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Steely Dan - Aja CD (album) cover

AJA

Steely Dan

 

Jazz Rock/Fusion

4.18 | 308 ratings

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cfergmusic1
5 stars I have to admit that I came to this review with more than a little bit of trepidation. How does one even try to write about their favorite album of all time? Aja has been with me for as long as I can remember?through most every major and minor life event pretty much since childhood?so long that it's hard to know where to begin, and even still, try to do the music justice. But I'd still like to try anyway.

This album, of course, is the one that really put Steely Dan on the map, the one where most people agree that their particular style of jazz-inflected rock was best represented. I would have to say that's pretty right on; even considering that these guys never made a bad album, this one generally stands out for its elevated taste, polish, songwriting, horn and rhythm arrangements, engineering?I could go on, but I think you get the idea. It's no wonder, then, that the album was the highest-charting of their career, making it into the Top Three in America.

On a more personal note, however, it's also the album that I turned to probably the most often (along with the surrounding SD albums, The Royal Scam and Gaucho) in the midst of a sometimes carefree, sometimes dysfunctional childhood and family life. Somehow, to my 7-year-old self back in 1997, and for most of my formative years from then on, it seemed to be one of the only things that made sense to my confused mind at that time. Given the fact that this album probably has more to do with progressive rock than any other in SD's oeuvre, and because of its deceptively cloudy mood in general, I'm not exactly sure what that says about my personality or how musically advanced I must have been at that time (having started piano at age 3 and gone on my merry way picking out tunes since then). Whatever the case, this is just one of those albums that I can safely say that my life would be a lot poorer for its absence.

Anyway, onto the music. "Black Cow" opens with a smooth, funky, phased-out clavinet (played by the Crusaders' Joe Sample) and guitar sequence that sounds as milky as this song's namesake drink mix. The lyrics seem to fall under the typical Becker/Fagen subject of individuals who seem to have lost their way in life?social misfits, in a sense. What's truly amazing is how the music primarily does not reflect this way of thinking; it's mostly happy-sounding due to the major key tonalities, but with a subtle hint of melancholy throughout. Larry Carlton plays guitar in a supporting rhythm role and he also helped with most of the rhythm charts; future Lawrence Welk employee Paul Humphrey turns in his only drumming appearance with the Dan here, and Victor Feldman plays a classic Rhodes solo that actually skips ahead of the beat very slightly (see if you can figure out where). The song rides out a vamp, not on the original tonic chord, on top of which chief horn arranger Tom Scott blows a mean tenor sax solo. "So outrageous," indeed.

The title track is widely recognized as the Dan's all-time masterpiece, which is pretty difficult to argue with. At almost 8 minutes, it's the longest track the Dan would record for some time (until "West of Hollywood" on their Grammy-winning comeback album, Two Against Nature). Not a moment of those 8 minutes is wasted, though, starting with the piano-led intro which is once again the perfect mood-setter for what follows. I interpret the lyrics, at their most base level, as expressing a longing or even homesickness for the Far East and elements of same (which makes sense since "Aja" sounds like "Asia"), but I'm willing to accept the possibility that it goes a lot deeper than that. The lengthy instrumental section that follows is firmly in the mold of "prog" but occupies a space all its own, in the first part bolstered greatly as usual by Denny Dias' guitar solo (in his last-ever appearance with the band; he would officially quit after this album's release) as well as Walter Becker's bluesy fills in the reprise (by the way, Becker's co-conspirator Donald Fagen gets in an appearance on police whistle in addition to playing synths).

The second part, beginning at about 5 minutes, is immediately darker and tends to hang on one specific type of chord (minor 11th); tenor saxophonist Wayne Shorter, who has always struck me as someone who saved his best stuff for other people's albums, continues the tradition of jazzers appearing on Steely Dan records; obviously, years of tenure with Miles Davis and Weather Report prepared him well for his solo spot, one of the Dan's best on any instrument. After a reprise of the intro and third verse, we return to the minor-key vamp from Shorter's solo, which is now a backdrop for the Dan's only recorded drum solo (from Steve Gadd, who remarkably needed only two takes to get this beast of a song down). Bubbly, atmospheric synths carry the track to its fade-out (intriguingly, fade-outs are shared in common by all seven tracks on the album). The perfect marriage of musicianship, lyrics, style and substance? Very likely.

Another mini-masterpiece follows with "Deacon Blues," briefer than the title track by only 30 or so seconds but longer on narrative. Opening with another evocative, Rhodes-led intro (with an "in-time" hold before the first verse), the song unfolds at its own leisurely pace, aided and abetted by drummer Bernard Purdie and bassist Walter Becker. The verse-chorus sequences are almost two minutes long but amazingly don't feel as long as they actually are; the horn voicings starting at the second verse are some of the crunchiest yet with the band. The instrumental section completes the trifecta on Side One by featuring yet another stellar tenor sax solo, this time by Pete Christlieb who was playing regularly on Johnny Carson's Tonight Show at this time. The lyrics, to me, paint a more detailed and slightly better picture of the kind of thing they were going for on "Black Cow," while still being typically impenetrable?is it about some poor schlub who's down on his luck, or a young upstart who wants to be a sax-blowing jazz cat (or both)? Who knows, but I always got a kick out of the "Alabama/Crimson Tide" reference even before I knew what it meant. Christlieb blows again, here and there, over the extended tag, almost trading off with phased-out guitar figures by either Carlton or Lee Ritenour. Viewers of the "Classic Albums" documentary on this album will delight at the discovery of a very faint bell-like synth part (originally meant to replace a flute) doubling the background horn line in the instrumental section. Overall, one of the Dan's best and most recognizable tracks.

