By 1977 Wayne Shorter was already a jazz legend. He started with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers and quickly became music director, had some commercially and critically successful Blue Note followed by several years with Miles Davis in one of the greatest bands in recorded music history (jazz or otherwise), then went on to form Weather Report with Joe Zawinal – which along with Return to Forever and Mahavishnu Orchestra produced some of the most creative post-Bitches Brew modern jazz/rock fusion music and dominated the 70’s jazz scene.
Steely Dan had already released five popular and critically successful albums before recording Aja in 1977, with memorable hit songs such as “Do It Again”, “Reeling in the Years”, “Bodhisattva”, “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number”, and more. By the time the Aja recordings started Steely Dan was basically Donald Fagen and Walter Becker … and some studio musicians. They had earned a reputation for writing some of the best music of the era, a smart brand of jazzy pop with interesting and intricate melodies and harmonies, and had some of the best jazz and fusion studio musicians of the era playing with them.
My memories of Steely Dan always remind me of my brother, as he bought the album on release in 1977 and played it frequently. As the years passed the record ended up with my massive collection and he has never cared to get it back since he had it on CD. So I ended up digitizing the vinyl, and think of him whenever I hear the music.
As I had just loaded Aja back on my iPod since my brother is coming for a visit, I was happily surprised to see an article on JazzWax about how Becker and Fagan really wanted Shorter to plan on the title track of Aja but it almost didn’t happen:
“So I picked up the phone and called Wayne. I had known him for years and loved his writing and playing. We chatted for a bit, and I said, ‘Listen, are you available to come into the Village Recorder and do an overdub for me this week in Studio A?’ That’s where we recorded all of our top acts.
“Wayne asked me who the group was. I said, ‘I don’t remember. But you’re going to love the music.’ He said, ‘When? I said, ‘You tell me.’ He said, ‘How’s Friday at 1 p.m.?’ I said, ‘Great.’
“So I walked down to the studio, Roger Nichols, Steely Dan’s engineer; Gary; Donald and Walter were in there. I said, ‘Wayne will be here on Friday at 1 p.m.’ That’s when someone cracked, ‘Yeah, sure he will.’ Gary jumped in and said, ‘Hey, Dick isn’t going to say Wayne is going to be here unless Wayne is going to be here.’
“That Friday, I walked down to Studio A. Donald was dressed in a starched striped shirt—white with blue stripes—pretty spiffy compared to the T-shirts he customarily wore in the studio.
“I introduced him around and then walked out. Wayne did his solos—six passes in all. He loved the music, and was gone in 35 minutes. The guys were sitting around watching, stunned. After he left, Donald and Walter spliced together the six passes, and that’s what you hear on the album. Donald and Walter couldn’t thank me enough.
The results are amazing – the song Aja has a haunting melody line, a great structure, and is a stunning 8 minutes long! Wayne’s solo occurs more than half-way through the song and lasts for just over a minute – yet has a huge shaping impact on the overall impact of the song. It is easy to forget that this is a pop song as the band swells around Shorter.
It is an epic moment on an epic recording from an era when names like Steely Dan and Stevie Wonder and Elton John and Pink Floyd and The Who Jeff Beck and many others created truly great masterpieces of music that are all too rare in this market research driven music business.
Steely Dan’s classic Aja is available on the Amazon.com MP3 Store for $6.63, which will of course set you up with an unlimited storage account on Amazon Cloud Music.