It’s debatable on whether or not this was their plan from the beginning, but by The Royal Scam, Steely Dan was clearly aiming to make jazz-rock or jazz-pop that was suitable for mainstream radio. Thus, most of their songs adhered to the 3-5 minute format and while the solos can often be interesting, even monumental, after Countdown To Ecstacy they are rarely extended. But Becker and Fagen threw all notions accessibility out the window when they put together what is—to me, anyway—their opus, the sweeping, eight minute semi-suite “Aja.” It consists three or four unfinished songs pasted together, and with multiple, stand-alone sections in it, that’s just how it sounds.
A song that’s stuffed with so many complexities, there are innumerable discussion points for picking it apart. A few years back, I already took a certain angle on this song, dissecting the epic Wayne Shorter/Steve Gadd interaction. Another area of intrigue comes from Denny Dias’ guitar solo (Becker does one, too, in between both of Dias’). In the documentary on the making of Aja, Dias recalls how Becker and Fagan had charted so many notes for his bop-styled solo that it was physically impossible to play them all, so he hit all the most relevant notes that he could. I thought he did a damned good job approximating whatever the composers had envisioned.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the song is how those 3 or 4 fragments are stitched together to make an eccentric harmonic flow, but the stitching is so impressive, one tends not to care. Like Dias, most of the other session players were often befuddled by what Becker and Fagen were trying to get out of them—Larry Carlton served as a de facto translator for these sessions—but for the most knotty of all their arrangements, the results came out without any flaws that any mortal, i.e., anyone aside from the Steely Dan guys, could notice.
Some might dismiss “Aja” as strictly as some snobby, high-falutin’ jazz song, but 35 years later I can come back to it and pick up some cool little aspect or trick I hadn’t noticed before. That’s the same kind of appeal that had drawn me to jazz. Jazz or not, “Aja” represents the artistic apex of Steely Dan.
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