There can be no doubt of the legendary status of this song. It’s a jazz fusion masterpiece containing the flecks of prog that Steely Dan increasingly flirted with over their career. Released in 1977, ‘Aja’ is one of their finest moments. Across its near 8-minute duration, the track is also one of the most sultry in the whole of the band’s back catalogue.
During the verses, the music is mellow but grooving, and in relation to Steely Dan creative directors Walter Becker and Donald Fagen, it ranks among the most tonally sophisticated and structurally complex they ever created.
Lyrically, the song centres around an internal monologue of a fictional man who runs towards the title character wanting to escape the stresses of his surreal life “up on the hill”. Fagen revealed that the song was inspired by a relative of someone he knew, who married a Korean woman by the name of Aja (Asia). He explained that the song was about the “tranquillity that can come of a quiet relationship with a beautiful woman.”
The story of the woman Aja clearly had a big impact on Fagen, as the title of the song would also become the name of the celebrated record it is featured on.
Despite how complex of a sound it is, with lots of layers and different parts, surprisingly, the song took a very short time to record, which Becker and Fagen credited the session musician’s ability for. They learnt it quickly without rehearsals, which is truly mind-blowing.
The song is also significant for another reason. Denny Dias’ guitar work and his melodic solo marked the last appearance on a Steely Dan record by any other founding member of the group aside from Becker and Fagen.
It was also the first song to feature the band’s new drummer, Steve Gadd, and boy did he grab the opportunity by the lapels. These days, Gadd is one of the most highly recognised drummers in the music industry, and it’s outings like this that cemented his reputation. His solos on the track are the real reason why it has such a hallowed reputation. The isolated track of his drum part makes this brilliance even clearer.
An incredible drummer, who helped to augment Steely Dan‘s ever-changing, and complex sound, there can be no surprise that ‘Aja’ is one of the most celebrated rhythmic takes in the whole of music. It is a staple for drummers wanting to take their playing up to the expert level.
Gadd’s part was recorded in just two takes and when added to the fact that his solos were improvised, it makes this isolated track even more incredible. He was told by the band to “play like hell”, when he entered the studio, and he didn’t disappoint.
Listen to Gadd’s isolated drums on ‘Aja’ below.