People who followed Steely Dan back in the day must have known before hearing a single note that they were in for a big surprise in the fall of 1977 when Aja first appeared in record stores. The first suspicious sign was the album cover: it wasn’t ugly! Hell, its sleek, dark minimalist design on this veneer similar to a freshly wax car was downright vogue and still looks the part today, just don’t ask me to interpret it.
Secondly, when you unfold the cover, there are not one but two sets of liner notes to greet you. Liner notes are quite common on jazz records—at least, they used to be—but pretty rare on rock records. I remember seeing some (rightfully) effusive praise lavished on Boston’s first album that was included with the album and that was fairly astonishing at the time. The first essay on Aja, penned by a “Michael Phalen” was in itself unconventional, taking shots at Becker and Fagen for their less than hospitable treatment of Phalen, Becker’s guitar solo on “I Got The News” and a broadside on their entire back catalog (a hilarious breakdown of Phalen’s notes can be found here, although I wonder if the author is aware that the whole Phalen thing is a hoax concocted by Becker and Fagen). The second set of liner notes was much more complimentary and composed by the label head himself, Steve Diener. This, too, has irony in that around this time the Dan guys had been complaining to the press about the crappy contract they signed with ABC Records and were looking forward to getting out from under it and moving forward with Warner Brothers. But what is Steely Dan without the irony, right?
The third thing that stuck out pre-needle-to-the vinyl is the personnel, neatly listed for each track. Sure, there were the usual suspects in Victor Feldman, Larry Carlton, Michael McDonald, demoted member Denny Dias and the Chuck Rainey/Bernard Purdie rhythm section. But some other significant names appeared: Steve Gadd, Tom Scott, Lee Ritenour, Joe Sample and Wayne Shorter. Wait, what…Wayne Shorter?! More on that next week.
Taken together, these things signaled a shift in direction for Steely Dan, and is confirmed as the lead-off track “Black Cow” gets underway. Yet another tale of a relationship gone to hell, the narrator’s disgust at his lover’s “outrageous” behavior is part of a larger theme that runs with increasing regularity on SD records: an American society that’s falling farther into an abyss of degenerate and sleazy behavior. Perhaps more specifically, it’s more about what they’ve observed from their Southern California surroundings having now lived there for about five years. But the subject matter was hardly new for them by the time Aja came along. On the other hand, the music is much more finely tuned on this LP, and that’s where the real story of this classic album lies.
Crisp, perfectly modulated, utterly suave and precisely integrated, the sound on this record set new standards. It richly deserved that Grammy for best engineered album, non-classical. The opening passage consists of a two-note guitar punctuation, and a clavinet/bass/drums strut that’s remarkable solely on how well it’s executed. Tom Scott was brought in not just to add a sax solo (that he nails on the coda), but also for soulfully swinging horn arrangements, which matches the prior high water mark attained on “The Caves Of Altamira.” The all-girl chorus singing brings the sass and Feldman’s Rhodes meanderings delivers understated lushness in the instrumental break.
And we’re just getting warmed up. It gets even better on the next track.