Album Review: Steely Dan “Aja” (1977)

Considered by many to be the band’s magnum opus, Steely Dan’s Aja was recorded over a seven month period in 1977 in what was an example of obsessive perfectionism on the part of band leaders Donald Fagen and Walter Becker. The recording sessions for this album not only took forever but also had a cast of millions and in total involved a staggering thirty session musicians including six backing vocalists, five keyboard/piano players, six guitarists, a whopping ten horn players and seven drummers. With this the case there can be no doubt that Fagen and Becker were going for studio efficiency and perfection over everything else on this album as they sought a heavily sophisticated jazz-rock sound. Fagen and Becker (the only remaining original members) had already been heading in this direction and seemingly had been preparing to make this album for a few years. They had already relieved the other original band members of their duties in 1974 in favor of studio musicians, whilst also turning the band into a studio only act in 1975 when they decided to stop touring. The result of these decisions manifested itself in the recording and subsequent release of this album, with the results being definitely worthwhile to the listener at least.

As I have already mentioned, Aja has a slick jazz-rock sound to it or what I like to describe as cocktail jazz. The reason being is that when I listen to this album the music ridiculously produces images of me sipping cocktails in a New York bar in downtown Manhattan; the music definitely has that nightclub feel to it. Musically, the sound of this album is sexy with amazing sax solos and horn harmonies; it is jazzy with a rhythm section of drums and bass holding down the backbeat, whilst the keyboard and piano playing is smooth in nature with little melodic runs and jazzy sequences. Throughout there is a strong emphasis placed on structure, harmony and carefully placed solos whether they are keyboard, guitar, or horn. Careful attention is also given to the sound of each instrument, with the final mix ensuring that all instruments are heard clearly with no one instrument getting more scope than the other. This slickness and careful construction of the instrumental backing is due to the quality of the session musicians, many of whom were the best in the business in terms of playing jazz and would have clocked up many hours of studio time themselves playing on many records during the period.

The songs on Aja are highly textured and include multiple layers of instruments resulting in quite a sonic sound and a very warm feel. In terms of structure, the songs are quite like classical pieces in that they have different parts and sections with an example being the title track Aja that starts with the main motif of the song then has a middle free-form jazz section, before moving back to the motif and finally finishing with another jazz flourish. With this amount of attention placed on song structure and jazz arrangements, you get the feeling it would have taken hours and hours to get these songs right, with multiple takes probably being the order of the day during the recording sessions. Multi-tracking would also have been significantly important considering the complexity of some of the songs and without it, the dense layering of the instrumentation would have been very hard to produce on record. Meanwhile, lyrically the subject matter of the songs is classic Steely Dan, very eccentric, witty and often sarcastic in tone and content, whilst by no means pretentious or serious in any way. These guys didn’t really write love songs, instead, they wrote songs that were highly narrative usually about New York and Los Angeles where the band was based, that included fictional and often real characters with interesting lyrical constructions of great depth to the point that they sometimes even confused the listener. What results in is an interesting and sometimes entertaining listen even if you can’t quite work what they are singing about.  

Aja was a great success for the band both critically and commercially. It went on to become the group’s bestselling album and was ranked 145 in Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 500 greatest albums of all time. As an album, it was definitely more slickly produced than much of their previous work and it seems Fagen and Becker were going all out for absolute perfection in the studio, but this didn’t matter as the songs themselves were fantastic sounding and some of the bands best. There can be no doubt that Aja is one of the Dan’s best albums and if not their most complete sounding work. It is a must listen for jazz-rock fans as well as those into classic 70s rock.


– Sam


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