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Steely Dan’s “Aja”: Eight Minutes of Genius

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Editor’s note:  This is the first of an occasional series where we “get under the hood” of some great records to see what makes them run so well.  Scott Freiman is our uniquely qualified guide, having built a worldwide following doing the same for Beatle albums.  

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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.

We begin with a four bar introduction – Michael Omartian‘s jazz piano with some light rides on the cymbals. Electric piano and guitar duet across the stereo spectrum. Fagen sings a three line verse about the people “up on the hill” who “don’t stare” because “they just don’t care” (0:17).  Are they the people who don’t approve of the singer’s relationship/infatuation with Aja? Or are they too caught up in their own lives to even notice her? Whoever they are, Becker/Fagen insert a few instrumental bars (including some marimba from percussionist Victor Feldman) to separate them from the singer (0:26). Already, the structure of the song is unlike any other song by Steely Dan — or any other group for that matter. We’re drawn into the mystery.

The dispassionate people of the verse are offset by the chorus’ “Chinese music in the banyan trees” (0:38). Yet, there’s really nothing Eastern about the percussion, which provides a Latin-tinged rhythm. Stacked vocals over jazz cluster chords accompany the first mention of “Aja.” On the word “you”, the song seems to suspend in time.

A brief electric piano arpeggio (1:07) returns us to another instrumental interlude and a second verse. Again, the arrangement contrasts the “hill people” of the verse with the heroine of the chorus. “Throw out the hardware,” sings Fagen. “Let’s do it right.” Things with Aja are definitely heating up!

We now enter an extended instrumental section that is like a song unto itself with intros, verses, and solo sections. It begins with an eight bar introduction and two “verses” featuring a melody played by the marimba (2:16). The rhythm is driven by the percussion and not the drums. It feels as if we are visiting a tropical island. About halfway through the section (3:08), a Denny Dias guitar solo makes us lose all sense of rhythm. We don’t know where we are in the song or what will happen next. Just when we’ve lost our place, the marimba section of the instrumental returns with Dias soloing over top (3:30). Is Aja Chinese, Latin, or Hawaiian? And why is Fagen blowing a police whistle? Before we have time to ponder these questions, the “guitar out of time” section returns (4:13).

One might expect the verse to return at this point, but the Dan have other plans. In place of the verse, we get a great eight bar drums/saxophone solo courtesy of Gadd and Shorter (4:42). They solo while the rest of the band plays a single syncopated chord. Another interlude (4:58) where the solo appears to be winding down. But, Shorter and Gadd aren’t finished yet. They perform a second eight bar solo (5:14) followed by another interlude.

Finally, the tranquil mood of the introduction returns (5:48). It brings us back to a familiar place. We get a final verse about the people on the hill. This time Fagen sings of “angular banjos” (Is he comparing Aja to a banjo?  And why is it “angular?”).  The song ends with a long fade out (6:57), featuring a spectacular 28+ bar drum solo by Gadd over repeated chords by the rest of the band punctuated by Fagen’s synthesizer. According to Gadd, he nailed the solo on only the second take.

“Aja” is a masterpiece that sucks you into its magical world. Each musician’s performance is perfect for the song with not a single note out of place. In fact, jazz critics routinely rate both Gadd’s and Shorter’s playing on this song as highlights of their respective careers. The complex song structure takes us on a journey much like the singer’s journey from the land of “the hill” to the exotic world of Aja. “Aja” is the high point of an album filled with high points, an album that is itself a high point of Steely Dan’s career.

Scott Freiman

PS. While we’re on the subject of great musicians, you might want to check out our other posts John Lennon: Guitarist, These Guys Were REALLY Behind the Music, The Best Band You’ve Never Heard, and Clapton. Then SRV. Now Gary Clark Jr?.

38 thoughts on “Steely Dan’s “Aja”: Eight Minutes of Genius”

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  7. Scott Smith says:

    Steve Gadd’s drumming throughout Aja is incredible. As good as it gets.

    1. Scott Moyer says:

      For a brief 3 months in the Spring of 1977, I worked at SIR(Studio Instrument Rentals) in Hollywood and was the head of the Drum Department there. I delivered the red sparkle Ludwig set to thisSteely Dan/ Aja session and had the opportunity to hang out at length with Gadd while we set up in preparation for the take at The Producer’s Workshop located at the Crossroads of the World on Sunset Blvd. Just as they were getting ready to record, in walks Sir George Martin…who helped them in the recording of this song. I hung around while they did a 1st take and then a 2nd take which was the one you here on the record
      .

      1. The CS Team says:

        Wow. What a terrific experience. Lucky you!

        1. John Kumjian says:

          My favorite Steve Gadd performance EVER! lucky you!

