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Sunday, June 3, 2007

Aja (ABC Dunhill Records, 1977)
Once again we visit their realm, and we're always happy to listen. This time, we put Aja on the CD player. And the feeling is of relief.
We actually got tired of hearing bad music everywhere. Not because of styles but commercial nonsense and this big, big creative and economic crisis that western hemisphere art is suffering nowadays.
Becker and Fagen were two ugly twenty-something musicians who wanted to introduce jazz to a mainstream audience. 1977 didn't have an MTV, nor a concept such as "Classic Rock Radio". There was no such thing as Good Old Days because the times of rock and roll weren't that old.
Until 1977, Steely Dan never reached the top ten in America, and this album, painfully recorded, mixed and re-recorded in Los Angeles and New York, gave them that satisfaction. 1977 was the year of the Dan's triumph. Only their following album, Gaucho, would reach this level, but nothing else so far. They stopped in 1981 and it took them 20 years to go back to a studio and release another album.
If you ask me what the album is about, I would tell you it's about "feeling good" music with "feeling bad" subjects. Therefore it's about blues, but played in complicated ways; or at least unusual ways. Difficult chords for guitar players, incredible tempo changes, extremely complex mixtures of sounds and effects. "Black Cow" is about unrequited Love, "Aja" is about a war veteran exiled in paradise, "Deacon Blues" is the same old veteran going out on a saturday night. You may listen to the songs and decide what they're about; you will be right anyways. Becker and Fagen worked so hard for this compositions so they embraced the common man by their thoughts. A redneck girl who turned into a porn star in Hollywood and is praised and missed by her former boyfriend ("Peg"), A man who misses his home after a nasty divorce on the other side of the country and compares himself to Homer in the Oddisey ("Home At Last"), and my favorite: "Josie", a wild girl who loves having fun with the band. You can even smell the characters with the chords, for heaven's sake.
Aja represents a transition from war to peace, in space and time. But in the mind of the narrator, there are still battles to fight in the new land he's living in. It's an album about the Viet Nam War veterans. About the dissilusion of the American Average Male and also about whoever thought life would be easy in the land of opportunities.
Yes, the new genre of Smooth Jazz had to be created to fit albums like this. Future recordings by Pat Metheny, George Benson, The Rippingtons and Spyro Gyra were consequences of the sounds impregned here. Beautiful and outrageous.

Aja: Liner Notes from the Album Sleeve
It was about two A.M. on an unseasonably chilly evening in June when the phone rang. Having just put the finishing touches on a rather lukewarm review of the Leo Sayer concert out in Queens, I was anything but ready for the rapidfire monologue delivered long distance from L.A. by a man who introduced himself as Steve Diener. After a half hour or so, I came to understand that this garrulous gentleman worked for ABC Records and was inviting me out to Hollywood to observe a Steely Dan recording session, the object being to compose an eyewitness account of the proceedings for a posh European publication. Of course, I was delighted at the prospect and perhaps even a wee bit flattered when I was told that the group had specifically requested my presence. I later found out that this was not entirely true. In retrospect, I should have realized the assignment would not be all sweetness and light; in no way has Steely Dan made its reputation by catering to the rock press. In fact, their contempt for pop music critics was well known to myself and my colleagues. As it turned out, a little caution on my part would not have been out of order. By the end of the first session at Producer's Workshop in Hollywood, it had become abundantly clear to me that nobody in the "group" new or cared who I was or what I was doing there. Several sessions later, after Donald and Walter had been apprised of my identity, there was trouble. To make a long story short, I managed to attend perhaps a dozen sessions at three different studios and, on two occasions, attempted to interview the composers. Unfortunately, both cassettes were seized under grievous circumstances by a fellow whom I believe to be in the employ of the reluctant interviewees. The loss was inconsequential considering that fact that, at that point, my relationship with the belligerent song writing duo had become so strained as to produce a dialog that consisted mainly of threats, insults, and rude remarks. This, then was the raw material I had to work with. I had squeezed out about three thousand words when I heard from a friend in London that the afore mentioned European magazine had folded.
It was not until a year later that I received a second phone call from Mr. Diener, now president of ABC Records, who informed me that the "guys" had specifically requested yours truly to write the liner notes for the new album and that a cassette copy of same would be forthcoming. Putting aside personal rancor, I gave "Aja" a listen. I have listened many times since. When they made their recording debut in 1972, Steely Dan was more or less a conventional rock group comprised of six active members. Almost immediately, the roster began to shrink until, by the time "Pretzel Logic" was released, the two composers appeared to be dependent on the performances of a baffling array of crack session regulars. Thanks to their deliberately vague manner of listing album credits, it became virtually impossible to determine who was playing what on any given track (a practice that has persisted until now). This latest album, following on the hot heels of that depraved and cynical masterpiece, "The Royal Scam", represents a departure from the puerile brooding that has distinguished Donald and Walter's work up to now. In this writers opinion, "Aja" signals the onset of a new maturity and a kind of solid professionalism that is the hallmark of an artist who has "arrived".
