The World According to Keitho

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Aja — the Ten Commandments of pop music

Posted by keithosaunders on April 27, 2011

Steely Dan released Aja —  their sixth album —  in 1977.  It was an enormous hit, peaking at #3 in the U.S. charts.  It is a jazz-rock fusion album in the best, and truest sense of the word.  Its rhythms have an R & B, and pop sensibility, but the songs are infused with dense jazz harmony, complete with +9 and -5 chords, ii-V-I progressions, and obscure hipster references.  […died behind the wheel]

I recently heard a radio show in which a pair of music critics debated the viability of Aja.  The anti-Aja guest asserted that the record is sterile, and that its music is akin to 1970s-style easy listening music.  Although I fall firmly on the pro-Aja side of the debate, I can see where this person is coming from.  Aja is a remarkably clean-sounding record.  Donald Fagan and Walter Becker were notorious for their meticulous attention to detail, and by their own admission they were passionate about their love of the studio and its possibilities. 

The anti-Aja guest is a rocker through and through — that is to say someone who does not appreciate jazz.  For me, the idea of pop music that contains sophisticated chords, great grooves, and sardonic lyrics, played by bad-ass jazz and studio musicians, is right in my wheelhouse.  I can easily see how someone could mistake Aja for easy-listening, especially on first listen.

That theory only holds so much water, however.  There are some all-time performances on this date.  Steve Gadd’s drum fills and samba groove on the title track is a jaw-dropping revelation.  Likewise, drummer Bernard Purdie’s “Purdie shuffle” groove on Peg is hall of fame stuff.  Wayne Shorter lays down an interesting solo on Aja, but it is the L.A. tenor man Pete Christlieb, who, to my ears, steals the show.  His solo on Deacon Blues may be the greatest ever sax solo on a pop tune.  

 The list of sidemen on this date reads like the pop music version of a Cecil B. Demille film: 

Tom Scott, Chuck Findley, Lee Ritenour, Larry Carlton, Joe Sample, Don Grolnick, Michael Omartian,Jim Keltner, Rick Marotta, and Michael McDonald, to name a few. 

Becker and Fagan happen to be good musicians themselves.  While Fagan may lack the chops of the aforementioned session men, he has a great time feeling, and he knows how to utilize space.  I watched a clip of a documentary on the making of Aja, in which Fagan discussed the harmony of Josie with fellow pianist, Warren Bernhardt.  You can hear, both in his discourse, as well as his playing, that he is someone who knows what he is doing — he is not simply playing at being a jazz muscian. 

It would be nearly impossible to make a comparable record in today’s era.  Even if there was an artist as innovative as Steely Dan, there isn’t a studio left that would splurge on this array of talent.  And if the record somehow got made, radio, as it exists today, wouldn’t play it. 

5 Responses to “Aja — the Ten Commandments of pop music”

  1. Keitho, Great post. When this album came out, my 12-year old brother would play drums to it constantly. It was his favorite record for about two years. I loved the song Deacon Blues so much, I actually wrote a short story around it (I was 14 at the time.)
    Sadly, you are right. A record like this probably couldn’t be made today, and only a few college radio stations would ever play it.
    I have to admit, though, that I have to be in the right mood for Steely Dan. I am more likely to play The Clash, Social Distortion or Robert Cray.
    Thanks for the fine post, Bill

    • Hi Bill, and thanks for your kind words. The anti-Dan critic also cited The Clash as one of the bands he liked in that era. Steely Dan and The Clash are both great bands, but taken together, they are like oil and water. It’s easy to see why someone who liked one wouldn’t like the other. I’m definately in the minority of most jazz musicians in that I appreciate a lot of rock as well. (Zeppelin, Bowie, Prince etc)

      Aja is not my favorite Steely Dan record, but it has some unforgettable and important moments, and in many ways is the apex of that band’s output.

      I knew Christlieb at that time (I grew up in LA) and used to go his gigs, and even got to play with him a few times. I always loved that they used him on that date, even though he wasn’t as well known as some of the other sax players they had used and were using, i.e. Shorter, Tom Scott, and Phil Woods. That lyric about dieing behind the wheel is a referance to trumpeter Clifford Brown, and pianist Richie Powell, who died in an car accident in the mid ’50s.

      Thanks for the comment!

  2. zapple100 said

    Besides the fact that Fagen is a great piano player, I’m amazed how they make this stuff up.

  3. I always have like Aja, its a great album and you’re right it would be hard to get a lot of good musicians to record together unless its a tribute album or for a good cause.


  4. NeonKnight said

    Good overview and spot-on commentary about the likelihood of such an effort happening today.

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