Speaking of recognizable tracks, "Peg" kicks off Side Two and was one of three hit singles from this album (the others being "Deacon Blues" and "Black Cow"). The intro line is one of the few uses in popular music of the Lyricon, a primitive woodwind synthesizer, played by Tom Scott who would use it on several of his own albums. The tune itself is described in the liner notes by Becker/Fagen as a "pantonal thirteen-bar blues with chorus," even though it's actually not (by the way, in yet another nod to their jazz heroes, this is one of the few rock albums with detailed liner notes, such as might be found on a 50s-60s Blue Note record, with a complete rundown of who appears on what track). The lyrics are most likely about a pin-up girl or porn star, though probably not about anyone in particular. One-timer Jay Graydon's guitar solo is yet another celebrated instrumental excursion, and while it may not be the best guitar solo the Dan ever put on a record, it's certainly a lot better than every other solo they tried, as is borne out by the "Classic Albums" documentary. Michael McDonald, who was such an important part of 1975's Katy Lied, shares with Paul Griffin the harmony vocal, which underscores Becker/Fagen's love of thick chords. Graydon appears once more just before the fade-out. Also: as on "Don't Take Me Alive" from Royal Scam and "Babylon Sisters" on Gaucho, neither Becker nor Fagen actually appear on the track as instrumentalists.

The next track, "Home at Last," is still another instrumental (as in rhythm tracks) triumph for the group as well as one of the Dan's most literary sets of lyrics (based on Homer's The Odyssey). Based on Becker and Fagen's instructions, drummer Bernard Purdie (the only drummer to appear on more than one track here) essentially invented a new beat; the half-time shuffle, the innovations of which were later expanded and popularized by sometime Dan employee Jeff Porcaro, on Toto's classic track "Rosanna" (which itself also borrows from Led Zeppelin's "Fool in the Rain"). Beginning with the previous track, the lyrics on Side Two are generally more direct and sparse than on Side One?a nice contrast. More instrumental goodies: Vic Feldman's acoustic piano on the intro and each re-occurrence of the pattern; the horn backgrounds after the second verse which may or may not be augmented by synths (after all these years, I'm still not sure), and Fagen's brief synth solo afterward; and one of Walter Becker's tastiest and most lyrical guitar solos (which stands in sharp contrast to the Dan's "comeback" years where he tried to fill in every available space with licks). Purdue substitutes the ride cymbal for the hi-hat on the fade-out, which raises the intensity slightly and almost seems to hint at the aforementioned "Rosanna."

"I Got the News" is a track that Becker/Fagen had had in the offing since at least the Katy Lied days (the demo recording from that period is completely different though). Ed Greene, another one-timer in the Dan drum chair, points the way toward rap music by contributing a bouncy beat that ends on the same cadence every two bars; my understanding is that this became a sort of running joke among the LA studio scene of which Greene was a part. ("Hey, we need that fill on this track, let's get Ed in here.") Anyway, this track is sort of a distant cousin of "Green Earrings" as it has some of the same elements lyrically, but with kinkier undertones ("Slow down/I'll tell you when/I may never walk again"), as well as the fact that this track also has two guitar solos. Larry Carlton is featured on the first instrumental bridge (after "Broadway duchess darling"), which stands alone from the rest of the song while still maintaining continuity; Becker makes an appearance in the second bridge ("Spanish kissin"). In a rare liner note gaffe, the clavinet on the first bridge is uncredited (although it's probably either Fagen or Feldman). One of those tracks that grows on you over time.

The finale, "Josie," is more similar to the tracks on Side One than the previous three. Featuring an intro guitar line that most serious Dan fans already have memorized by now, the track rides an overtly funkier backbeat supplied by LA "drum guru" Jim Keltner, who also overdubbed a garbage can lid as percussion in the breakdown after the second verse (proof that the best can make anything sound musical). Josie is the prototypical hell raiser, who comes back to town to see some old friends and cause trouble with said friends as a form of celebration ("Sleep on the beach and make it"). Becker has maybe his best ever guitar solo on this track, and Chuck Rainey, who appears on every track except "Deacon Blues," utilizes the upper register in his bass line, which is unusual for him.

I think one of the keys to the success of Aja is how well everything hangs together musically. Much like Miles' Kind of Blue, it is all of a piece, with everything flowing together in a completely logical way (although now that I think about it, this could very well be down to the fact that most songs are the same tempo), and nothing wasted in terms of songwriting, musicianship?everything just, well, works. Obviously the Dan following had been building for a long time, with each album becoming more successful and allowing Becker/Fagen to hire Irving Azoff as their manager?he was also managing the blockbuster Eagles of the "Hotel California" period, and as such, he could afford to spend vast amounts of money on Aja's ad campaign (which included TV commercials!) so I'm sure that played a part in their success as well. Certainly having Aja in their back pocket put them over the top, which was a long time coming; I'd like to think that more sophisticated listeners and fellow musicians took notice as well, most notably the Crusaders who were producing similar music around this time.

Whatever the case, this album firmly cemented the name "Steely Dan" in the eyes and ears of many discerning music listeners by the end of the 70s. It's a certified classic for several very good reasons, and no self-respecting music collection, particularly one maintained by an individual with a keen ear for jazz, should be without it. Highly recommended, with no reservations whatsoever. 5 stars out of 5.

cfergmusic1 | 5/5 |

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