The Magic of Steely Dan
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It may seem unusual, but everybody is some kind of a snob1. Snobbery after all, is the opposite of being indiscriminate, and rare is the individual who is completely happy-go-lucky at everything. Certainly, music connoisseurs and audiophiles are both very discriminating about their respective pursuits. It was from a friend of mine who was a bit of both that I first heard about Aja by Steely Dan. I cannot recall exactly when but it might have been around February 2000. With my curiosity piqued by his praise of Aja, I sought the earliest opportunity to borrow the tape from him, so that I could listen to it.
It was clear from the first song, Black Cow, why this might be the kind of album that would appeal to the music connoisseur and the audiophile alike. There was a kind of minimalism to the overall experience. Today, minimalism is very much in vogue, with so much buzz around user experience design for the smartphone. But Aja, an album recorded in 1977, embodied it in its own right. I think minimalism, in essence, is the removal of any element that may distract from focusing on the essential. With Aja, the sparse yet striking album cover featuring Japanese model Sayoko Yamaguchi2, the high standard of production and clarity achieved by Roger Nichols3, and the tastefully uncrowded arrangement of the music, they all embody minimalism. I think if you have a jewel case of Aja lying on your centre table, it is hard not to come across as a seriously cool and tasteful person.
Of course, Aja is not all style without substance. The clever lyrics, pleasant vocals and sophisticated arrangements of Walter Becker and Donald Fagen complement the sheer artistry of high profile guest artists like Wayne Shorter, Steve Gadd, Larry Carlton and Lee Ritenour. There is Peg, the fourth track which features some really cool guitar work with subtle muted picks on the guitar in the background, all through the song. But the highlight of the song has to be the quintessential cool guitar solo by Jay Graydon4. Graydon’s solo pipped a number of attempts recorded by other guitarists to make the final mix. It is in two sections, with the former being the main section and the latter coming in with the chorus to reprise the same ideas and fading out leaving you wanting more. Graydon recalls being relaxed during the recording session, even though, Becker and Fagen were known to be exacting in the sound they wanted. But it is endearing to hear Graydon’s candid description of the usual anxiety of a creative performer, “Every time I play a solo my heart rate slightly rises as I am hanging on by the seat of my pants, connecting ideas generated by my brain to my hands, hoping I connect the ideas in a melodic fashion.”
Then there is the third track, Deacon Blues, a name devised as a converse of the grand-sounding Crimson Tide. Deacon Blues describes a suburban dweller fantasizing5 about learning to “work the saxophone”, to “play just what I feel” and to “drink Scotch Whisky, all night long and die behind the wheel”. It is a song which contrasts a successful college sports team with a grand name, with an ordinary suburban character whom Becker calls6 a “loser”. But the song isn’t just about giving a loser a cool moniker. The lyrics while humorous are also somewhat self-deprecating. Fagen explains how Deacon Blues “was more autobiographical, about our own dreams when we were growing up in different suburban communities — me in New Jersey and Walter in Westchester County.” The musical highlight is definitely Pete Christlieb’s saxophone solo which threads the packed arrangement of horns and rhythm to perfection. Christlieb dryly remembers having recorded the solo rather quickly. “I was gone in a half-hour. The next thing I know I’m hearing myself in every airport bathroom in the world.”
Then of course, there is the title track, Aja. It’s nearly eight minutes long, taking time as the music ebbs and flows, and then leads into Wayne Shorter’s imperiously sparse saxophone solo with Steve Gadd’s excellent drumming providing a solid foil. Gadd gets an opportunity to showcase his chops on the drums with a drum solo at the end. Being keen followers of jazz music, Fagen and Becker specifically wanted Shorter to contribute the saxophone solo. But the story goes7 that Shorter actually turned them down, perhaps not recognising the name, Steely Dan, as someone he could connect musically with. But, Steely Dan producer Gary Katz requested jazz promoter Dick LaPalm to persuade Shorter. LaPalm asked Shorter to show up for an overdub in Studio A at The Village Recorder in Los Angeles, without mentioning the band specifically. In his words, “Wayne asked me who the group was. I said, ‘I don’t remember. But you’re going to love the music.’ ” Shorter showed up and as LaPalm remembers, “Wayne did his solos — six passes in all. He loved the music, and was gone in 35 minutes. The guys were sitting around watching, stunned.”
There is the musicianship in Aja (what with accomplished saxophonists finishing their business in half an hour of recording time), and then there is the warmth of its music. Whether or not you dig jazz structures, muted guitar or syncopated drums, the album is quite approachable and warm. Some time ago, a wise musician challenged some of us who were around, to define music, to pare it down to its essence. After many of our attempts, some verbose and some feeble, she said that above all, “music is an arrangement of sounds that evokes an emotional response”. Aja passes that defining test of music. It evokes an emotional response, always leaving you feeling better and lightly invigorated. It is hard not to like it, even if you consider yourself of merely moderate musical persuasion.
Steely Dan has produced several great albums by following their unique musical approach. Becker and Fagen with a wide cast of session musicians, have melded witty lyrics, jazzy structures and obsessive studio production into albums like Can’t Buy a Thrill, The Royal Scam and many others. They are known to be quite fastidious, perhaps snobbish, themselves. But snobbery can be of different kinds. There is snobbery that alienates by pursuing discrimination to its own end, and there is snobbery that inspires by kindling an aspiration to being and experiencing better. Steely Dan is definitely in the latter category, and Aja is their finest example. So if you are about to test hi-fi audio gear, or if you want to listen to easy-going yet sophisticated music, or if you are just feeling a bit blue, listen to Aja, rejoice and be a snob.
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Gina Barreca at the Hartford Courant provides an insightful look into the phenomenon of snobbery. Barreca writes that the most persuasive theory regarding the origin of the word snob, is that it is a shortening of the Latin words “sine nobilitate” (without nobility) into “s.nob” to identify non-aristocratic students attending Oxford and Cambridge. Although a bit surprising at first glance, it is those without nobility who had to exhibit refined taste and fine expertise to gain esteem amongst nobler classmates! ↩
Although Yamaguchi is featured on the album cover of Aja, very little of her can actually be seen! Yet it evokes a sense of mystery, enhanced by the exotic sounding album name written in a matching font. ↩
Recording engineers are sometimes credited with achieving a certain signature kind of sound with their recordings. A notable example is jazz recording legend Rudy Van Gelder, who achieved an intimate sound of jazz instruments by capturing the finest textures of the instruments’ sound. Roger Nichols has created a sound that is distinctive in its own right through his work with Steely Dan and other artists. I think he is right up there with Alan Parsons in creating that clean and crisp sound which endears their albums to audiophiles. ↩
Jeff Giles at Pop Dose interviews guitarist Jay Graydon who breaks down his guitar solo in the song Peg and also narrates the story of how it happened. If you like the interview, you might also want to check out some of Graydon’s own work. ↩