21st October, 2018
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Aja – Steely Dan

If you are an audiophile, it’s very likely that you would be swearing by this album. “Aja”, the 6th album from the kinkily called band Steely Dan (name of a dildo in William Burroughs novel, ‘Naked Lunch’), is one of the best engineered albums in the recording history. But that’s just one of the manyfine aspects of the album.

Released in 1977, “Aja” is the perfect culmination of musical sounds that the duo, Donald Fagen (keyboards, lead vocals) and the recently deceased Walter Becker (guitars, backing vocals), were crafting ever since they came together. It’s the sound of wild sophistication. It’s the sound of smooth funk. It’s the sound of blues pop. It’s the sound of jazz rock. And all of this is packaged beneath a very polished surface of studio precision.

The duo also assembled the ‘Who’s Who’ of 70’s Jazz/R&B for the project: Wayne Shorter (saxophone), Victor Feldman (electric piano, vibraphone, percussion) and Chuck Rainey (bass guitar), to name a few. Lyrically, the songs are mostly esoteric and sometimes easy, little tales. Fagen, at the time of album release said, “We write the same way a writer of fiction would write. We are basically assuming the role of a character and for that reason it may not sound personal.”

From start to finish, the album is an example in musical perfection despite its complex structures and instrumentation. There isn’t a single wrong note there and on multiple listenings, one can keep finding several hidden notes. It’s a fine example of what has got labelled as the LA / West Coast jazz sound.

Side 1 kicks off with the bass and groove of Black Cow having the trademark Steely Dan chorus and a beautiful vibraphone solo by Feldman. Next up, the title track is the longest and most complex material by the band ever, with a pristine jazz saxophone solo by the master, Wayne Shorter. The last track of the side is the radio favourite Deacon Blues. It peaked at No. 19 on the Billboard Charts and is very melodic with some easy or loser (whichever way you look at it) kind of lyrics.

Learn to work the saxophone
I play just what I feel
Drink Scotch whiskey all night long
And die behind the wheel

Side 2 opens up with Peg, the band’s biggest hit (along with Rikki Don’t Lose That Number & Hey 19) with its funky guitar riffs, horns, slap bass and jazzy vocal harmonies by Michael McDonald (of the Doobie Brothers). Then comes the drummy Home At Last followed by a standard Steely tune I Got the News. The album ends with the cynical funk-rock Josie showcasing a good usage of synthesizer.

“Aja” was a landmark album in the history of popular music. It embraced and fused genres. It defined new standards for music production. It opened up doors for musicians like Sting and Elvis Costello to go in newer directions. And it continues to sound path-breaking and fresh even today, 40 years after its release.

Year: 1977
Genre: Jazz Rock
Duration: 39:58
Producer: Gary Katz
Label: ABC

Rating: *****

Reviewed by Meraj Hasan

Meraj Hasan is a Mumbai based communication professional (and an amateur poet/musician) with a passion for listening to music the vinyl way. His 25 year old Technics turntable along with a humble collection of LPs across genres like Classic rock, Classical, Blues and Jazz (amongst others) are his prized possessions.
He can be reached at +91 9833410791 or email: meraj.hasan@gmail.com

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