Steely Dan is known for jazz-influenced arrangements, quirky lyrics, and pristine production. Even non-fans recognize the brilliance of their 1977 album, Aja. For many music lovers, it’s their first choice for a late night listen accompanied by iced Manhattans. Audiophiles use it to audition high end stereo speakers. Jazz purists discuss its intricacies with classic rock veterans.
Donald Fagen and Walter Becker had formed Steely Dan as a band in the early seventies, serving as the group’s principal songwriters. They combined their love of rhythm and blues with their deep appreciation of jazz. They weren’t a rock band with horns or a jazz fusion band. Steely Dan was something different and unique — a rock band that used jazz harmonies.
By the time of Aja, Fagen and Becker were the only permanent band members (although original guitarist Denny Dias often appeared as a guest). They supplemented their instruments with the best session players in New York and Los Angeles. Their jazz rock sound, with hardly a traditional major or minor chord in sight, was recorded with the utmost care thanks to the work of producer Gary Katz and engineer Roger Nichols.
Although Aja generated three singles – “Peg,” “Deacon Blues,” and “Josie” — many consider the title track one of the greatest songs of Steely Dan’s long career. Clocking in at eight minutes, “Aja” was the longest song the Dan recorded, and the most intricate. Its sophisticated structure makes it more like a suite than a single song. In fact, Becker and Fagen created it by combining several of their unfinished songs. In addition to Becker’s guitar and Fagen’s keyboards, the song featured a who’s who of great jazz musicians — Steve Gadd on drums, Wayne Shorter on sax, Larry Carlton on guitar, and Joe Sample on keys. The song also featured a guest appearance by the Eagles’ Timothy B. Schmit on background vocals.
There are Web sites devoted to interpreting Steely Dan’s lyrics, and “Aja” is no exception. According to Fagen, it was based on a Korean woman named Aja, although he also said that it’s about the “tranquility that can come of a quiet relationship with a beautiful woman.” But, you don’t need to understand the lyrics to come along for this exotic journey…