Steely Dan – Aja is the first to be featured in our new (hopefully) regular feature of classic album reviews. Of course, as usual, what qualifies as a classic album is a matter of opinion and typically, I will highlight albums that I have listened to quite a fair bit in order to ultimately arrive at this particular specific assessment.
I must confess that I was late to the greatness of Steely Dan (viz. Walter Becker and Donald Fagan). Very late, in fact! But better late than never. The first Steely Dan song that I ever got into was “Peg” and I had ventured to check out a “best of” collection. However, with the advent of streaming platforms, I decided to take the plunge to check out Steely Dan – Aja from 1977.
Seven songs – enveloped in a striking album art design which features Japanese model and actress Sayoko Yamaguchi on the cover. Photographed by Hideki Fujii, the iconic cover was designed by Patricia Mitsui and Geoff Westen. Intended to represent the “Asia” of the song/album title, the memorable cover reflects certainly the slick, urbane jazz-soul musical style found within.
Produced by Gary Katz, Steely Dan – Aja epitomised the peak of the duo’s considered approach to recording, preferring a diverse group of session musicians rather than a fixed band. In fact, the duo would often track different versions of songs with different combinations of musicians. Such was their obsessive attention to detail that it border on pathological! However, the results speak for themselves.
While lyrically, there has always been a stream-of-consciousness vibe to Steely Dan’s method, musically everything is arranged to tight perfection. The title track is the longest one – clocking in at eight minutes and akin to a progressive rock number with its various classical-like segments. It even features instrumental solos from drummer Steve Gadd and tenor saxophonist Wayne Shorter – both legends in their own right – in dedicated jazz fusion style.
In terms of the perfect synergy between lyrical concept and musical execution, the trio of “Black Cow”, “Deacon Blues” and “Peg” come close to being untouchable. The three tracks are distinctive but yet are embedded with the same bohemian attitude that suggests the wild abandon of the artistic zeitgeist.
In the final analysis, the purpose of a classic album review is not to describe the music. That is pointless, you can click on the links I have provided here to listen to the music yourself. What I try to do is to convey what the album means to me and how it affected me mind, heart and soul. What more can I do, Steely Dan – Aja is essential listening. You know what to do.
… still there’s more …