STEELY DAN, Aja (ABC/MCA, 1977)
- Walter Becker: guitars, bass, backing vocals
- Donald Fagen: keyboards, lead vocals
- And a collection of some of the greatest studio musicians ever
- Black Cow
- Deacon Blues
- Home at Last
- I Got the News
I’m not a “soft rock” guy. My local Adult Contemporary radio station is in for a bitter disappointment if they decide to count on me for ratings.
Still, I know brilliance when I hear it, and I’m a firm believer in giving credit where it’s due. Which brings me to Steely Dan and their masterpiece, Aja. It’s a record I rarely play, but love every time I do.
I always say I prefer musicians to rock stars. In the 1970’s, Walter Becker and Donald Fagen, the core of Steely Dan, could be considered bona fide rock stars. Their albums sold in the millions, seemingly without breaking a sweat. They were all over commercial radio (which I was still listening to at the time). So it would be easy to dismiss Steely Dan songs as mere commercial fluff.
But a closer examination of the band and its music reveals a completely different truth. Steely Dan’s intricate arrangements and challenging compositions made them an absolute haven for the litany of studio musicians who graced their records. Aja is no exception. It’s a Who’s Who of jazz and studio legends.
Steely Dan’s standards were incredibly high when it came to putting musicians on their records, and everybody knew it! In the documentary Hired Gun, a glorious tribute to studio musicians and the life they lead, one musician made it clear. “If you had a session with Steely Dan,” he said, “Everybody already knew you were the baddest motherfucker in the room!” This alone caused me to take a completely different look at this group and its music.
It’s a good thing I did.
Forgetting for awhile about how often I heard Steely Dan on the soft rock and Top 40 stations in the 70’s, I listened to the album on its own merit. Allow me to state the obvious: Aja is flawless!
Starting with “Black Cow,” listeners are greeted by absolute top-flight songwriting and musicianship. A look at the musician lineup for this tune was to look at my dad’s jazz favorites of the day, like Joe Sample (clavinet), Larry Carlton (guitar), and Tom Scott (saxophone). Jaws absolutely hit the floor at the end of the title track, when drummer Steve Gadd fires off one of the most brilliant solos you will ever hear on record.
Let’s face it: there was nothing “soft” about this soft rock.
I had listened to “Deacon Blues” a thousand times over the years. But now I was actually hearing it. The detail, the intricacy … it’s the ultimate single, because the listener can decide how deep to go while listening. A hundred close plays will reveal something new every time.
“Peg” is a legend unto itself. Becker and Fagen are said to have gone through my seven different guitarists in search of the perfect solo before Jay Graydon put the matter to rest. Leave it to a legendary studio ace to do just that at the moment of truth. Not that the bandleaders gave him any such idea. Graydon had no idea his was the top solo until he got a copy of the album!
There are no weak songs on Aja. Any superlative you’d like to heap on “Home at Last” and “I Got the News” will more than suffice. Yet things seem to go up one more level on the album’s finale, “Josie.” The band has dug in, and is positively smoking.
What strikes me is the ability of Becker and Fagen to get the absolute best out of a revolving door of musicians. Chemistry is key in any musical situation, which speaks for the incomparable skill of every single player and vocalist on this album, because it’s not like they took years to gel with one another.
I don’t like using words like “greatest” to describe records, because it’s far too subjective. With that being said, I now say this: Aja Is one of the greatest pop records ever recorded. Period. End of story. It’s a masterclass in how to make the most of studio musicians and that environment.
If your musical tastes normally guide you away from an album like this, check your snobbery at the door, and take 40 minutes to learn how the pros really do it.
This album is perfect.
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