Appellate Judge Mike Pinsky learns to play the saxophone, but he'll skip that Scotch whiskey and dying behind the wheel part, if you don't mind.
"Just lay it all on Don and Walt / Just trip out on these hits / The groove that never quits / At the Steely Dan show!"—"The Steely Dan Show" (unreleased 2000 song)
Sure, they might be the best jazz pop band named after a dildo, but what is it really about Steely Dan that keeps them rolling after three-and-a-half decades? Their history is so well-documented and known to fans that I need say little about it here. Walter Becker and Donald Fagen hooked up at Bard College as two overeducated jazz fans with a penchant for strong musical hooks and strangely cynical lyrics. (And yes, Chevy Chase did play drums with them in those days.) Over the years they jettisoned band members, avoided touring, and locked themselves away in the studio to craft sonically ambitious albums. A blend of cool California pop with jazz fusion, Steely Dan became a successful crossover band even without the usual public performances that keep many acts in good with their fans. Steely Dan's 1977 album Aja, the band's sixth studio release, was their biggest commercial success, even though it eschews short, radio-friendly singles. And the diamond-sharp production still puts most other studio albums to shame even after 30 years. While I usually only play a handful of tracks off most of my CDs, Aja is still one of the few pop albums I just put in to listen to in its entirely every couple of months (usually switching off with Fagen's The Nightfly).
This DVD is yet another episode of the Classic Albums series made for British television. Reunited in 2000 (after a long hiatus working on solo projects), Becker and Fagen reminisce about their history and how Aja came together. Archival footage and more recent concert performances are combined with interviews to cover bits of Steely Dan's history and the making of the Aja album. (Notice how many of the songs in the newer concert footage have been stepped down a register to account for the fact that Fagen can't hit those high notes so easily.) The session players on Aja were a formidable collection of West Coast jazz musicians: Wayne Shorter, Larry Carlton, Tom Scott. Pop players like Michael McDonald and Timothy B. Schmit turned up as well. While Becker and Fagen like to take credit for the whole Steely Dan vibe, as if they are working solo, credit is due to a host of skilled players whose fingerprints are all over Aja and other Steely Dan albums.
We see the two musicians dissect each song in the studio—a little knowledge of composition on the audience's part helps here—along with surviving performers chiming in on how they added their own style. It is pretty clear that Becker and Fagen were quite demanding: everyone talks about how carefully their performances were shaped in the studio. One player even describes Becker and Fagen's attitude toward session musicians as playing a game of musical chairs. Another musician talks about how Becker and Fagen try to get "beyond perfection" in the studio. I even get the sense, watching them move the sliders on the mixing board as they dissect songs like "Peg" and "Josie," that they wouldn't mind remixing the album even today. Lyrics? You won't hear much about those. The only lyrics they pick apart are for "Black Cow." You'd think they would at least take a stab at making sense of "Deacon Blues." Of course, given how long some of the solos on Aja run for a pop record, I often wonder if the lyrics are an afterthought on some of the tracks. The only song that doesn't earn any love from the band here is "I Got the News," heard only briefly over the closing credits.
The audio is listed on the packaging as Dolby Digital, but my DVD software reads it as an LPCM 2.0 track. Since the highlight of the disc is a pair of in-studio instrumental performances of "Peg" and "Josie" with some of the original musicians (check out drummer Bernard Purdie's patented "Purdie Shuffle"), I would have loved to hear a more DVD-friendly audio mix (5.1 perhaps), but this was originally made for television, so I suppose I'll take what I can get. "Peg" sounds notably stripped down without the horn section. "Josie" gets a bluesy flavor with some additional solo work by Walter Becker in lieu of Fagan's singing. Pity I can't get these instrumentals for the jazz playlist on my iPod. They'd pair up nicely with some old Weather Report tracks.
Newcomers will find themselves baffled by the haphazard approach to the band's history, and only those really familiar with Aja will likely care about how the bass lines were mixed or where Michael McDonald's voice tracks were layered in on what song. But if you dig what Walter Becker and Donald Fagen are selling, then you'll find this episode of Classic Albums a real groove.
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