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Steely Dan: Aja

Steely Dan: Aja

Analogue Productions  CAPP 139 SA

Stereo Hybrid

Pop/Rock


Steely Dan


Aja — Steely Dan's landmark sixth studio album reissue. Hybrid Stereo SACD release from Analogue Productions. Mastered by Bernie Grundman from an analog, non-Dolby EQ'd quarter-inch 15 ips tape copy.

If you were an audiophile in the late 1970s, you owned Aja. Rolling Stone, which ranks 1977's Aja at No. 63 on its latest 500 Greatest Albums of All Time list, says "this was Walter Becker and Donald Fagen's no-holds barred stab at becoming a huge mainstream jazz-pop success.

"And sure enough, thanks to sweet, slippery tracks like 'Deacon Blues,' and 'Peg,' this collegiate band with a name plucked from a William Burroughs novel and a songbook full of smart, cynical lyrics became bona fide superstars, shooting to the Top Five and selling platinum. And yes, Aja even won a Grammy for Best Engineeed Album."

Fagan and Becker would assemble a revolving cast of almost 40 session musicians to play on the album, consisting of some of the all-time greats, including Joe Sample, Larry Carlton, Wayne Shorter, Steve Gadd, Lee Ritenour, Timothy B. Schmidt — it's a long list. It's a Who's Who of session superstars.

The album name and its title track were inspired by a South Korean woman whom a high school friend's brother had married after serving in the army in her country. The chord progressions and melodies are so unique and so typically Steely Dan. The drum solo at the end of the title track by Steve Gadd is also astounding.

Founded by core members Walter Becker (bass) and Donald Fagen (vocals, keyboards), Steely Dan's popularity rose throughout the late 1970s on, and their seven albums throughout that period of time blended elements of jazz, rock, funk, R&B, and pop. Steely Dan created a sophisticated, distinctive sound with accessible melodic hooks, complex harmonies and time signatures, and a devotion to the recording studio. Becker and Fagen, with producer Gary Katz, gradually changed Steely Dan from a performing band to a studio project, hiring session musicians to record their compositions. The duo didn't perform live between 1974 and 1993. But their popularity nevertheless grew throughout the '70s as their albums became critical favorites and their singles became staples of Adult Oriented Radio and pop radio stations.

After a brief battle with esophageal cancer, Walter Becker died on September 3, 2017 at the age of 67. Steely Dan has sold more than 40 million albums worldwide and were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in March 2001. VH1 ranked Steely Dan at No. 82 on their list of the 100 Greatest Musical Artists of All Time. Rolling Stone ranked them No. 15 on its list of the 20 Greatest Duos of All Time.

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Reviews (1)

Review by Mark Werlin - April 18, 2024

“Aja”, the sixth Steely Dan album, has been an audiophile favorite since its 1977 LP release. Songwriter-performers Walter Becker and Donald Fagen, who had discontinued touring, hired a stellar lineup of first-tier session musicians and ran through untold hours of studio time. In this expensive venture, the pair were enabled by producer Gary Katz and by executive session engineer Roger Nichols, who went on to earn a Grammy award for the album.

NOTES OF A NON-FAN

Full disclosure: I’m not a fan of Steely Dan. Although my musical interests have changed and broadened in the decades since the album was released, my lack of interest in Steely Dan has remained constant. Researching this review reinforced and clarified what were formerly vague feelings, and listening closely to the new SACD reissue only confirmed what I first thought, many years ago:

“Aja” is one the most overrated albums of the 1970s.

Quotes from interviews with Becker and Fagen about the recording of “Aja” reveal astonishing arrogance and self-congratulatory perfectionism. The recording process took months and cost a small fortune. Was it really artistically necessary to hire a different drummer for almost every track? Becker and Fagen stuck with bassist Chuck Rainey and vibist Victor Feldman throughout, both of whom contributed instrumental continuity to the album. Couldn’t they have done just as well having Larry Carlton and Walter Becker play all the guitar parts?

At the New York sessions for “Peg”, they went through something like seven guitar players, and erased each track in dissatisfaction until they settled on L.A. session guitarist Jay Graydon, and kept him recording solo after solo, for hours. It’s inarguable that the resulting song was a radio hit, but is that the most important goal of music-making?

The title track, with its tricky, faux-jazz chord progression, has been lauded and analyzed at exhaustive length. Steve Gadd’s drum playing has been elevated to legendary status; what’s underneath all the adoration is solid drum technique and a rare moment of spontaneity on an otherwise rigid chart. Wayne Shorter’s solo, which has been praised to the skies, is probably his least memorable recorded performance. Shorter sounds like he can’t get through the session quickly enough. It’s embarrassing to hear the most innovative composer-saxophonist of the 1960s trying to shoehorn his solo into the narrow confines of the song’s changes. All the solo tells me is that Becker and Fagen had the clout to hire Wayne Shorter.

Is it admirable that Becker and Fagen were provided an extravagant budget to hire musicians far more accomplished and experienced than themselves, just to realize their personal goals of technical perfectionism? When is a performance ever ‘perfect’? Straightjacketing musicians of the caliber of Shorter, Rainey, Victor Feldman, and Joe Sample is more of an insult than a tribute. The jazz and R&B albums that inspired Becker and Fagen were recorded live in the studio, often in a single session. Bands rehearsed, then played the music while tape rolled. There was room for live improvisation and for the inevitable technical mistakes or wrong notes that even the best musicians will make.

Perfectionism is a false premise. A great album does not consist of technically perfect performances, any more than a great painting consists of perfect brushstrokes. Real musicians learn the lesson that growth comes not only through practice, but through experimentation, without fear of imperfection.