      2. Dani Seakey says:

        Hear hear! Most awesome the fifth Beatle even helped Jeff Beck make the master piece

  8. Paul Flattery says:

    Brilliant analysis.
    I read it as I listened to the track.
    It’s a great article on what is a genuine masterpiece.
    But so much of their work is.
    Steely Dan is a truly unique band in all of rock n roll.

  9. Jamie says:

    “Are they the people who don’t approve of the singer’s relationship/infatuation with Aja? Or are they too caught up in their own lives to even notice her?”
    I’d say they are non judgmental people who don’t stare because there’s nothing to stare at. At he bottom of the hill, in town, I imagine things are different.
    As for all of the different influences and references (Asian, Latino, jazz, rock, etc), sounds like LA to me….Todo del en un lugar.

    But hey, we all see the world through the lens of our own experience.

    1. Gordon Freeman says:

      You’re thinking of New York, dude.

  10. William Zahn says:

    Chuck Rainey’s work on this entire recording is outstanding. I can always hear when Chuck is playing on a project because it is outstanding and unique.

  11. David De Marse says:

    Pure genius ! My favorite band of all time. Their music is timeless…introduced my sons and their friends to SD and now they are hooked…especially their GF’s!

    And per the article…show me any band that sounds like or even comes close to SD. I hope to catch them on tour soon.

    1. The CS Team says:

      It’s not an apples-to-apples comparison, but you might enjoy this: http://culturesonar.com/steely-dan-and-snarky-puppy/

  12. Scott Gold says:

    Finally saw the Dan this summer!!! Have ALWAYS been a fan!! Most unique band ever!!!!

  13. Erik says:

    Angular banjos refers to Asian string instruments like the shamisen or sanxian. Also, quite certain that the “dude ranch” refers to a brothel. And with a wee bit of online searching, you can very likely come across plenty more explanation of the song’s meaning directly from Misters Fagen and Becker.

  14. juju says:

    seriously… exactly which jazz critics rate this as the high point in Shorter’s career…?

    1. Ron says:

      Agreed. I grew up with and love Steely Dan, but to say this solo is the highlight of Shorter’s career is shortsighted if not insulting. Listen to his solo on Infant Eyes as just one example among many

      1. Stan says:

        In fairness, the article says “rate…as highlights”, not “are the high points”. As in “a highlight” (of many) not “the (only) highlight.”

        You can argue whether these performances belong on their respective highlight reels, but it’s not fair to claim the article said these were “THE high points” of their careers.

      2. Dean says:

        Maybe this recording sold more than any other of the many spectacular tracks Wayne Shorter graced?

  15. Sniff Rox says:

    Love Steely Dan. Their jazz sound reminded me of this scene…had to share it.

    1. John says:

      Such a great and succinct description of jazz. But not why it’s stupid, why it’s great!

  16. Craig Skinner says:

    Did I hear someone say “Chuck Rainey”?

  17. Aja says:

    Im named after this song.

  18. Pete Wilson says:

    Great analysis Scott! And what detail… I’ve probably listened to this song several hundred times over the last nearly 40 years and never noticed the police whistle! 🙂

  19. Jeffrey Parsons says:

    The 2nd guitar solo (over the marimba) is Walter Becker, not Denny Dias.

  20. BlogDog says:

    Larry Carlton’s work with the Dan just slays me! This, Kid Charlemagne. Effing awesomeness, pure and total.

    1. Jack Geisler says:

      What about Don’t Take Me Alive?

  21. Some Dan says:

    FYI, the lyrics quoted in the article are actually “Chinese music under banyan trees”. The Steely Dan website has all of the correct lyrics available. I would presume that “angular banjos” refer to kotos or other Asian traditional instruments, keeping with the Asian theme. Not too difficult. Otherwise an excellent analysis of this all-time favorite song.

  22. Tom in Florida says:

    Great! But no mention of who played bass, truly the backbone of this masterpiece.

    1. Tom in Florida says:

      Woops! Just saw BlogDog’s comment. Larry Carlton, of course!

  23. Timothy Walker says:

    No mention of the bassist. Shame…

  24. billy long says:

    that great guitar solo on “Peg” is played by jay graydon…..who knew that?

  25. William Hansen says:

    I was working at Tower Records Tacoma when this album came out in 1977. If I had a nickel for every Aja LP we sold thru in-store play, I’d be a rich man.

  26. Kerry Stehlik says:

    Did I read Timothy B. Schmidt of the EAGLES? Tremendous music.

  27. Mike Carnelli says:

    When Mentioning “The Masterpieces” Off This Work…..”Black Cow” Cannot Be Denied:)

  28. TarheelMe says:

    Won’t you sign in stranger?

  29. Will Moore says:

    West of Hollywood is actually longer than Aja……and yes, Aja is the perfect album.

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