Steely Dan is one of the first classic rock bands I got into when I was fifteen or sixteen, and Aja was the first album of theirs that became a part of my repertoire. I didn’t listen to jazz at all back then, so Aja‘s abundance of jazzy textures and flavors was a bit overwhelming, to say the least. But Aja struck a chord with me, and I listened to it over and over. The smooth jazz industry didn’t exist back in 1977 — the Rippingtons’ 1986 debut Moonlighting would start all that; it was a launching pad for Kenny G, David Benoit, and Dave Koz, whom you may have heard of — and one of the unfortunate consequences of Steely Dan’s successful fusion of rock and jazz on a popular album like Aja is that it spawned an entire style that is mostly junk.
The biggest difference between Steely Dan and smooth jazz? Production. Steely Dan’s work ethic in the studio is legendary and as a result their work holds up well, whereas most smooth jazz just sounds cheap due to its perverse reliance on outdated ’80s synthesizers. Although they started as a five-piece band, Steely Dan was whittled down to just Donald Fagen and Walter Becker shortly after the release of 1974‘s Pretzel Logic. The duo forsook touring in order to spend all of its time writing and recording, inviting the best jazz and rock musicians into the studio to record parts. A total of 36 (!) additional performers are listed in the liner notes, and that (I assume) only includes people whose performances made the record. It would be interesting to know how many musicians didn’t make the cut.
Their 1980 follow-up Gaucho utilized even more additional musicians, as 42 of them — Larry Carlton, Rick Derringer and Mark Knopfler (three amazing guitarists) among them — joined the fray. The album was a famously troubled production, taking over a year to record (an eternity in the ’70s), with one song (“The Second Arrangement”) having to be scrapped after an assistant engineer inadvertently erased it. Gaucho proved to be their last album until their Grammy-winning Two Against Nature was released in 2000, and in my opinion it’s the worst album of their initial run. It’s got some good songs on it like “Babylon Sisters” and “Hey Nineteen,” but it’s not their best work. (Two Against Nature is breezily entertaining though. I’ve never gotten too into it, but I’ve listened to it a few times. It’s good stuff.)
Although Aja isn’t a jazz album, it contains enough of the touches and tones of jazz that it significantly altered my perception of it. Before hearing Aja I wasn’t open at all to hearing any real jazz, but after listening to Aja a bunch of times, I was able to tell the difference between the finely textured, subtly crafted work of Steely Dan and the lazy, shallow commercialism of Kenny G. Unfortunately, most people can’t. They just don’t put in the work developing their musical ear to detect all the nuances and subtleties of recorded music. I’ve always been fortunate that my dad is an audiophile, so we always had a great stereo system and he gave me all sorts of lessons and pointers — more than I really wanted, I’m sure — about what exactly makes things sound great. (I regularly use the title track on Steely Dan’s 1976 album The Royal Scam when testing out headphones, incidentally.)
Listen to how Aja sounds and compare it to how everything else sounded in the late ’70s; you’ll realize there’s just no comparison. Even a great album like Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours, which also came out in 1977, sounds flat and hopelessly dated next to Aja. Listen to “Don’t Stop” on Rumours and then listen to “Home at Last” from Aja and tell me there isn’t a colossal difference. “Home at Last” — and most of Aja, for that matter — sounds like it could have been recorded last year. One day when I’m rich enough (one day…), I hope to buy all of Steely Dan’s albums on vinyl to hear how they were originally supposed to sound. (You’d think vinyl would be cheap these days, but it’s actually become a premium item.) The CDs and digital download albums I’ve bought sound very good, but I’d still like to hear the real deal.