Review: Steely Dan – Aja
ABC Records / MCA Records
By far, this album represents the pinnacle of Steely Dan’s illustrious career. Released during the height of the disco era in 1977, this album of jazz-rock fusion not only contained several hits but set a new standard for studio musicianship and perfectionism. Not before or since has the Dan put together such an all-around masterpiece. It is also Steely Dan’s best selling album at over 20 million copies worldwide.
Contributing greatly to the sound of this record is the impressive list of the best session musicians (and a future best-selling producer) to come out of the United States in the late 1970’s. This list includes such luminaries as Timothy B. Schmit (Eagles), Michael Omartian (became a famous producer), Larry Carlton, Jay Graydon, Steve Khan (Billy Joel), Lee Ritenour, Jim Horn, Wayne Shorter, Bernard “Pretty” Purdie, Jim Keltner, Steve Gadd, and Michael McDonald. The album was engineered by Roger Nichols, Elliott Scheiner (Eagles), and Al Schmitt (Toto). The sound quality was so impressive that the album was awarded the 1978 Grammy Award for “Best Engineered Non-Classical Recording”. One listen to the smooth sounds of this album at full throttle will clearly demonstrate why this was the winner.
The album starts out with the choppy funk-jazz of “Black Cow”. The Dan continues on its tradition of cynical and cryptic lyrics. A ‘black cow’ is a drink that was commonly sold in New York. “Drink your big black cow and get out of here…” This is a song about breaking up – with a sound and lyric like you have never heard before. You almost feel as though you are in a bar in New York while listening to this.
The eight-minute, very challenging title track ensues. A mix of jazz, rock, and East-Asian musical elements, this is a smooth piece of music. Aja (pronounced like ‘asia’) was inspired by the Korean wife of a friend of band member Donald Fagen. An ode to East-Asian women everywhere, this track is especially meaningful for those of us with a fond appreciation for not only jazz and rock but also those fine women from the Orient.
One of the hits and the smoothest cut on the album follows. “Deacon Blues” continues the cynical and dark lyrics: “Drink Scotch whiskey all night long, and die behind the wheel…” This is a track that soothes and disturbs all at once. It almost lulls the listener into a trance that doesn’t quite take hold due to the dark content of the lyrics.
Michael McDonald demonstrates his distinct background vocals on “Peg” another hit song. McDonald had already gone on to re-define the sound of The Doobie Brothers but, as a regular on Steely Dan albums, was brought in to work on the Aja sessions. This song rocks more than any other on the album yet still retains a distinct nod to jazz and funk. For those who are Dan aficionados or were listening to a lot of AM radio in 1977, you will instantly recognize this tune as soon as the opening bars start emanating from your speakers.
The funk and jazz elements get beefed up tremendously on the slinky, smooth “Home at Last”, my all-time favourite cut from the album. Bernard “Pretty” Purdie lays down a simple yet unbelievable backbeat-laden drum track that chugs this tune from start to finish. It is impossible to listen to this without bobbing your head and feeling the groove. The background sax and master jazz guitar playing provide excellent counterpoints to Purdie’s drums.
The album is rounded out with two standout cuts – “I Got the News” and “Josie”. The former, a bouncy drum- and piano-laden ode to nagging. McDonald shows up again to lend his distinctive voice. The guitar solo in this song is something to behold. The latter – “Josie” – ends the album with a funk-laden guitar groove that locks in for 4:31 of the track and doesn’t let up. Despite the allusions to the destructiveness of drug abuse in the lyric, this is an amazing way to end an amazing record.
Donald Fagen and Walter Becker have tried in subsequent years to top Aja but it is probably not possible. Aja sets the high water mark for not only Steely Dan but for the genre of jazz-rock overall.