Jazz stylings had been the backbone of much of SD's music from its inception (and earlier), but one had to be a bit more musically literate to discern such. For many listeners, it was just good 'ol rock and roll. This was about to change in a very big way with 1977's Aja.
Over one year in the making, Aja was to become a landmark of musicianship, and not just in the world of pop. The mind bogglingly complex arrangements were legendary, often requiring several music stands just to support the charts for a few bars of each song! Longtime SD cohort Denny Dias recalled that his guitar solo for the title track was almost impossible to play, as it had more notes per measure than his fingers could track. Ah, the spirit is Mozart is evoked yet again.
"Aja" is the centerpiece of the album-a sprawling eight minute opus which is actually a suite constructed of musical ideas that dated back to the late 1960s. The middle section of the tune was cribbed from an old instrumental known as "Stand By the Seawall." The Asian flavored percussion by Victor Feldman is a repeated theme throughout this mysterious piece, but the truly breathtaking elements belong to drummer Steve Gadd and tenor saxophonist Wayne Shorter. Gadd's explosive performance during the bridge has become quite famous. The drum part as written was polyrhythmic to begin with; Gadd (in one take!) transformed it into something even more extraordinary with his ad lib. The songwriters had instructed the drummer to "play like hell" during this part, and that about scratches the surface.
Shorter, then busy with the fusion group Weather Report, dropped by the Hollywood studio to record his emotionally resonant saxophone part, a perfect counterpoint to the ripping drum solo. Hearing Gadd and Shorter's parts together is just something else. Nothing Steely Dan had done before had prepared listeners for such a wildly ambitious and thundering display.
The rest of the album isn't too bad, either. The opener, "Black Cow", concerns a lovelorn narrator, bemoaning his wayward girlfriend. Feldman's vibes provide a contemplative touch. "Deacon Blues" is one of the few Dan songs not drenched in acid. This narrator rather sadly describes his choice in life to become an artist, a choice that ensures an unbearable loneliness. But the artist can have it no other way. "They've got a name for the winners in the world. I want a name when I lose", Fagen sings. The song is an emotional powerhouse. Could it be that the Masters of Sardonica penned a lyric that says "I cried when I wrote this song"???
"Peg" and "Josie" became Top 40 hits as well. The former is a readymade pop funhouse that is a true earworm, totally infectious. While Michael McDonald's background singing is a little too up front in the mix for my taste, I have to admit it seems to work well enough. The central guitar solo was attempted by several musicians before Jay Graydon nailed it to Fagen and Becker's satisfaction. A discussion of this can be heard on the highly entertaining Classic Album series episode, available on DVD. Fagen and Becker sit at a mixing board and isolate each of the failed solos. Becker, in his usual cutting manner, dismisses the solos ("they speak for themselves") before playing the eventual winner. Don't feel too badly for the anonymous musician whose work was decimated, though; the solos Becker criticizes are his own attempts! See? They're not such bad guys!
"Josie" is another phenomenal track. The ominous opening, the stark vocal, and the lacerating guitar work create a really stunning song. Becker has stated how much he enjoys playing this one live. It is a standard blues, opened up quite a bit to allow for some serious jamming. Check out Chuck Rainey's swell bassline, too. "Home at Last" features almost ragtime-ish piano, a great Becker guitar solo, and a loose vocal. Its Greek mythological imagery again reveals the artists' taste for all things literary. Lastly, "I Got the News" thumps along like a jukebox ditty. Throwing jazzy chords every which way in the midst of lyrics which are best not to be examined too closely, this song had originally been conceived a few years earlier, with different lyrics (which seemed to be rife with inside jokes). The new lyrics, uh, seem fairly smutty. But, what did we say about lyrics.....
Aja's lyrics, oddly, aren't quite as venomous or elusive as they had been on previous albums. The words are clearly not the strength here. What is here isn't bad or throwaway. They're just, not as colorful. More serious, less cheeky. But it illustrates an opinion I have. Music, to me, is never worthy or great because of lyrics. Lyrics are like frosting on a cake. You have to build the cake (i.e., the composition) before you worry about the frosting. Yes, lyrics can be fascinating, clever, emotionally draining, and even profound. Sometimes they are just plain ridiculous or even insulting. Either way, if the music itself isn't good, it's basically a lost cause. If I am to judge the lyrics themselves, I'll peruse them in print. Steely Dan always seemed to understand this, in spades.
To say that Aja was a success is a huge undertstatement. Nearly every song was played relentlessly on AM and FM radio in the late 70s. It quickly went platinum, on both sides of the pond, I believe. It became a "fern bar" standard. Every hip eatery in L.A., Marin County, and all of the heirs to such a throne were playing the heck out of it. It also earned Grammy nominations, with a win for Roger Nichols, who again lent his engineering expertise, creating a shimmering production that is still an industry yardstick for sonic excellence.
The stylistic shift of the music was positively seismic. It wasn't jazz, exactly, but it certainly wasn't only rock and roll anymore. Steely Dan was now being deemed as fusion, a label which did not necessarily please the duo. It would be the first time that listeners would start to accuse them of smoothing things out. The modals of "Home at Last" were a revealing contrast to the swirling, dirty sounding keyboards on older tracks like "Daddy Don't Live in That New York City No More (from Katy Lied in '75). Shorter and his Weather Report cohorts had created a similiar brouhaha with their Heavy Weather album the same year. Many considered it the birth of "smooth jazz", which irked the trueblue jazz aficienados, just as Aja baffled the fans who wanted to merely rock out.
Nonetheless, Fagen and Becker had now achieved what they had been attempting for over seven years. A musically rich tapestry of compositions that paid homage to the giants of the jazz world as filtered through their post-Beatnik melancholia. It worked swimmingly, by all accounts. So, where does one go from here?
A "Greatest Hits" album, naturally! In 1978, ABC collected many of SD's most memorable to create another blockbuster hit. Included was the previously deleted outtake from the Royal Scam sessions, "Here at the Western World." This is another of my favorites, a midtempo tune which rather craftily uses a brothel as a metaphor for our free society.
Historically, "Greatest Hits" albums often signal the kiss of death for an artist. It usually means that the artist is running out of steam, past their prime, or just merely summating their first act. Sometimes, it means that the musicians are about to call it a day. Was this the case for Steely Dan? Hmmm, yes and no.........
to be continued