Side One opens with "Black Cow", a catchy discofunk number that defies categorization. Bitterly sarcastic lyrics are underpinned by cloying jazzcrossover harmonies, the whole thing propelled by an infectious, trendy beat. Featured here is Victor Feldman's thoughtful electric piano solo followed shortly by Tom Scott's earthy tenor sax. The tile cut, "Aja", is a rather ambitious work in which a latintinged pop song is inexplicably expanded into some sort of sonata or suite. The result is a rambling eightminute epic highlighted by Wayne Shorter's stately, rhapsodic solo which descends gracefully into a recapitulation of the vocal theme. The sensitive, sometimes explosive performance by drummer Steve Gadd may be his finest recorded work to date. The side closes with "Deacon Blues", an Edge City ballad enlivened only by Pete Christlieb's haunting tenor work and a tasty chart by Scott. Side Two finds vocalist Donald Fagen admonishing yet another lover in a danceable ditty entitled "Peg". Jay Graydon's electric guitar threatens after the initial refrain. The composer's describe this piece as a "pantonal 13 bar blues with chorus". That's the kind of double talk they were giving me towards he end. We are now confronted by a stunning feet of pop legerdemain. "Home At Last", on first listening an unpretentious roadhouse shuffle, turns out upon close inspection to be a minor marvel of poetic grace and structural economy. At this late date, it would hardly seem possible for an artist to take Homer's immortal tale, so thoroughly exploited by Joyce in 1922, and educe from it new insights especially within the narrow scope provided by the medium of popular song. Beneath the attractive, effortless flow of words and music, one discovers a lyric presence and fineness of perception that is a rare thing on disc nowadays. I can't say enough about this lovely rhythmandblues poem. "I Got The News", a Manhattanjukebox thumpalong, serves as a vehicle for the coy pianistics of Victor Feldman, whose labors are capriciously undermined by Walter Becker's odd, Djangoesque guitar and pointlessly obscene lyric. The final cut, "Josie", exemplifies Steely Dan's remarkable versatility. Rich with images of random violence, copulation, drug abuse, loitering with intent and other misdemeanors, this sociopathic jump tune is sure to become a classic zebra in the annals of Punkadelia.
Michael Phalen
"It's going to be called "AJA."
"The new one is coming soon, I heard the title will be AJA; all original material." In recent months answers like these have been filtering out to musical corners everywhere. They are in reply to constant questions regarding the latest recordings by Steely Dan. The inquiries are directed toward the group, its producer, the progress in the studio, etc. In fact, any kind of information which serves to bring them and their music just a little closer is welcome. It is an "almost necessity" to those who follow and appreciate excellence in today's music. Questions and the desire from fans, the music community in general, regarding major artists and their recordings are neither new or unusual. Various media, acting as a faucet that rarely shuts off, allow us to see the flow of artists' activity and help us to try to know their many sides on a career and personal basis. Yet with Steely Dan, the concern and curiosity has a certain difference. Call it a special flavor, as another level of respect comes into focus. This is simply because Steely Dan is at another level; a very special place both personally and professionally that is again demonstrated by the recorded music that is not far from these words which they have asked me to write. My first exposure to the group began some years ago many miles from Los Angeles. Living outside the States I became fascinated by their music, but not only by what I heard musically. I believed by creating such music, the group represented an unusual depth of understanding concerning their work and themselves. By a set of circumstances and coincidences, I now live in the same city as Steely Dan. The situation has further closed in where, since the first listen, I have come to know and respect certain members of the group and among them have found a very special friend. I only mention this because it may explain that specialness that surrounds Steely Dan I know from personal contact. It is a special ness or a buzz or an atmosphere that I have personally heard people speak of all over the United States and in many other parts of the world. This quality I call the heart of Steely Dan. It directs and feeds the steady pulse of their creative energy; always exploring never the sameness. It is always traceable to its origin, this heart. What makes up this heart? Simply, the tight common philosophy towards music and many aspects of life closely shared by the guys who make up the group.
