Music DVD Reviews: Review of Classic Albums - Steely Dan: Aja

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Buy your copy from Classic Albums - Steely Dan: Aja starstarstarstarstarLabel: Eagle Rock
Released: 2006

For some reason, Eagle Rock Entertainment decided to give their “Classic Albums” series a makeover. That said, if you already own previous versions of these DVDs, then you don’t need to buy these new ones. The only thing different is the packaging. The rest of the product remains the same. However, if you’re new to the series, then step right up for some in-depth analyses of some of classic rock’s finest albums. The series is fully authorized, meaning you’ll get to hear the actual album cuts and watch the musicians who made the albums discuss their work.

So suffice it to say that it’s a joy to watch and listen to Walter Becker and Donald Fagen talk about their landmark 1977 album Aja. To many fans and critics, the album stands as the duo’s masterpiece, the full realization of everything Steely Dan had worked up to in the years and albums before. Certainly the Dan had fused its jazz chops into an amalgam that blended the best ingredients of the pop song format and extended jazz techniques into a groove that would pretty much be the apex of the group’s career. Of course, Steely Dan was anything but a cohesive “group” by this point, consisting now of Becker and Fagen and whatever session musicians they wanted to bring in.

And as drummer Rick Marotta (who played on “Peg”) points out here, it wasn’t just a guitarist or bassist that would interchange during rehearsals for the album’s songs, but entire bands. By this point, the perfectionism the Dan demanded had not yet set into full blown rot (that would come with the Gaucho album) and Becker and Fagen could get the exact performances they wanted through trial and error that would frustrate even the most seasoned of veteran musicians. Indeed, what would often sound like perfect takes to everyone else working on the tracks would not make the grade for Walter or Donald.

But these two were not complete assholes to work with in the studio, and their razor wit and charm is at the fore when re-listening to the master tapes in the control booth all these years later. It’s especially amusing when the two get down to picking apart the album’s opening track “Black Cow,” in which a bemused Fagen starts reciting lines from Lord Tariq and Peter Gunz’ “Déjà Vu,” which sampled its main groove from the track. We also finally get to learn just what the hell kind of drink a Black Cow is (but I’m not giving that away here).

Plenty of other musicians involved with the recording sessions are also present, including bassist Chuck Rainey, who pointed out that he felt the choruses during “Peg” needed a slap technique that Becker and Fagen were against, as that treatment was being used on so many disco and funk albums at the time. But Rainey insisted, hiding behind a baffle in the studio with his back turned the group while he slapped out the notes. Of course, the end result was accepted, with Walter and Donald not even realizing Rainey had slapped his bass until all was said and done.

Guitarists Dean Parks and Denny Dias toss in their memories as well, with Dias going into great detail about how difficult playing on a Steely Dan track could be, with regular rhythmic chords often being pointless to try. Instead, Dias shows how he would instead use clustered notes on the guitar to achieve the desired results. Even Michael McDonald, later of the Doobie Brothers, recalls how insanely tough it was to phrase some of the lyrics and be as precise at singing chords with himself through multiple-tracking as the Dan wanted him to be. Cut to a scene of Walter and Donald amusing themselves by playing McDonald’s vocal parts by themselves.

Basically, if you’re a fan of Steely Dan, you’ll love this DVD. If you’re not, then you’ll hate it (and why are you reading this review anyway). If ever there was a truly original group to come out of America in the ‘70s, then Steely Dan was definitely it. They continue to sound like no one else but themselves. Aja is but one chapter in their tale. Probably the most satisfactory chapter to Becker and Fagen, but still only one slice of the pie. Nevertheless, this entry into the “Classic Albums” series is great entertainment, at times even humorously self-deprecating in its wonderful perfection.

~Jason Thompson