Learn to Work the Saxophone: Steely Dan’s Aja at 45

Why Becker and Fagen’s sixth album together can also be considered their best

Aja promo poster 1977 (Image: eBay)

Steely Dan had reaped considerable kudos from their founding in 1971 and well throughout the albums they amassed during the ‘70s.

They were a bright light in a decade that was known mainly as a poor successor to the ‘60s, and a time when disco preempted rock ‘n’ roll as the music world’s primary passion. Nevertheless, through both credence and conviction, Steely Dan — the brainchild of singer/keyboardist Donald Fagan and guitarist Walter Becker — managed to maintain a level of class, taste, talent and sophistication that enabled them to flourish while winning the respect of both critics and consumers.

Indeed, each of their albums had been hailed as a triumph. Beginning with their 1972 debut, Can’t Buy a Thrill (which turns 50 in November) and continuing throughout a trajectory that encompassed each of their succeeding albums — Countdown to Ecstasy (1973), Pretzel Logic (1974), Katy Lied (1975) and The Royal Scam (1976) — their creativity spawned kudos as one of the most remarkable American outfits of the decade due to both consistency and creativity. Having released an album each year, Steely Dan’s prowess and proficiency could hardly be denied. 

Steely Dan Aja, MCA 1977

Becker and Fagen had honed their chops as members of hit-makers Jay and the Americans, but it quickly became clear that their talents needed to be exploited all on their own. So it was no surprise really that by the time Aja arrived (it was supposedly named for a Korean woman who married the brother of one of Fagen’s high-school friends), they had already attained an enormously high bar.

As was typical of their efforts up til that point, Aja was an ambitious undertaking, one that found them enlisting some 40 guest musicians — among them, many of the leading lights of both jazz and fusion. The roster included Crusaders keyboard player Joe Sample, guitarists Dean Parks and Larry Carlton, saxophonist and arranger Tom Scott, drummers Jim Keltner and Bernard Purdie, percussionist Victor Feldman, Chuck Rainey on bass, and backing vocals that came courtesy of Tim Schmit, Michael McDonald and Clydie King.

When Aja was given its release on September 23, 1977, it was easily apparent yet again that Becker and Fagen were able to ensure their ambitions would justify their accolades. 

The fact that they accomplished that, while finding continued commercial success at the same time, not only spoke to their abilities, but also to the public’s recognition of both their talent and tenacity. The album entered the Top Five in both the U.S. and the U.K. and spawned several hit singles, including “Peg. “Josie” and “Deacon Blues.”  It also collected several Grammy nods, winning for Best Engineered Non-Classical Recording and reaping nominations for Album of the Year and Best Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocals. In addition, it’s frequently included in critics’ lists of the best albums of all-time, an accreditation underscored by the fact that in 2010, Aja was selected to be included in the Library of Congress’ National Recording Registry as an effort that is “culturally, historically, or artistically significant.”

Walter Becker and Donald Fagen (Image: UMe)

The album was also inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame and ranked at number 145 on Rolling Stone’s list of “The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.”  

In some quarters, Aja is credited with having been the basis for “Yacht-Rock,” given its supple sounds and easy, breezy melodies. That’s an auspicious statement to be sure, given the fact that songs such as “Deacon Blues,” “Peg,” “Josie,” “Black Cow,” and the title track made their lingering impressions via a combination of irresistible hooks and a subtle sound that allowed them each to make an immediate impression. It’s a significance that shines on, and the lyrics to the title track aside (Up on the hill/People never stare/They just don’t care”), the attraction still endures some 45 years later. 

To paraphrase the final line of the song, “When all that dime dancin’ is through, we’ll still run to you…”

 

 

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Lee Zimmerman

Lee Zimmerman is a writer and columnist based in beautiful Maryville Tennessee. Over the past 20 years, his work has appeared in dozens of leading music publications. He is also the author of Americana Music: Voice, Visionaries, and Pioneers of an Honest Sound, which will be published by Texas A&M University Press early next year.

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