Aja, by Steely Dan

Good things happen when jazz musicians guest on songs recorded by popular artists. In the early 60s, when professional musicians ruled the studios in favor of young pop and rock bands who only performed the songs in live format, you could find musicians such as guitarist Barney Kessel play on “Then He Kissed Me” by the Crystals and “I Get Around” by the Beach Boys. In the 70s Herbie Hancock played a Fender Rhodes on Stevie Wonder’s “As” and Phil Woods added a tenor solo on Billy Joel’s “Just The Way You Are”. In the 80s Sonny Rollins had a surprise cameo on the Rolling Stones “Waiting on a Friend” and Chet Baker played a wonderful solo on Elvis Costello’s “Shipbuilding”, not to mention Sting’s album Dream of the Blue Turtles, which had an all-jazz super group of young jazz musicians. One of my favorite examples of how to use the talents of jazz musicians in a well-produced popular song is Steely Dan’s Aja.

After releasing a number of albums in the early 1970s Steely Dan became a studio entity in 1974. The band stopped touring and focused on songwriting and recording. Shrinking to a core made of Donald Fagen and Walter Becker, the band invited a wide range of musicians to record parts for various songs. Lots had been said about the duo of perfectionists who would put fine studio musicians to the test of take after take until they were satisfied with the result. This process was at its peak during the recording of the album Aja in 1977, but what is unique about the title track is the presence of two musicians who have not recorded with Steely Dan up to that point: Steve Gadd and Wayne Shorter.

Steve Gadd was a highly sought after drummer by artists on the sophisticated side of popular music. His ability to play drum patterns that enhance the song was in high demand after his legendary drumming on Paul Simon’s “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover“. Few drum patterns in music history lifted a song to a whole different level like the one Gadd applied to that song. Another drum legend, Bill Bruford, said of Gadd’s performance: “Steve Gadd’s drumming on ’50 Ways to Leave Your Lover’ is the archetypal example of a drummer halfway selling a song before the singer has even started”. Later in the 1970s his unique style was put to good use on songs like “Chuck E’s In Love” by Rickie Lee Jones. Donald Fagen and Walter Baker, who were notoriously anal about how studio musicians performed on their sessions, figured out they might call the best there is for their mini-suite title track. They already tried other drummers for the song, but for no avail. Enter Gadd, who came to the studio and nailed one of the most celebrated drum tracks in popular music.

Gadd talked about his involvement with the song: “I was in L.A. working on something else, and they called me. They asked for fills between the figures they already had. Back then, there were all of these stories about Becker and Fagen never being satisfied for one reason or another, but we just sort of sailed through everything.”

Wayne Shorter is not known as a session musician who records with artists in the pop and rock genres. Outside of the unique musical relationship he developed the Joni Mitchell starting with her jazz album Mingus, he stays mostly within the jazz and jazz rock mediums. In the 1970s he focused on his work with Weather Report, recording 8 studio albums with the group. However Steely Dan were well versed with jazz musicians and wanted Shorter’s sound and phrasing on their song. Walter Becker on Wayne Shorter: “Conceptually his music was so much more interesting than other bebop-schooled players. His work with Weather Report showed he was obviously familiar with the idea of what pop records and crossover were. That wasn’t always the case with jazz musicians – lots of them didn’t overdub well, because they were not familiar with the pop form.” Shorter has recorded many hours of music and sax solos before and after this recording, but many of his fans came to know him due to his one minute solo on Aja.

Aja was a big hit in the US, making it to No 3 on the Billboard albums chart and selling five million copies. In contrast, Heavy Weather – Weather Report’s most commercially successful album – sold half a million copies. You cannot argue with numbers.

Unlike other musicians who guested on Steely Dan’s records, Gadd and Shorter were able to complete their work with very few takes. Gadd played his track playing live with the band in the studio and required no editing to his take. Shorter recorded two takes that were pieced later to include the beginning of one and the end of the other.

Shorter and Gadd both have solos in the middle instrumental part of Aja. These solos are overlapping and sound like they are complimenting each other. You could swear this is a live session with all the musicians in one room. But no! Steve Gadd had not heard Shorter’s solo when he was playing because it was not recorded yet. Steve Gadd on this: “The band and the drums, we did that part of the track live, and then Wayne put his thing on at the end. We did the song live in the studio and then Wayne overdubbed his parts after. So, I wasn’t even there when he did it — unfortunately”. Gadd also has a solo during the one minute outro of the song featuring his signature 16-note triplets which he played all over Chick Corea’s albums Friends and My Spanish Heart.

One more guest musician to mention on this recording is Victor Feldman, the veteran LA session man who played with Miles Davis in the early 60s and wrote “Seven Steps to Heaven”. Feldman adds accents and color on multiple percussion instruments. His contributions are farther behind in the mix but if you listen closely you can hear play tasteful parts on marimba, vibraphone, bells and shakers.

Here it is, one of popular music’s best crafted achievements: Aja.

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10 replies »

  1. a major soundtrack to my growing up (or not) and an early influence in my musical education…what was this? I wondered….rock? jazz? asian sounds? (I didn’t really care, good music is good music, end of story)

  2. I loved this song so much when I heard it. Definitely the best song on an album of great songs. However, I’m actually thankful it wasn’t released as a single, so it didn’t get overplayed on the radio.

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