Five Things About … Steely Dan’s “Aja”
The other morning I was in the car running an errand when the title track from [lastfm link_type="artist_info"]Steely Dan[/lastfm]‘s Aja came on the radio — and the errand had to wait until the song finished. “Aja” is an extraordinary piece of music, but it’s only one of the extraordinary pieces of music on the album. Here are Five Things About … Aja.
1. For an album Rolling Stone placed among its 500 greatest of all time in 2003, the original Rolling Stone review published in 1977 wasn’t exactly a rave. True, it calls [lastfm link_type="artist_info"]Walter Becker[/lastfm] and [lastfm link_type="artist_info"]Donald Fagen[/lastfm] “the perfect musical antiheroes for the Seventies,” and it contains other phrases of praise, but a reader is left feeling as though the reviewer wanted to dislike the album but couldn’t find a reason.
2. By 1977, Steely Dan had long since been Becker, Fagen, and a shifting cast of studio musicians, although the cast on Aja was the biggest yet, and included the best of the best, some of whom were stars in their own right: jazz musician and bandleader [lastfm link_type="artist_info"]Tom Scott[/lastfm], saxophonist [lastfm link_type="artist_info"]Wayne Shorter[/lastfm] and keyboard player [lastfm link_type="artist_info"]Victor Feldman[/lastfm], both veterans of the [lastfm link_type="artist_info"]Miles Davis[/lastfm] band of the 1960s, and once-and-future Dan accomplice [lastfm link_type="artist_info"]Michael McDonald[/lastfm]. Also among the players: [lastfm link_type="artist_info"]Denny Dias[/lastfm], the first musician Becker and Fagen hired when forming Steely Dan, who had remained a sideman after the band was whittled to the Becker/Fagen duo.
3. Because Becker and Fagen could attract the best players, they could be choosy. Major players like [lastfm link_type="artist_info"]Larry Carlton[/lastfm] and [lastfm link_type="artist_info"]Robben Ford[/lastfm] were brought in to solo on “Peg,” but they couldn’t produce what Becker and Fagen wanted to hear. A guitarist named [lastfm link_type="artist_info"]Jay Graydon[/lastfm] eventually nailed it. In a documentary about the making of the album, Becker and Fagen played the rejected solos over the final backing track, and discussed other aspects of the making of “Peg”:
4. The original gatefold album package contained two sets of liner notes — one by journalist Michael Phalen and one by ABC Records president Steve Diener. The Diener essay reads like an amped-up PR piece, the sort of Hollywood puffery that’s the precise opposite of Steely Dan’s traditional icy cool. There’s some suspicion online that Phalen may be a Becker/Fagen invention, a contention bolstered by a second piece by Phalen appearing in the notes to the compilation album ShowBiz Kids, released in 2000.
5. There’s no easy way to verify this, but I am guessing that a lot of audiophiles, when they switched from vinyl to CD, made Aja one of their first CD purchases. The sound on the album is incredible, the pinnacle of Steely Dan’s obsessiveness (and the craftsmanship of their longtime engineer Roger Nichols), a record that was so arduous to make that it was three years before they could get another one together. It’s still a great listen, 33 years since it first hit turntables around the world.