Sunday, August 30, 2015

Steely Dan - Aja (1977)

After exploring the tension between various pop forms and creating some of the most essential rock albums of the seventies, Steely Dan in 1977 - by then reduced to just Walter Becker and Donald Fagen - that took a step back from the biting edginess of Katy Lied and the the aimlessness of The Royal Scam.  The result was not a return to form but a rediscovery of the postwar jazz that had inspired them for so long.  Aja is the work of boys enthralled by Miles Davis and Thelonius Monk who have grown into adulthood.
Some of Aja hints toward rock, such as a pointed guitar riff from Jay Graydon on "Peg" and some danceable funk on "Josie," but Aja is at heart a jazz record, balancing the brightness of the West Coast with the sharpness of 52nd Street.  Here, elliptical chords slide into understated piano and brass arrangements with some sumptuous saxophone solos and tense guitars.  Indeed, Aja may have the most intimate sound of any Steely Dan album; the music conjures up a performance in a small club tucked away on an urban side street off the beaten path.
Ironically, Aja was a grandiose production.  Becker, Fagen, and producer Gary Katz conducted no fewer than thirty-four instrumentalists and backup singers to record this album, but their genius was knowing whom to use on which track.  The cool saxophone solo from Pete Christlieb on "Deacon Blues" is decidedly different from the freewheeling sax from Wayne Shorter on the title track, while Steve Gadd's piercing drums have nothing to do with Bernard Purdie's steady drum fills on other songs.  But it all works as a cohesive whole, the tracks flowing seamlessly into each other.  Tom Scott's consistent brass arrangements anchor the immaculately played music, and engineer Roger Nichols divines the most pristine sound ever to adorn a Steely Dan record, but Becker and Fagen are in complete control of it all.
It is in this sophisticated realm that the lyrics bring out the more cynical side of Becker's and Fagen's vision; faithless lovers, wandering souls, and underworld characters pass by in steady succession.  "Black Cow" documents a nasty (thanks to Fagen's wonderfully snide vocal) end to a troubled relationship,  while "Peg" is an ode to an underground movie actress.  There's more sex than love in the interplay between the hustlers in "I Got the News," but there's still some succor to be found, particularly the joy of feminine companionship to the exotic title track (we can only assume the woman herself, like front-cover model Sayoko Yamaguchi, is also exotic), but "Deacon Blues," with its visions of hedonism and isolation in pursuit of the ideal jazz experience, may, with all its irony, may be the most humanistic song Becker and Fagen ever wrote.  It's a love letter to the jazz life, and its warm embrace reminds us why jazz is such a personal musical form in the first place.      

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