UMe's Steely Dan reissue campaign - which has so far yielded remastered standard and audiophile vinyl and hybrid stereo SACD reissues of the band's first three albums Can't Buy a Thrill, Countdown to Ecstasy, and Pretzel Logic - has announced an unexpected detour. On September 29, the series will jump ahead to the sixth Dan album and arguably Donald Fagen and Walter Becker's crowning achievement: 1977's Aja. (No fear: Katy Lied and The Royal Scam will show up later.)
Aja sounded - and sounds - like no other record. Jazz buffs claim it as their own; so do dyed-in-the-wool rock fans. It's even been adopted by the yacht rock crowd. In just seven songs, Fagen and Becker's ambitions crystallized. Their sophisticated compositions wouldn't just push the envelope of jazz, pop, and rock but set a new, high standard for recording and musicianship, too. The album, produced by Gary Katz and engineered by Roger Nichols (not the "Rainy Days and Mondays" composer) was famously (or infamously?) recorded over a year-and-a-half in six different studios in New York and Los Angeles. But Fagen and Becker's perfectionism and attention to detail paid off.
Having retired from the road and all but abandoned the pretense of a "band," the duo hand-picked musicians to bring their songs to life. These luminaries included Wayne Shorter, Tom Scott, Pete Christlieb; and Plas Johnson on saxophone; Chuck Findley, Lew McCreary, and Dick "Slyde" Hyde on horns; Chuck Rainey on bass; Larry Carlton, Lee Ritenour, Steve Khan, Dean Parks, and Jay Graydon on guitar; Bernard "Pretty" Purdie, Ed Greene, Jim Keltner, Steve Gadd, and Rick Marotta on drums; and Victor Feldman, Paul Griffin, Michael Omartian, Don Grolnick, and Joe Sample on keyboards. Michael McDonald and Timothy B. Schmit were joined on background vocals by The Blackberries (Clydie King, Sherlie Matthews, and Venetta Fields). Tom Scott provided the striking horn arrangements, more prominent than on any past Steely Dan album. (Listening to Aja, it's clear why the late, great Burt Bacharach admired Steely Dan.) This group of veteran players added up to a "Who's Who" of American pop in the 1970s, and every one was on their A-game in the studio.
And those songs! With "Deacon Blues," Becker and Fagen crafted a remarkable tune about a decidedly unremarkable man. A loser, even. "They got a name for the winners of the world/I want a name when I lose/They call Alabama the Crimson Tide," he mused. "Call me Deacon Blues." Marrying a slinky, seductive melody and chart to downbeat, fatalistic lyrics, "Deacon Blues" reached No. 19 Pop. "Peg," a love song to a fashion, featured the same precise fusion of pop, jazz, and blues. Highlighted by Michael McDonald's distinctive, multi-layered background vocals, it hit No. 11 Pop and remained on the chart for over a year. The story of when the elusive "Josie" comes home rewarded the Dan with a third top 40 hit. There's no filler on Aja, however. Every song today plays like a "greatest hit," including the epic title track and the deliciously cutting "Black Cow." Aja peaked at No. 3 on the Billboard 200, won a Grammy for its engineering, and remains Steely Dan's most commercially successful LP.
All albums in this reissue series are being mastered by Bernie Grundman from the original analog tapes with the exception of Aja and Gaucho. (It's stated that the original masters were never delivered to ABC/MCA and no longer exist.) Aja has instead been mastered from a pristine, non-EQ'ed, analog tape copy. Lacquers for UMe's standard 33 1/3 RPM 180-gram black vinyl version will be cut by Alex Abrash at AA Mastering studio from high-resolution digital files of Grundman's new masters and pressed at Precision. The package replicates the original album artwork.
Analogue Productions' 45 RPM UHQR vinyl box set versions will be pressed at the label's Quality Record Pressings on 200-gram Clarity Vinyl, and housed in a deluxe box. These luxurious pressings include a booklet describing the UHQR process along with a Certificate of Inspection.
Aja remains as bold, captivating, and alluring as when it was first released in 1977: the ultimate statement from perhaps rock's most iconoclastic and subversive duo. Look for the 180-gram black vinyl pressing and UHQR on September 29 at the links below; the hybrid stereo SACD should follow shortly thereafter. Drink your big black cow, and get out of here...
Steely Dan, Aja (ABC AA-1006, 1977 - reissued Geffen/UMe, 2023)
- Black Cow
- Deacon Blues
- Home At Last
- I Got The News