Steely Dan’s Aja at 40: Still the pinnacle of jazz-pop sophistication

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“It seems like only yesterday
I gazed through the glass”

…and yet it was four decades ago. On September 23, 1977, ABC Records dropped Steely Dan’s sixth album Aja on an unsuspecting public. In a time where disco and punk rock were ascendant, MOR rockers Fleetwood Mac and The Eagles ruled the radio alongside Boston’s outsized arena rock and Bob Seger’s heartland rock, Steely Dan succeeded doing to rock what Duke Ellington did to jazz: elevated it to a level of sophistication that was never contemplated in its creation, and made accessible all the same.

The 40-year milestone is reached less than three weeks after one of the album’s masterminds succumbed to mortality. Walter Becker’s contributions to Aja might not ever be fully appreciated by most, but in addition to helping Donald Fagen finely crafting these compositions to their fullest potential, this was also the album where he had ascended to the role as the primary guitar soloist, lending his lead licks to the last three tracks (most notably, “Josie”), as well as some tasty blues comps on the title track.

It’s how these songs came together in the studio where Becker’s input was absolute magic. Acting along with his songwriting partner as the de-facto producer, all of those million little touches that made these recordings ageless works of beauty such as the darting, cosmopolitan intro to “Deacon Blues” to Denny Dias’ impossibly dense jazz guitar aside in the middle of “Aja” bore the mark of a man who likely grew up enthralled by Ellington’s The Blanton-Webster Band as much as Otis Rush’s Cobra Recordings.

The two other hits apart from “Deacon Blues” was proof that high-falutin’ music didn’t mean it had to be drawn out, convoluted or boring: “Peg” and “Josie” get right down to the business of gettin’ down while offering no sacrifice in the quality of a tight song construction and note-perfect arrangements.

No album can be rightly called a classic if the deep cuts didn’t hold up their end of the bargain, and in the case of Aja, the non-hits nearly outshine the hits. “Black Cow” demands the invention of new adjectives because “smooth” and “suave” just ain’t adequate enough, and that was only the opening salvo. “Home At Last” is a rare display of heartfelt sentiment from Becker and Fagen, but Bernard Purdie’s shuffle stubbornly cuts off any route toward a sappy ballad. “I Got The News” is one of their sweet contortions of the blues basted over a taut, joyful rhythm. And “Aja” is what happens when Becker and Fagen remove all constraints imposed by a radio format and bolstering it with memorable contributions from Dias, Wayne Shorter and Steve Gadd, they created maybe the ultimate Steely Dan song.

As for Aja being the ultimate Steely Dan album, there’s no equivocating there. Donald Fagen and Walter Becker fussed over every detail like that hadn’t before for Aja which might have caused some griping among their all-star roster of sidemen then, but no one today is complaining that they took it too far. Even with all the advances made in recording technology over the last forty years, none of that substitutes the genius of a songwriting duo that had the vision, creativity and drive to bring songs from conception to a timeless, cohesive set of recordings.

Aja set the bar for finesse in pop and rock music, and that bar hadn’t been cleared yet.


S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron is an SQL demon for a Fortune 100 company by day, music opinion-maker at night. His musings are strewn out across the interwebs on jazz.com, AllAboutJazz.com, a football discussion board and some inchoate customer reviews of records from the late 1990s on Amazon under a pseudonym that will never be revealed. E-mail him at svaaron@somethingelsereviews .com or follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SVictorAaron
S. Victor Aaron
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  • Creaulx

    Amen.

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