The core members of Steely Dan, multi-instrumentalists Donald Fagen and Walter Becker, are obviously outstanding musicians who can also be categorized as eccentric perfectionists. Since their formation in 1972, the band released six remarkable records during this decade – followed by the stellar 1980 release of Gaucho – each having a story to tell due to the personalities and extreme talents that Fagen and Becker brought into the studio.
Labeled as a jazz rock band, Steely Dan were able to crossover to mass appeal due to their brilliantly constructed compositions and sophisticated harmonies. Their presence in the 70s culminated with the classic 1977 release of Aja.
The vision for this album was clear: incorporate several leading session musicians that would best suit the style of each song. Here’s the kicker: an incredible total of thirty five studio musicians were used to complete the album. Needless to say, producer Gary Katz had his hands full (working with Fagen, Becker and also four different engineers) and deserves an incredible amount of credit for co-guiding this project.
Known for their unique mixture of jazz pop rock, Fagen and Becker were true New Yorkers but relocated to the west coast for this recording. Many of the session players utilized were from California and this infused a certain California sound on many of the songs. Thus, for the first time, Aja represented a sonic fusion of east meets west (“Home at Last”) for Steely Dan.
Including seven songs a touch under 40 minutes in total length, the album opener “Black Cow” is a lyrically descriptive track that takes you into a relationship theme with a New York setting (Rudy’s, Greene Street): “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.” (For curiosity sake, a black cow is a root beer float.)
The lyrics for each song are at times ambiguous but have well-thought meaning to the band and listener; they are able to conjure a sense of imagery which is such a rare and admirable accomplishment. The stunning title-track, “Aja” is a typical tour de force Steely Dan track. The arrangements are from another world of sophistication. There are so many textures so perfectly blended together – whether it is the lyrics, backing harmonies, the incredible Denny Dias guitar solo, the saxophone, the drums… – there are few bands in existence that can pull this off.
The jazzy back-to-New York style of “Deacon Blues” features Larry Carlton on guitar and as co-arranger. The renown thought-provoking chorus with the classic sing-a-long lyrics, beautifully accompanied by female gospel backing vocals, support the songs theme of winner versus loser: “I’ll learn to work the saxophone. I’ll play just what I feel. Drink scotch whiskey all night long and die behind the wheel. They got a name for the winners in the world. I want a name when I lose. They call Alabama the Crimson Tide. Call me Deacon Blues.” It’s pure perfection.
The remainder of the album continues the Aja project flawlessly. From the sophistically syncopated “Peg” – with its funky bass, staccatic drumming, Jay Graydon’s extraordinary guitar solo (chosen over six other versions), and the ever-present voice of Michael McDonald on backing vocals – to the strong album closer “Josie,” Donald Fagen and Walter Becker printed their tickets to Cleveland.
No matter how difficult the process may have been, this studio recording extraordinaire resulted in a seamlessly blended fusion of a Steely Dan jazz pop rock patent. As a result, Aja still stands tall as one of the most unique classic albums ever recorded and embodies the pure genius of Steely Dan.
One of the amazing aspects of this album is despite the perfectionist approach that encompassed Aja, which was essentially auditioning or choosing studio musicians for each song to achieve what they wanted, it all sounds so natural. Such an approach could have resulted in a disaster but instead achieved the perfection sought. Only true talented visionaries can execute the improbable.
Aja was the band’s first platinum album and it became Steely Dan’s best-selling album at over 5 million copies. The album peaked at No. 3 on the U.S. charts and No. 5 in the UK. “Deacon Blues” became Steely Dan’s fifth Top 20 hit on the Billboard Hot 100 chart where it peaked at #19 in 1978, and remained in the Top 40 for eight weeks.
On April 6, 2011, Aja was honored by the Library of Congress to be “culturally, historically, or aesthetically important” and was added to the United States National Recording Registry for the year 2010.
After the release of Gaucho, which represented the peak of their obsessive perfectionism in the studio and also featured much conflict and post-release personal issues, Steely Dan took a 12 year hiatus from the music scene. They had already stopped touring in 1974 and did so for 19 years.
In 1993 the group would resume playing live concerts and would also release two more albums. Their Two Against Nature release (2000) was met with both critical acclaim and much controversy, as it won four Grammy awards and beat out Radiohead’s Kid A and Eminem’s The Marshall Mather LP for Album of the Year in 2001. It was a good album but not that good (Kid A!?!).
Steely Dan is still an active band and have sold over 40 million records in their distinguished career. In March 2011, Steely Dan were justly inducted into the U.S Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Reviewer: Bill Pulice
IRC: Arielle Gelb
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