‘Aja,’ Steely Dan‘s sixth studio album, which was the artistic pinnacle of the ’70s jazz-rock movement, turns 35 years old this week.
After 1976′s ‘Royal Scam,’ a solid, guitar-centric album that nonetheless met a lukewarm critical response, studio mavericks Donald Fagen (keyboards, vocals) and Walter Becker (guitar, bass) set to work on a follow-up in January of the following year. They recorded over a six month period in various state-of-the-art studios across New York and L.A.
The result was ‘Aja,’ their highest-selling album (reaching No. 3 on the American charts), and more importantly, their most fully-realized collection of songs. At this point in the career, Fagen and Becker had transformed Steely Dan from a legitimate recording and touring band into a songwriting partnership.
They wrote the material themselves (with production assistance from Gary Katz), aided by a jaw-dropping slew of ace session players. They’d become sonic perfectionists, scrutinizing every overdub until every note was irrevocably in place. But on the pristinely recorded and performed ‘Aja,’ their attention to detail was taken to bold new heights.
The personnel list for ‘Aja’ reads like a ‘Who’s Who’ in ’70s jazz/R&B session musicians: drummers like Steve Gadd (on the explosive title track) and Bernard Perdie (whose infamous ‘Purdie shuffle’ perked up the funky ‘Home at Last‘), longtime bassist Chuck Rainey, vocalist Michael McDonald, and sax legend Wayne Shorter (whose effortless solo on ‘Aja’ ranks among the band’s most epic moments).
Fagen and Becker’s obsession with getting the absolute best performance transcended perfectionism and landed somewhere in the neighborhood of Stalin-esque. As legend has it, the duo filtered through dozens of failed guitar solos from outside musicians on the infectious ‘Peg’ before eventually settling on Jay Graydon’s Polynesian-influenced take.
Reflecting on his contribution to the track for the 2000 documentary ‘Classic Albums:
Aja,’ drummer Rick Marotta said, “That’s one of the best tracks I ever played on. As far as drums were going at that time, if you had a club in your left hand and a club in your right hand and clubs for feet, you could play. I just opened my hi-hat a hair, every couple of beats with what I was playing on my right hand on the hi-hat, and it created this little sound. I had done that but never ever heard it on a record I’d done because (with the) engineers and sounds at the time, it was a nuance, and those things didn’t exist.”
Reflecting on the duo’s relentless quest for the perfect combination of players, Marotta noted, “It wasn’t like they played musical chairs with the guys in the band; they played musical bands! Whole bands would go, and a whole incredible other band would come in!”
‘Aja’ (which won the 1978 Grammy for Best Engineered Non-Classical Recording) is indeed a triumph of engineering. The surfaces sparkle with sophistication, capturing every performance in full clarity. Listening to ‘Aja’ now, it still sounds like the greatest album ever recorded — as if you’re hearing the music from inside the amps and drum heads. But ‘Aja’ is also a masterpiece of performances, and of the nitty-gritty details (like Rainey’s slap-bass harmonics on ‘Peg’ or the subtle, steady climb of horns and synths on ‘Black Cow‘).
In addition to ‘Peg,’ the album also spawned such classic radio singles as ‘Deacon Blues‘ and ‘Josie.’ Reflecting on ‘Deacon Blues,’ which takes its name from the Wake Forest football team, Donald Fagen told Rolling Stone, “Walter and I had been working on that song at a house in Malibu. I played him that line, and he said, ‘You mean it’s like, ‘They call these cracker a–holes this grandiose name like the Crimson Tide, and I’m this loser, so they call me this other grandiose name, Deacon Blues?’ and I said, ‘Yeah!’ He said, ‘Cool, let’s finish it.’” ‘Josie,’ meanwhile, continues the pristine goodness of the record. The song about a girl who turns all the guys heads, does the exact same thing musically to the listener every time.
“By the time we did ‘Aja,’ we’d figured out sort of what it was we sort of wanted to do, musically,’ Fagen noted in the ‘Classic Albums’ documentary. “I think the ‘Aja’ album has so much great playing in terms of what we were trying to do with combining session players and soloists and so on to produce these little ideal tracks for our songs,” Becker reflected. “That was sort of the best, most consistent, and most successful example of that.”