Steely Dan

By 1977, Steely Dan had released five albums and five hit singles. Originally put together as a vehicle for Donald Fagan and Walter Becker's songs, the "band" had transformed itself into a revolving door of top-notch session players. With Fagan and Becker at the wheel, Steely Dan was a reservoir of articulate and polished textures, enriched by relaxed refinement, accentuated by acerbic, flippant bites gracefully intoned by Fagan's reverent vocalizations. With no scheduled appearances or other such obligations, the Steely Dan duo hired a virtual who's who of established jazz musicians and went to work on their sixth album. Armed with a potent combination of chops, melodies and lyrics, Becker and Fagan set out to make a masterpiece. By the end of 1978, they practically owned the airwaves. Seven very distinct songs would push Aja into the top five. It would become one of rock's first platinum albums, and elevate its creators to new and lofty heights of adulation. It couldn't have happened to two nicer guys!

Starting with Katy Lied and continuing on with The Royal Scam, Becker and Fagan dispensed with the made-to-order pop formulas and began incorporating a cleaner, somewhat funkier and jazzier approach to their music. With guitarist Jeff "Skunk" Baxter out of the picture, Steely Dan became an all-star team with clutch players like guitarist Larry Carlton, bassist Chuck Rainey, drummer Jeff Porcaro and keyboardist David Paich. It's not an overstatement to say that Aja is like a smorgasbord of in-demand musicians. The easy shuffle of "Black Cow" gets a sleek treatment by Carlton, Rainey, and no less than Joe Sample on the Clavinet and Tom Scott on sax. The title track is shaped by an even hotter ensemble — Carlton, Rainey, Sample, Wayne Shorter on sax and Steve Gadd on drums. As Gadd explodes through the breaks and Shorter blows a playful solo that dances around the rhythm, Fagan meanders through a set of cryptic lyrics that narrowly set the mood.

But as he calmly articulates, "this is the day of the expanding man" on the opening verse of "Deacon Blues," Fagan's voice becomes an instrument unto itself. You can feel the somberness as he repeats, "Drink Scotch whiskey all night long/And die behind the wheel/They got a name for the winners in the world/I want a name when I lose..." With Carlton and Lee Ritenour on guitar, it's hard to imagine any loss at all. "Peg" — featuring Michael McDonald on background vocals — is the epitome of the cool jazz stylings Steely Dan was striving for. Layers of keyboards, discofied percussion, a pointed guitar solo from Jay Graydon and a roving chorus made it the album's biggest hit. While Becker and Fagan continue spinning their wares on "Home At Last" and "I Got The News," "Josie" finishes off the disc on an extremely high note.

While Aja went onto to sell more than five million copies, the follow-up Gaucho — released in the aftermath of contractual disputes with their record company — would be the last studio Steely Dan album for 20 years. 2000's Two Against Nature conquered the Grammys, but it's debatable as to whether or not it has the shelf life of Aja. Give it another 20 years and we'll see.

~ Shawn Perry

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