectly as a single unit.  On many levels, this arrangement gives the song more of a classical structure than anything else, and yet through the performances, there are elements of rock and jazz, as well as the basic elements that would become both the "new wave" and ambient genres in the years that would follow.  All across "Aja," the musicianship is absolutely perfect, led by the ever-shifting keyboards of Fagen, and the deep groove from Becker's bass.  Drummer Steve Gadd is one of the keys to the overall impact of the song, as he shifts the tempo a number of times throughout the song, giving "Aja" an amazing level of depth that is rarely found elsewhere.  However, it is the various other musicians on the track that give the song its massive range of appeal, as the duo of Fagen and Becker bring an almost orchestral feel, delivering on every front with a stunning sonic appeal and musical precision.

However, while the music on "Aja" is some of the finest ever recorded, it is within the singing and lyrics of the song that much of the true spirit of Steely Dan can be found.  Though many may try and paint it otherwise, as soon as the vocals begin, there is no way to deny the similarity to the sound of Frank Zappa, and this is true both in terms of the actual vocal tones and harmonies, as well as the attitude beneath the singing.  It is the fact that there seems to be a somewhat playful, if not sarcastic undertone in the vocals that make them so enjoyable, and it s also the way in which the singing itself seems to have an amazing amount of movement that pushes them far beyond nearly anything else being recorded at the time.  The fact that the vocals are able to gain so much sonic range and presence is one of the keys to the overall impact of "Aja," but it is also the seemingly cryptic, certainly poetic, and perfectly deployed lyrics that truly make this such a standout within the overall Steely Dan catalog.  The true testament to the abilities of Fagen and Becker has always been within their lyrics, and "Aja" is their finest moment, as the words seem to soar and move just as high and far as the music, and there has rarely been another lyric that can boast a similar existence.  It is the fact that this reality makes "Aja" a "complete package" in terms of vocals and lyrics that helps to it rise above the rest of the groups songs, and it also enables it to become a song that can never be forgotten once heard.

Yet event taking all of this absolute musical brilliance into account, there is one more aspect of "Aja" that cannot be overlooked, and that is the presence of one of the most important musicians of the generation that preceded this record.  Near the middle of the song, there is a truly fantastic and flawless saxophone solo, and it is performed by none other than Wayne Shorter.  The fact that Steely Dan were able to get a musician of such talent and status to perform on their record is a testament to the abilities of Steely Dan, as well as the respect they had from their peers in terms of composition and musical expertise.  Shorter's presence stands as the final piece of what stands as one of the most impressive moments from any genre in music history, and it is the wide range of sounds, influences, and musical styles that the band presents which makes it almost impossible to properly classify "Aja" into any single genre.  There are elements ranging from jazz to electronic to rock along with many others, and it is the fact that they are so perfectly balanced that not only define the sound of Steely Dan, but also stand as proof to their abilities that reach far beyond that of most other musicians in history.  For more than four decades, Steely Dan have been making it their mission to completely ignore every norm and trend within almost every style of music, and it is much the reason that they stand as one of the most revered groups in history.  Due to this dedication and sheer talent, there are few moments in their catalog that are not worth experiencing, and yet few can argue Steely Dan was at anything less than their creative peak on their brilliant 1977 composition, "Aja."

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