Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Deconstructing Steely Dan's Black Cow from the Album Aja

1977 saw the release of Steely Dan's Aja which was one of the first albums worthy of audiophile release on the Mobile Fidelity Sound Labs catalog and brought Mssrs Becker and Fagen front and center in the Jazz community as the content came closest to pure Jazz than any other album they had produced to date. Sonic perfection was clearly the goal in the production for this album and most critics and fans agree that they pretty much achieved it. Black Cow is a disco-funk composition that has a veneer and polish that was missing from their previous albums. They had the good sense and financial means to hand-pick the studio jazz musicians who were at the top of their game when recording Aja. Having a killer rhythm section with a rock solid bass line and superb drumming was the order of the day and the opening of Black Cow with Chuck Rainey and Paul Humphrey establishing the beat and groove sparks the opening of Black Cow. Victor Feldman was a well respected Jazz musician specializing in the vibraphone and piano and contributes a tasty piano solo. The background vocalists with the "So Outrageous" chorus is also a nice touch giving the song a sardonic, admonishing feel and a hipster vibe all at the same time. Before the last verse kicks in you can hear the key change from major to minor, a subtle but very effective flourish that signals that the song is headed into the closing chorus and saxophone vamps from the superb tenor saxophone master Tom Scott. Tom literally wails on the outro tenor sax solos and in my opinion is one of the most effective horn closing/sax solos in a Steely Dan song.

The song works musically on so many levels and the production and execution of the song is really flawless. It is one of my favorite songs on Aja and for me is really the essence of the type of jazz music Becker and Fagen wanted to create. I really want the sax solos to last longer and it still stands up really well over time. Again a master lesson on how to create yet another iteration of jazz while adding fresh new elements all around. Every time I play it I can hear something different.

The Making of Aja Video interview with Donald Fagen and Walter Becker on Black Cow

In the corner
Of my eye
I saw you in Rudys'
You were very high
You were high
It was a cryin' disgrace
They saw your face

On the counter
By your keys
Was a book of numbers
And your remedies
One one of these
Surely will screen out the sorrow
But where are you tomorrow
I can't cry anymore
While you run around
Break away
Just when it
Seems so clear
That it's
Over now
Drink your big black cow
And get out of here
Down to Greene Street
There you go
Lookin' so outrageous
And they tell you so
You should know
How all the pros play the game
You change your name

Like a gangster
On the run
You will stagger homeward
To your precious one
I'm the one
Who must make everything right
Talk it out till daylight
I don't care anymore
Why you run around
Break away
Just when it seems so clear
That it's
Over now
Drink your big black cow
And get out of here.
So outrageous, So outrageous
Drums: Paul Humphrey
Bass: Chuck Rainey
Electric Piano: Victor Feldman
Clavinet: Joe Sample
Guitar: Larry Carlton
Synthesizer: Donald Fagen
Tenor Sax: Tom Scott
Backup Vocals: Clydie King, Venetta Fileds,
Sherlie Matthews, Rebecca Louis

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