Steely Dan (featuring Wayne Shorter): Aja
Tim Schmit (vocals), Joe Sample (electric piano), Michael Omartian (piano), Larry Carlton, Denny Dias (guitars), Chuck Rainey (bass), Victor Feldman (percussion).
Composed by Walter Becker & Donald Fagen.
Rating: 100/100 (learn more)
Steely Dan's claim to fame is high-minded jazz-rock presented in a radio-ready format. "Aja," the title cut from their blockbuster 1977 album, is what results when Becker and Fagen forget about airplay. Fraught with more subtleties and tempo shifts than a symphony, this song contains highly unusual chord changes for the genre, yet with a melody that always manages to find its way back home. This is also a showcase for some of the era's finest studio musicians, featured in an extended instrumental segment that gives these cats room to untie one of the knottiest compositions in all of rock.
The three guitarists do great work in that stretch, but the climactic interaction between Wayne Shorter and drummer Steve Gadd is one for the ages. Gadd's muscular, off-center flurry of fills ranks near the pinnacle of this renowned session-drummer's career. Shorter doesn't compete with Gadd, but opts instead to gradually build momentum with many notes held long, some cascading down and often running just slightly behind the beat. A short slower interlude gives him just enough windup time to bring his solo to a peak that invokes the angular blues-based tough tone of his Blue Note years.
When performing such a complex song, Steely Dan recognized that only the very best will do. Even if the best—Wayne Shorter—normally doesn't do session dates.
Reviewer: S. Victor Aaron