Welcome to my first ‘My Music’ post. This one is on the theme of ‘Why I love this Song’ – one of the themes I suggested in my last post.
The song I’ve chosen is ‘AJA’, the title track of one of my all time favourite albums, from the American band Steely Dan. It was recorded in 1977. I’ve chosen it because to me, it is quite simply a masterpiece. It is as close as you will get to perfection. It is the high point of an album filled with high points.
Essentially it is a jazz rock song, with elements of jazz fusion and progressive rock, written and composed by Walter Becker and Donald Fagen. Although they are New York musicians, the sound on the track and the album as a whole is very Californian in feel. Becker and Fagen play guitar and synthesizer, respectively, on the song and Fagan sings lead vocals. The other parts are played by a line up of the best session/studio musicians you could hope for. Here is the full line up.
Donald Fagen – lead vocals, synthesizer, police whistle
Steve Gadd – drums
VictorFeldman – percussion, vibraphone
Chuck Rainey – bass guitar
Michael Omartian – piano
Joe Sample – electric piano
Wayne Shorter – tenor saxophone
Timothy B. Schmit – backing vocals
So, let’s look at why the hairs on the back of my head stand up every time I play it.
The first reason I love this song is because it is brilliantly recorded, engineered and produced. This is typical of most Steely Dan albums of course but this track never fails to impress me. The sound is clear and dynamic and the fading and instrumental mix perfectly balanced. You could say acoustically perfect. I read that this album is considered to be so perfect that many sound specialists use it to test out new speakers and sound equipment.
The second reason is that the composition of the song is so engaging. It is 8 minutes long and there is never a dull moment. It is really quite complicated structurally and instrumentally (the most complex on the album). And yet it took a very short time to record, which Steely Dan credit to the musicians’ ability to learn it quickly, without rehearsals. There are changes in tempo and rhythm. There are Latin influences, pure jazz, rock, a short Chinese sounding interlude, great vocal and instrumental harmonies, great synthesiser fills, bluesy guitar, jazz guitar, and delicate piano. And, it has two amazing drum solos (a definite plus for an ex-drummer like me) – a shorter combined drum and tenor saxophone solo and a longer second solo towards the end.
Also, the complex song structure takes you on a journey much like the singer’s journey from the land of ‘the hill’ to the exotic world of ‘Aja’ (I think you are supposed to pronounce it ‘Asia’). The song itself is about a man who runs to the title character to escape the stresses of his life “up on the hill.” Fagen claimed that it was inspired by a relative of someone he knew, who had married a Korean woman named Aja. He has described the song as being about the ‘tranquility that can come of a quiet relationship with a beautiful woman’.
My third reason is the musicianship. Each musician’s performance is perfect for the song with not a single note out of place.
New to the line up were tenor saxophonist Wayne Shorter and drummer Steve Gadd. Their solos during the song’s instrumental break are considered by musicians and music critics to be among their finest work. It is documented that Steve Gadd’s part was not written and that after minimal rehearsal and discussing the tune, he just knew what to do. (Check out the many videos on his drum solos on YouTube. More videos of him on Drummerworld).
Denny Dias’s great guitar work, including a solo, marked the last appearance on a Steely Dan record by any other founding member of the group.
The strength of Fagin’s vocal back then was amazing and the harmonies with Schmit (who joined the Eagles that year) are as smooth as silk.
Another reason I love this song is that it is like a very nice drug (not that I condone drug taking you understand). It takes over my mind, pushes everything else out, relaxes me and lifts the spirits. Describing the album as a whole in 1999, British musician Ian Dury said: “Well, Aja’s got a sound that lifts your heart up… its heart-warming… it’s a record that sends my spirits up, and really when I listen to music, really that’s what I want.” I agree.
So that’s why I love this Song.