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Tuesday, Nov. 10, 2009

Steely Dan Revisits ‘Aja’

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Walter Becker and Donald Fagen were united by a shared love of jazz music, and the genre’s influence pervaded even their earliest albums as Steely Dan. No Steely Dan album more fully embraced jazz music, though, than 1977’s Aja, the band’s best-selling and most beloved record, an elegant and elaborately crafted fusion of warm pop and cool jazz.

Becker and Fagen had long wanted to create an album like Aja, Becker explains, but it wasn’t until 1977 that the duo was able to assemble the right roster of backing musicians to bring it to life.

“Through the years we found different ways to accommodate different elements of jazz into what we were doing, to a greater or lesser extent,” Becker says. “But Aja was the point when we suddenly had everything we needed to make a record like that happen—in particular, the right musicians. We had become aware of enough players who were fundamentally jazz players but had expanded their musical vocabulary to really understand playing over other kinds of beats other than the jazz and Latin beats they were used to.

“We knew about [drummer] Steve Gadd, for example,” Becker continues. “So we could write the song ‘Aja,’ and imagine as we were writing it, ‘OK, here’s the section where Steve Gadd would play his ass off,’ and lo and behold, that’s what he did. And we could imagine that we’d get somebody like [saxophonist] Wayne Shorter to blow over this, and we were able to.”

Aja was Steely Dan’s last album of the ’70s, and capped an intense six-year period during which the group released six albums.

“For us as songwriters, it was very important for us to write and write in the ’70s in order to get better at it and to change and grow,” Becker says. “We wrote many more songs than we recorded, and we recorded many more tracks than we used or finished, so we could really have a developmental process.”

It was that drive to keep writing and recording that kept the band off the road during their commercial and creative prime—though the financial cost of touring at the time was also a disincentive.

“Most bands at the same level we were at the time were losing money touring,” Becker explains. “The record label would lend you money for the tour, then they would take that money out of the royalties that they weren’t paying you anyway. That’s the record business for you.”

It was ironic, then, that when Steely Dan reformed in 1993 after a 12-year hiatus, they became primarily a touring outfit (though they did release two unexpectedly well-received reunion albums early this decade, the first of which, 2000’s Two Against Nature, won an improbable Grammy Award for album of the year.)

“I still don’t love the traveling and the lifestyle that touring gives you, but there are some things I like about touring now,” Becker explains. “We can have a much wider choice of musicians; we have much more freedom as to what material we play, and much more control over the environment and the sound and other things that are important to us.”

The group has no concrete plans to record new material, but the duo is as selective about their touring backing band as they were about their studio players, continually scouting a mix of veteran collaborators and newer jazz players like saxophonist Walt Weiskopf, trombonist Jim Pugh and guitarist Jon Herington.

“Just like in the ’70s, we’re always trying to find the most original voices on different instruments, finding ways to fit them in to what we do,” Becker says.

Steely Dan plays two nights at the Riverside Theater this weekend. On Friday, Nov. 13, they’ll play Aja in its entirety, then on Saturday, Nov. 14, they’ll do the same for their 1976 album, The Royal Scam.