Of all the classic rock I encountered in depth during my college years, Steely Dan is the one that defies conventional classification. Stylistically the band stayed true to their version of a rock and jazz hybrid, not that that made it any easier to pin their sound. My gateway to the band was Aja, their 6th album recorded in 1977. Although recorded deep in the disco era, Aja is the band’s most jazz influenced album. Aja seemed to be just one of those records young discovery minded college students encounter, just before the Doors and but after Bob Dylan.
Aja is a wonderfully strange bird indeed. It’s odd enough that the album gets pegged as jazz rock, a category awkwardly shared by the likes of David Sandborn and Miles Davis. While Aja is more rock than jazz, it’s the jazz elements that give this album its special sound. Steely Dan came out of the 70’s during a time when fusion jazz was exciting and new. The band was actually a revolving cast of members anchored by Donald Fagen and Walter Becker. Their brand of fusion would blend rock, R&B and even funk for a truly original sound that was counter to the big glam rock trends of the era.
Aja was one of their biggest hits, reaching multi-platinum status. The bands popularity is ironic considering that they were so overtly anti-rock. I had heard songs like “Peg” and “Josie” on the radio and had never paid the band much attention beyond that. It would not be until college that I would discover the varied textures and complexities of Aja. By my freshman year in college, nearly a decade since the albums release, songs from the album were still in heavy rotation on the radio. Like prog rock, another style of music from the era, many of the songs on Aja featured deeply layered instrumental moments that resembled more structured and accessible jazz. With just 7 tracks it seemed too short, but no space was wasted on filler.
My favorite track, ‘Black Cow’ features a funky rhythm guitar, soulful backing vocals and a polished horn section. Michael McDonald even shows up for backing vocals on a few tracks. Aja dad a refined sound, mostly due to the high skill levels of musicians commonly involved in Steely Dan recording sessions. Many of them were jazz musicians who never played jazz arrangements in a rock context. Technically, the bands use of multi-track recording processes insured a kind of fidelity that evenly stressed all of the instruments with no one dominating over the other. The result often placed Steely Dan albums high on the audiophile’s list of great recordings. Like many jazz compositions, Aja had a long sprawling tracks like the title song and ‘Deacon Blues’, each clocking in over 7 minutes.
The music of Steely Dan borders on timeless because of their rejection of 70s era rock conventions. Aja is just one of a string of critically and commercially successful albums from Steely Dan that spanned a period from 1974 with Pretzel Logic to the career capping Gaucho in 1981. You don’t have to be an impressionable college freshman to discover why Steely Dan was one of the best rock bands of the 70’s. There have been plenty of re-issues and greatest hits albums for anyone wanting a great place to start in appreciating this unique fusion of rock and jazz.