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Steely Dan: Aja

Eagle Vision // Unrated // October 3, 2006
List Price: $11.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Louis Howard | posted November 10, 2006 | E-mail the Author
The vehicle for the songwriting team of Walter Becker and Donald Fagen, Steely Dan has never been a band that conformed to convention over its history. The duo met at Bard College in New York in 1967 and began playing in area bands not long after, among those bands was "Bad Rock Group" (which included member Chevy Chase on drums), playing both rock and jazz. In time the two began composing songs together, capitalizing on a sameness between them- a preference for jazz, pop, blues and R&B over what one would call a traditional rock format. With lyrics humorously dark, ironic and more than a little eccentric, the two sculpted a sound far different from what their peers were producing.

At the suggestion of ABC/Dunhill producer Gary Katz (who signed the two on as staff songwriters) Becker and Fagen formed Steely Dan in order to have a working vehicle with which to record and release their music. From there the two took what was a somewhat conventional working band through stages of transition, eventually losing most of its semblance to a group at all, instead becoming a series of studio projects with professional session musicians called in to both accompany and accentuate the duo's material and musicianship. Indeed, after a 1974 tour for the "Pretzel Logic" release, the "band" quit publicly performing yet their popularity continued to grow on the strength of ever more diverse, sonically splendid album releases. From "Katy Lied" on, the two began creating Steely Dan albums by hiring studio musicians the likes of guitarist Larry Carlton and keyboardist Michael Omartian to support them.

By the time the album Aja rolled around, there was no longer a band- only the team of Becker, Fagen and some wonderful hired guns in the studio. One reason for the incredible sound and success of Aja is the kind of personnel Becker and Fagen wisely brought in to play on the project, great musicians the likes of great jazz fusion guitarists Wayne Shorter and Lee Ritenour, singer Michael McDonald, and The Crusaders among them. Undeniably, Aja has been the biggest success of the Steely Dan opus; listening to their earlier material gives the listener the impression that Becker and Fagen had been building their songwriting towards a release of that importance for some time. While they were already known for a sound far surpassing the normal rock fare, Aja became the album that in many ways was the antithesis of rock and roll with it's mix- so many elements of jazz and smoky blues rises to the surface here as to make this recording one more nearly a sophisticated jazz in blends of fusion and classical, with dashes of pop, R&B and blues. Becker and Fagen have a reputation for engineering pieces exacting, polished and clean, and Aja is the pinnacle of that penchant- textured and luxurious with an array of extended, sophisticated instrumental solos, the recording boasts a number of wonderfully crafted tunes with nary a clunker in the bunch.

Prior to the release of Aja, Steely Dan had boasted five U.S. Top 40 albums, but this recording was to be the biggest selling album of their career, zooming to the top 5 within three weeks of its release, reaching number 3 on the Billboard chart and staying in the top 40 for a year while reaching the top 5 in the U.K. One of the first albums to be certified platinum and a year in the making, the duo's efforts were rewarded with three hit singles- "Peg", "Deacon Blues" and "Josie", and a Grammy Award. I believe the time period in which this documentary was produced was 2000. By that point the long haitus Becker and Fagen had taken as Steely Dan had ended; prior to this they had gone on tour and released their first Dan album in 20 years, "Two Against Nature". The two are seated in a studio at a mixing console, working with the original multi-track tapes of the album sessions and giving one anecdote after another on the recording of each individual song while giving the viewer some insight into the number of layers that make up each song, quirky little instrumental riffs and passages. Also on hand are many of the session players giving individual stories and their own perceptions on Steely Dan as a whole, in pretty much glowing terms; among them are Doobie Brothers lead singer Michael McDonald (who had worked with the band long before the Aja sessions), the late British musician Ian Drury, and long time Steely Dan associate and record producer Gary Katz.

Listening to Becker and Fagen is fun as well; they don't come across to be nearly as eccentric as one might expect, given their catalog of quirky, sardonic songs. The two seem loose, laid back and quite happy to be relating the many stories behind making the album as well as showing off its sometimes barely perceptible attributes like a couple of proud parents. They've always came across as two against the world, and a bit of that is apparent here as the two finish each other's stories; one always seems able to add to the others reminiscences or finish the inside jokes and quips of his partner. Personally, I'm a long time Steely Dan devotee and my favorite release is their album prior to this, "The Royal Scam", but it is an recording darker, harsher and far less widely accessible than Aja, which seems to put aside some of their cynicism giving way to an effort sweeter and more positive in content. As is mentioned in the documentary, listening to the New Yorkers giving way to a brighter, poppier West Coast California type sound is both surprising and refreshing, and results in a creative peak the likes of which few artists ever attain.


Aspect ratio presented here is 1.33:1 fullscreen. While not anything worth bragging about, picture quality is good on the whole with solid colors and acceptable sharpness. I believe this release has been ported over from a prior VHS incarnation and considering its an early effort in that area I can't complain.


The lone audio track is listed as Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo. While the material would have been better served with something a bit more engulfing, voices are clear and easy to understand and the several musical pieces included are well represented; its a decent sounding if not particularly notable track.


No extras.

Final Thoughts-

The Aja sounds as fresh today as it did when first released some thirty-plus years ago, and getting an opportunity to sit in with Becker and Fagen is an enjoyable experience on the whole, as well as being treated to listening to several of the session players the duo used in making the album. I can't help but feel a portion of this will be a bit more technically involving than the viewer might like, but much of the contents ia well worth watching as well as giving a listen to. Recommended.
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