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Steely Dan - Aja CD (album) cover


Steely Dan


Jazz Rock/Fusion

4.18 | 315 ratings

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5 stars The 1970s were my decade. I was a relatively free adult, burdened with only a few responsibilities. Music was my world. I ate, drank, slept, lived and breathed music. I must have bought an average of an LP per week for those ten years. I listened to and absorbed all kinds of great (and not so great) aural art. So when I say that Steely Dan's "Aja" is the best American album from the 70s you'll know that I don't bestow that grandiose title lightly. It is the perfect combination of the high level of creative composition, musicianship, and studio recording technology that had grown by leaps and bounds since the revolutionary sixties came to an end. It has endured and aged incredibly well. It still excites my senses today every bit as much as it did when I first put needle to vinyl back in September of '77.

The humble, simple beginning of "Black Cow" belies the magnificence that lays in wait for your anxious ears. The ever-morphing entity known as Steely Dan creates a fitting, somber aura to surround the heartbreaking storyline that defines the song. It's about a man finally having to turn his back on the girl he loves with all his heart because he's come to realize that the object of his adoration has problems that his commitment to her will never solve. He has become her enabler. "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," Fagen sadly sings. Victor Feldman's electric piano solo flows effortlessly and Tom Scott's horn arrangement is subtle but effective. When Mr. Scott delivers his fluent saxophone ride over the female chorus's soft refrains of "so outrageous." you share in the poor protagonist's sorrow-filled surrender to the painful truth of the matter.

The mystical atmosphere of "Aja" is almost beyond description. I'll say this. Anyone who thinks that Steely Dan isn't prog hasn't really listened to this amazing track. Like all fine progressive music, the tune takes the listener on an eight minute journey and this one is as good as it gets in Jazz Rock/Fusion. Here Fagen & Becker let their words about fidelity and loyalty ("When all my dime dancin' is through/I run to you.") take a back seat to the wondrous collaboration of musicians they brought together for this recording. While the saxophone work of Wayne Shorter is brilliant, it is the heavenly bliss of Steve Gadd's drumming that ushers this piece into the sacred halls where legends dwell. It's not a drum solo. Not at all. He plays his finely-tuned instrument completely within the framework of the song, displaying not only awesome technique but an unbelievable ability to maintain the tune's strict tempo requirements. And that's just the halfway point! When Steve shakes, rumbles and rolls like a force of nature over the exciting piano accents and the near-psychedelic drone during the end segment and subsequent fade out it's like watching and hearing a powerful storm moving away over the horizon.

Donald and Walter's beautiful ode to musicians, "Deacon Blues," is next and it's my all-time favorite composition by that duo. It speaks to all artists who have dedicated themselves to their calling, but especially those who seek to manipulate sound waves. Opening with those intriguing "Steely Dan guitar chords" that you never forget once you learn them, this tune features Tom Scott's elite horn section as they create a lush background as full as a cathedral organ under Fagen's soulful vocals and the soaring female chorale that backs him. The message pulls no punches. If you are an artist, you will be an outcast in the eyes of society, not to mention your own family. You choose to live on the fringe. "You call me a fool/you say it's a crazy scheme/this one's for real/I already bought the dream," he admits. But what Gadd did for the previous cut, saxophonist supreme Pete Christlieb does for this one. He injects all the passion, blood, sweat and tears of a musician's life into his horn and it is sublime. It sends chills up my backbone. During the fadeout I always form a mental picture of a musician just getting off work at the nightclub, strolling down an empty street in the quiet pre-dawn hours on his way back to his modest, lonely apartment. Fagen's final verse always hits me where it means the most. "I cried when I wrote this song/sue me if I play too long/this brother is free/I'll be what I want to be." Amen.

"Peg" is one cool, funky dance number. (And it's okay for proggers to dance.) Here the rhythm track supplied by drummer Rick Marotta and bassist Chuck Rainey ignites the studio with their irresistible groove. If you don't understand why they used Chuck so often then take a moment and lend an ear to what he's playing on this tune. The words are a stinging, sarcastic poke at just one of the horde of disillusioned starlets they probably ran into on the streets and in the cliques of Hollywood each day. Michael McDonald's unique tenor is unmistakable on the chorus and Jay Graydon's spectacular guitar break is one that never gets old. The story is that for this song's solo he was the seventh professional session guitarist to attempt to dazzle Don & Walt and the only one that succeeded.

"Home at Last" has always been special to me. In that autumn of '77 I had turned my existence upside down by moving lock, stock and barrel to Los Angeles in a last-ditch effort to go nationwide. The first year out there went so splendidly for me that I easily related to Mr. Fagan when he sang "could it be that I have found my home at last?" I especially admire their use of open space between Feldman's opening piano jabs to build anticipation. The melody and vocal delivery are both superb and, once again, Tom Scott's horn arrangement creates a soft but dense wall of sound as deep as that of a Mellotron. In a rare occurrence, the writers step in to supply the leads with Donald tossing in some playful synthesizer and Walter displaying his underrated, nimble guitar style.

"I Got the News" is a very up-tempo jog through the suburban streets of the city with various instruments jumping in and out of the mix. The bridge, with Michael McDonald's trademark chops rising to the surface again, is a surprise turn and the lyrics about pretty ladies who believe they could get away with murder are very tongue-in-cheek. "Broadway Duchess/darlin', if you only knew/half as much as/everybody thinks you do." Fagen & company sings. "Josie," with its familiar chiming guitar intro, takes the album out on a celebratory note. This cut has a funky feel that's truly infectious and its catchy hook line made it a hit that will never leave the airwaves. I don't know who Josie is but the hometown folks are happy to see her return. "Strike at the stroke of midnight/dance on the bones till the girls say when/pick up what's left by daylight/when Josie comes home." (I might add that I didn't get that kind of reception when I retreated to the homestead after my California experience 3 years later. But few do. P.S. I don't regret a thing.)

True artists aim for immortality with their every creation. They are constantly driven to sculpt a Pieta, paint a Starry Night or compose an Ode To Joy with every try. For Steely Dan, this is their magnum opus. In a career that can only be considered extraordinary, this album of songs towers above the clouds like Mount Everest. I will never grow weary of hearing its magic and I suspect that it will still be respected and revered a thousand years from now. It exists forevermore on a lofty plane inhabited by only a handful of other albums and, thusly, it should most definitely inhabit a place on your shelf.

Chicapah | 5/5 |


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