Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (March 9, 2005)
One of the more enigmatic bands of the Seventies, Steely Dan made what some folks called “Mensa Rock” due to their songs’ often intricate and clever lyrics. They also took rock into a jazzier form that made it unusual. 1977’s Aja was likely their biggest hit, and it receives attention in this episode of Classic Albums.
I’ve enjoyed all of the prior entries in this series that I’ve seen. I found myself impressed with the presentation of the albums, as the discs involved provided a good look at their recording. We heard from virtually all the main participants – at least those still alive, which left out some like the Who’s Keith Moon – and they gave reasonably detailed accounts of their work, along with cool demonstrations of the mixing possibilities, some live performances, and other elements.
Aja follows the same blueprint. We hear from main members Walter Becker and Donald Fagen, producer Gary Katz, bassist Chuck Rainey, guitarist Dean Parks, songwriter Ian Dury, journalist Andy Gill, drummer Rick Marotta, engineer Roger Nichols, backing vocalist Michael McDonald, guitarist Larry Carlton, guitarist Denny Dias, drummer Bernard “Pretty” Purdie, and saxophonist Wayne Shorter.
A few modern instrumental performances of Aja tunes come from the studio. In that setting, we hear “Josie”, “Home At Last” and “Peg”. A few numbers pop up with filmed footage of concerts from the Nineties, but these use album audio, so we don’t hear the live renditions. Steely Dan never toured behind Aja in the Seventies, which means that we don’t get any shots from them in that era.
That’s too bad, as it’s always good to get a feel for the material in its original period. Nonetheless, we find notes about the beginning and evolution of the band, moving to Los Angeles and working in the studio there, the constantly changing lineup of musicians and the predominant use of session men, and various working methods.
When it comes to album specifics, Becker and Fagen chat about the elements of six songs: “Josie”, “Peg”, “Deacon Blues”, “Home At Last”, “Aja” and “Black Cow”. This occasionally means introspection about the lyrics, but usually they focus on a dissection of the musical pieces. A lot of the tunes are stripped down at the mixing board with Fagen and Becker. They go through the isolated elements of “Josie”, “Peg”, “Deacon Blues” and “Home At Last”. Those nicely depict the details of the various components and are a lot of fun.
For additional clarity, we hear some of the musicians play specific instrumental parts and inform us about their creation. For example, Rainey plays the “Josie” bassline. Becker and Fagen also get into the various attempts at the “Peg” solo.
As usual, the bits at the board are the most interesting. I always enjoy hearing the tracks broken down into their components. Becker and Fagen help elaborate on the work, and it’s very cool to hear alternate takes as well, such as the unused “Peg” solos.
Unfortunately, Aja occasionally seems a bit flat due to the studious manner in which Becker and Fagen chat. They exhibit a wry sense of humor, and that means a really low-key tone to the piece. The material they offer is good, but the laid-back atmosphere makes the program feel logy some of the time.
Also, Aja continues a Classic Albums tradition in that it doesn’t discuss all the record’s songs. I could better accept that for expansive releases like Elton John’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, but Aja only includes seven tunes! This means the omission of “I Got the News” feels almost spiteful. They couldn’t toss in a few minutes of chat about that number?
The absence of real live performances also hurts Aja. Again, I accept the absence of archival clips since the band didn’t tour in the Seventies. However, we couldn’t get something from the modern Steely Dan? It’s frustrating to see live shots without the real audio. The studio instrumentals aren’t very interesting either, as the absence of vocals makes them less compelling.
Overall, Aja fares as another pretty good entry in the Classic Albums series, but it’s not one of the best. The programs evolved over the years and became more expansive, which means more recent entries work better than some of these older ones. Nonetheless, we get a generally entertaining and insightful look at a great album in this enjoyable piece.