Steely Dan Sunday, “Stand by the Seawall” (1977, unreleased)

*** STEELY DAN SUNDAY INDEX ***

“Stand by the Seawall” is an instrumental demo from the Aja sessions that captures quite well the jazzy harmonies, rhythms, and lyrical melodies of the Katy Lied – Aja period. The “Seawall” demo features drums, bass, guitar and piano that starts simply enough, but hints of expanded horizons we would experience on the released Aja album, particularly the title track.

The intro features a “Here at the Western World” sensibility, chord progression, and nascent accouterments of the sessions of Steely Dan during the mid to late 70s. Steve Gadd, Chuck Rainey, Larry Carlton, and, I believe, Michael Omartian are allowed to stretch out and play really together as a tight unit. The final recordings from Royal Scam, Aja, and Gaucho featured a fuller band arrangement to the Becker and Fagen compositions. Thus, it’s a treat to hear Dan’s core session giants in their true element, recording in a more Katy Lied intimate style, where the players can actually make eye contact, and not playing to some click. We’re fortunate that there’s a relatively HQ version out there to really hear the conversation. Thus, “Stand by the Seawall” has that fusion jam session sound that is a little reminiscent of Sea Level’s classic Cats on the Coast, a contemporary of the full Aja recording.

Chuck Rainey’s contrapuntal bass over the main vamp is absolutely genius. I don’t think there’s been a bassist among pop and R&B session musicians who listens nearly as well as Rainey. He’s the ballast, the guy holding down the fort, the man that makes the session work as musicianship, not simply some background fern music, and his peers are listening to Chuck!

Indeed, there are two ways to partake of Aja, as the backdrop of late night bars at half volume, slinky and subversive, or loud up to 11 to really taste the songs and dive into what these fine players are laying down. Omartian creates some sweet riffs during the bridge. I really dig Gadd’s deft and care during the fills as the group ventures beyond the simple pop and punk of the day, yet is crisp and funky with the groove, then leaves the pocket open when. It’s almost as if the group was thinking, “man, if we were allowed to actually lay this down and keep this shit on an album!” They were sessions made of the Right Stuff.

About halfway through “Seawall” we stumble into a short segment that’s sort of, but not really like, the first part of the instrumental portion of the Aja “suite.” Whether the spirit of the session morphed later into the title track, I can’t say (although it is rumored so), but sensibility is certainly there with a mu major 7th chord in staccato and Gadd working the kit.

There’s so much here and so much space, “Seawall” is a crystalline peak behind the scenes of SD studio gigs, merging the best of the Katy Lied and Aja sessions. A real treat, but at the same time it’s a bit sad that such a full jam session or something like it never made the final grade. I think the band felt it, and their gift was to find a way to somehow infuse pieces of the soul of this lovely session throughout the Aja album.

You want me on that wall. You need me on that seawall.

John Lawler

J.M. Lawler is researcher living somewhere left of the Rio Grande, Texas, where he practices science - until he gets it right. He was first exposed to Steely Dan by a neighbor and the static of AM radio at a young age. Reach John at jml2621@gmail.com; contact Something Else! at reviews@somethingelsereviews.com.