You probably know that centuries ago, the Troubadour was a very special breed of man. In a world where people were mostly locked to their land, where art was not well understood by the masses; where commercialism, though limited, was important for bare survival, the Troubadour stood apart. He moved on and about in his own space. His world was measured on his musical output and flow on a daily basis. He continually sang, composed, practiced, made or repaired his instruments. He was a complete music entity drawing from things about him and converting them into song and music. He did this not only for the pleasure and satisfaction but importantly, for his own self as well. This atmosphere of total dedication, without sidelines, this completeness, is much of what I see as the heart of Steely Dan. I am sure countless others must sense this. Moving up full steam to today's jet powered scene, to that tough togetto forefront of artist recognition and respect, there exists a reserved place for Steely Dan. In their own style and approach a place is theirs because they have it down, totally covered or whatever you want to call it. These musicians, like the Troubadour, practically at the expense of anything else listen, think, play, practice, improvise, rehearse, compose, analyze, philosophize as to the music around. They are into and on top of the scene. Perhaps without their knowing, they break through the levels which are routinely called "standard" music professionalism.
As to AJA, Steely's latest offering, what are we to hear? More of that same musical excellence, of course. That heart has not been dormant since their last album, "The Royal Scam", but has been developing and probing towards its own goal. As I write this, I am listening to a tape of the latest album. Myself? I hear those melodies which are true melodies that cling to you. I hear those lyrics, which often say or describe their personal experiences but clearly have a message we can relate to in our own way. That voicing, although totally flexible and creative, is kept ultraclean to enable us to understand their message. You'll recognize the musicianship all of it the tempo, punctuation, the marvelous blend of horns, voices, rhythm, and guitar moving in tight coordination. The result is a controlled, vibrant energy which Steely Dan emits without ever getting too, too heavy. As before, and perhaps more so now, you'll feel each song is a unique musical venture, not like the one before nor the one to follow. Yet, it all fits in very, very well. It's all tied together, to what I call the heart of Steely Dan: Walter Becker, Donald Fagen and their producer, Gary Katz.
Steve DienerPresident, ABC Records

Becker and Fagen talk about the opening track, "Black Cow"
Steely Dan Sings For Lovers
By Jon Pareles, from the December 1977 issue of Crawdaddy.
Normally can be the most dangerous trap of all -- seductive because it has its uses. A good conman needs to act normal; a counterfeit $20 bill had better simulate legal tender. When the conman starts to believe his own act, though, he's in trouble. Ant that bogus twenty may be a master of engraving, but it's only good for what money can buy.
Steely Dan's Donald Fagen and Walter Becker, master conmen, find their way into all the loopholes that the pop song form can offer. Their object: "to crawl like a viper through these suburban streets." They've already pulled off innumerable musical capers: melodized utterly bizarre chord progressions, diddled with preconceived rhythms, devised lyrics as ambiguous as Rorschach blots. And it all sounds smooth.
That kind of con takes planning to the split second. So Steely Dan shut out all inderminancy at the studio door. No accidents can happen there. (Accusing them of sounding "sterile," as some have, misses the point -- you might as well accuse the Stones of using too much guitar.) You can be sure that Becker and Fagen mapped out every detail of "Aja" to their own inscrutable specifications.
Don't let anyone tell you that "Aja" is Steely Dan's "jazz album." The cuts are longer than usual, and soloists are credited, but the only reasonable jazz analogue is big-band swing (listen to "Peg" and "Home At Last"), not the bebop so dear to the Dan's lyricists. Vocal and ensemble sections balance solos in exact formal proportions -- the structure is narrative, not discursive.
"Aja" edges closer to mainstream pop than Steely Dan have recently cared to go. They're so far removed from any competition that perhaps their only amusement comes from outdoing themselves. Having outflanked every musical rule they've ever met, Becker and Fagen, supremely cool, now try to maintain their pre-eminence with one hand tied behind their back. Cavalierly, "Aja" sacrifices a bit of Steely Dan's usual harmonic mobility -- they uses riffs instead of serpentine melodies -- while the listener hardly notices. These rock Houdinis slip out of every restraint.
Last year's "The Royal Scam" eschewed any blues-derived tunes, which had been prominent on earlier Dan LPs. "Aja" makes up for the omission; of seven songs on the album, "Josie," "Peg," "Black Cow" and, to a lesser extent, "Home At Last" and "I Got The News" rely on static, blues-inflected verses.
Cutting down on harmonic variety encourages you to listen to rhythm, which may be just what Steely Dan had in mind. There's a liner credit for "Hemiolas, Hockets, Maneries of Garlandia, etc." -- three medieval rhythmic devices that Steely Dan actually use. They also get exquisite, interactive drumming (a rare thing on studio rock records) from Jim Keltner, Steve Gadd, Ed Greene and Bernard Purdie, and constantly varied bass lines from Chuck Rainey. Listen, also, to Larry Carlton's sneaky rhythm fills on "Home At Last." But beware of creeping normalcy: "Aja" is the first Dan album since their debut to start on a solid downbeat.
