The 1970's saw quite a few pop musicians deciding to move beyond what they saw as the confines of the three minute hit song. Some went the route of progressive rock self indulgence featuring long drawn out electronic keyboard extravagances of excess. Others started to perform longer and longer guitar solo's which meandered on into nothingness until they lost their point. But a very few looked at what the jazz fusion groups were doing and saw something there to emulate.
Under the influence of Miles Davis, groups like Weather Report and individuals like Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea were stretching jazz into a meeting with funk and rhythm and blues. At the same time a limited number of bands were utilizing jazz influences in their pop music. Chicago, Blood Sweat and Tears, and Lighthouse were using horn sections and other unconventional rock instruments to help create a sound that was different, but they were still working within the pop/rock format.
The honour of being the first pop band to produce a rock/jazz fusion album was Steely Dan with their recording of the record Aja. As part of their Classic Albums Series Eagle Vision, a division of Eagle Rock Entertainment, has produced a DVD documentary on the recording of the album. They've gathered together Donald Fagen and Walter Becker, the two front men of Steely Dan, and a group of the session musicians who played on the album to help recreate its production.
Prior to Aja's release in 1977 Steely Dan had already had five albums in the top forty in the U.S. But Aja became the band's biggest seller reaching number 3 and number 5 in the U. K. Although the recording was listed as being by Steely Dan, at the time the band only consisted of Fagen and Becker, the remainder of the musicians used on the album were all session men.
So, what goes into making a hit album, especially one where the sound is going to be something completely different from what had been heard in pop music circles before? First you need two people who are totally convinced they know exactly what they want and are willing to be demanding enough and patient enough to not be satisfied until they have achieved their goals.
How persistent were they? According to one recording engineer, for one track they brought in seven different guitar players on seven different days looking for the person who could play the song the way they heard it in their heads. Because no one aside from them could envision what it was they were aiming for, it was almost impossible to communicate what it was they wanted. In fact, I suspect they weren't sure themselves until they actually heard it played.
According to the same engineer, it became something of an exercise in tedium at times. He would show up knowing he'd be hearing the same guitar lines for yet another day and was really beginning to despise the song and to an extent Fagen and Becker. It wasn't until he heard the final results he even understood what it was they had been trying to accomplish.
For the musicians involved it was also a matter of not really knowing what was going on except to try and play the parts they were given when they showed up in the studio for the day or week. Sometimes Fagen and Becker would try entirely different combinations of musicians on the same song in their endless quest for finding the right sound. A guy could come to the studio one day and lay down tracks and find out latter that nothing he had done had been used and an entirely different group of players had ended up recording that cut.
Eventually Fagen and Becker realized they were going to need people who were adept at playing a multitude of styles. The musicians they settled on were guys who had played more popularized versions of jazz with people like Frank Sinatra and singers of standards and the carefully arranged music of an earlier era. These were guys who were used to coaxing nuances of sound out of a bar of music in a way rock and roll musicians never worried about.
After taking us through a track-by-track breakdown of songs like "Aja", "Black Cow", "Peg" and others, the directors gathered the session players they had been interviewing along with Fagen and Becker and had them perform instrumental versions of "Peg" and another song they had talked about "Josie". Listening to them without the familiar sounding vocal tracks associated with Steely Dan the songs take on a life I had not noticed before.
They sounded like the jazz-fusion music I would have normally associated with bands like Weather Report, or perhaps the more jazz influenced songs of a group like Traffic. Thinking back to the work that Fagen and Becker demanded of their musicians and themselves, one could easily hear the results shining through in these instrumental versions.
While this documentary clearly shows that Fagen and Becker were driven and perfectionist in a way that perhaps rock musicians weren't used to, they were also correct to be as demanding as they were. The Classic Album Series is of interest to anyone who has ever wondered how their favourite albums came into existence. Classic Albums – Aja is no exception; a first rate documentary from a first rate series.