Just to stay paradoxical, the lyrics wax restlessly even as Becker and Fagen deliberately restrain themselves. "Josie," a tribute to a troublemaker, is a blues with extra chords breaking into the tune just as the narrator describes Josie breaking rules -- a neat form/content match.
The old Dan sneer has been toned way down on "Aja." Every lyric uses a sympathetic first-person viewpoint. Believe it or not, there are at least three, uh, love songs barely twisted at all by Dan standards. The guy in "Black Cow" fights back tears when he glimpses his ex at "Rudy's" ("I can't cry anymore while you run around"); "Peg's" narrator, surrounded by her photo image, vows he can love her better than any camera; "I Got The News" is a tense gangland romance. Are Becker and Fagen mellowing, or just learning to counterfeit new emotions?
"Deacon Blues" offers a wildly ambivalent answer. A romantic pessimist's vision of the jazz life (to "cross that fine line," learn saxophone, "die behind the wheel"), it could be Steely Dan's most heartfelt lyric, set to a delicate, sighing tune. The arrangement, though, is enervatingly conventional; it's disheartening to hear Fagen sing "I'll be what I want to be" over an MOR cushion.
There's more streetwise jazz savvy in "I Got The News," a cousin of Royal Scam's terse "Green Earrings." The lyrics are a telegraph transmitted by dits and dahs of choke-chorded piano and brass-knuckled drumming; the structure, a jumpily asymmetrical assemblage of riffs sorted into a verse and three interconnected bridges.
Logically enough, "Aja's" other masterpiece is its title cut, which blends the album's two obsessions -- love and the compulsion to escape -- and probes the undertones of its own lilting melody. Here's the scenario: The speaker is in some asylum, "up on the hill." He escapes for a tryst with his lover ("double helix in the sky tonight"), then is apprehended and returned to the hill. Simple, circular ... a dreamy guitar interweave rambles toward the verses, light and unconcerned until our man reaches the outside world. Becker's guitar solo (interrupted by a police whistle) and Wayne Shorter's foreboding sax break are orchestrated by a continuously toughening riff while Steve Gadd drums retribution from below. When we end up on the hill again, Fagen's synthesizers cloud the mind as Gadd flails. In brilliant cinematic fashion, the solos advance the action, and we reach the final verse realizing that the lilt masks darker forces.
Lyric fragments from earlier Steely Dan songs float through "Aja": "outrageous," "change your name," "a world of my own." Feeling suddenly claustrophobic in pop, perhaps, Steely Dan are recharging their identity, taking a quick look back before they embark on a new course: the conquest of expanded song form. In the light of "Aja's" finest moments, I'd say no band is better suited for the attempt.

Rolling Stone's review
from August 2001's "Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame" album reviews (five stars)
Forget for a moment the album's surreal sonic perfection, its melodic and harmonic complexity - music so technically demanding its creators had to call in A-list session players to realize the sounds they heard in their heads but could not play, even on the instruments they had mastered. Concentrate instead on the profound sadness of Steely Dan's exquisitely arranged Aja. If you couldn't comprehend how Steely Dan, a nearly imaginary band that hadn't released a studio album in two decades, won this year's Album of the Year Grammy away from Radiohead and Eminem, this is the place to start understanding why. Rock has always excelled at embodying adolescent ache. But it's rare when rock captures the complications of adult sorrows almost purely with its sound. Drummer Paul Humphrey's upstroke during the beginning of "Black Cow," the 1977 album's languid opener, is so hesitant, so world-weary that it barely catches up to the pulse he sets with his foot. On the eight-minute title track, instruments layer onto a different drummer, adding chord on top of chord, harmony on top of harmony, until tom-toms and cymbals thunder, raging all that ornate aural architecture away.
Aja's extended tracks achieve their power through a dynamic dance: Mellow, stark passages (which drew a blueprint for "smooth jazz" radio) are offset by obsessively dense musicianship, stacks of notes that grasp at euphoria. Some of the era's hottest jazz instrumentalists - Joe Sample, Larry Carlton, Lee Ritenour, Tom Scott - soar through what's often on the surface utterly jubilant. "Peg," the album's biggest hit, is nearly disco, and "I Got the News" isn't far away. The closing cut, "Josie," almost plays the celebration straight, though its backward-looking R&B keeps getting tripped up by restless rhythms. But there are so many unresolved chords, so much sweet dissonance, that the album's sleek virtuosity collapses against itself, leaving behind a loneliness rendered mostly oblique by Donald Fagen's heady wordplay. On "Deacon Blues," he cuts through his own cleverness to paint a picture of noir-shaded simplicity: "Drink Scotch whiskey all night long and die behind the wheel." That's Aja: frustration and failure at the heart of the party.
BARRY WALTERS (RS 876 - August 30, 2001)