REVIEW OF THE SACD FOR FANS

The album’s original mastering engineer, Bernie Grundman, recently remastered “Aja” for Analogue Productions in three formats: 45 RPM UHQR 2-LP set, hybrid stereo SACD, and 24/192 download. According to the Acoustic Sounds pages for the UHQR LP and the SACD, the albums were:

“Mastered by Bernie Grundman from an analog, non-Dolby EQ'd quarter-inch 15 ips tape copy”

A member of the Steve Hoffmann forum contacted Chad Kassem at Acoustic Sounds to inquire if there were any significant mastering differences between Grundman’s 24/192 download and the SACD of “Aja”, other than the final PCM and DSD delivery formats. Here’s the response:

"Although the PCM version on HDTracks was also mastered by Bernie Grundman from the same sources, we went through several revisions on the mastering with Bernie before we were satisfied, so our Analogue Productions version is exclusive to our SACD and is different than what HDTracks has for sale.” [Note: the 24/192 is also available from other hi-res download vendors.]

The refreshingly informative disclosure that Grundman mastered the 24/192 download and the Analogue Productions SACD from the same sources, and that revisions in the mastering of the AP SACD distinguish it from the 24/192 download, confirms my own impressions. The two Grundman-mastered versions sound very similar, but not exactly alike. Listeners with acute hearing and highly resolving audio systems may notice small differences between the two products, but I would not rate one over the other. Both are relaxing to the ear, without exaggeration in the high or low end. For listeners with computer music servers and standalone DACs, the 24/192 download may be preferable, because it can be remodulated to high rate DSD128 or DSD256.

A methodical comparison by Josh Mound of many different digital releases of “Aja” was posted to Audiophile Style in 2019 and subsequently updated to include the Grundman 24/192 version, though the thread does not include the new Grundman SACD. His extensive research, spectrum analyses and personal conclusions can be read here:

https://audiophilestyle.com/ca/the-best-version-of/the-best-version-of%E2%80%A6-steely-dan%E2%80%99s-aja-r772/

I have not heard all of the remastered versions cited in that article, but I have heard the 1988 MFSL Gold CD, the 2014 SHM-SACD, the Grundman SACD and 24/192 download, and hi-res PCM needle drops of the 1999 Cisco reissue LP and the AP 45 RPM UHQR 2-LP set. The MFSL Gold CD, like the SHM-SACD, is described as being transferred from an “original master tape”, but in the case of this recording, where the original masters were known to have deteriorated by the 1980s, the term is ambiguous. The MFSL Gold CD seems to use a familiar ‘smiley-face’ EQ boost in the low and high end; but bearing in mind that the term ‘master’ can refer to a tape copy used for mastering LPs, MFSL’s engineer could have done a flat transfer of a tape that actually sounded like that. Either way, the MFSL Gold CD sounds brighter, with more sibilance and forward emphasis on the vocals and cymbals, than either of the Grundman versions.

Comparing Grundman’s AP SACD and the Universal Japan SHM-SACD requires lowering and raising the playback volume, because the SHM-SACD was mastered many decibels louder than the AP SACD. Notwithstanding Josh Mound’s spectral analysis, the SHM-SACD seems boosted in the low end for greater ‘slam’. But that might be due to the provenance of the SHM-SACD, which is described in Mound’s article, quoting the liner notes, as “’flat transfe[r] from Japan[ese] original analogue master tapes’ by Hitoshi Takiguchi at Tokyo’s Universal Music Studios”. This was not the same tape source that Grundman used in mastering his 24/192 download, the new AP SACD and the AP 45 RPM UHQR 2-LP set.

After hearing the AP 24/192 download, the AP SACD, and a 24/192 needle drop of the AP 45 RPM UHQR 2-LP set, I would without hesitation rate the Grundman versions over the Japanese SHM-SACD on the ground that Grundman was better equipped to recapture the choices made by the artists and the session engineer. While the mastering history of “Aja” frustrates direct comparisons, I believe most listeners will hear significant differences in the two SACD versions, though preferences might be purely subjective.

Copyright © 2024 Mark Werlin and HRAudio.net

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Comments (7)

Comment by Downunderman - April 5, 2024 (1 of 7)

Sometimes things can get complicated.

This AP SACD, released 2024, is going to be compared with the Japanese SACD, released in 2010, which was favorably reviewed over on the old site - https://www.sa-cd.net/showtitle/6499

The Japanese version was mastered by Hitoshi Takiguchi and according to the tin, “DSD transferred from analogue master tapes”. The 'master tape' being a Japanese one and may have been a vinyl cutting master. It had a average DR of 13. So not markedly boosted from the original 1984 CD which had an average DR of 14

It is worth noting also, that Bernie Grundman mastered (with Becker & Fagen over his shoulder) the original vinyl back in 1977, so he should know what it should sound like - the caveat being memories and hearing are apt to degrade in the 40+ years that have elapsed.

Of potential interest are the differing disc runtimes. The Japanese SACD at 39:49 and the Analogue Productions at 40:17

Having listened to both versions back-to-back I can report that they sound quite different.

Comparatively, the Japanese version is noticeably louder. It is clearer and cleaner with no bloom evident on the bass, which is punchy and well defined. There is also very good separation between the different elements in the mix. Speculatively, there has been a cleanup of the bottom end, as it does not sound particularly tape like. The high frequencies are also well defined, having an almost bell like character and not at all distorted.

The Analogue Products version on the other hand tends to smooth over transient attacks a bit, creating a cohesive, but less separable, whole. It all sounds very analog and there is quite a bit of bass bloom. There is also not the same separation between elements in the mix.

I like them both but suspect the Analogue Productions version is truer to the master tape.

Worth getting? It will depend on listening preferences and your rig!

Oh, and if you want the lyrics booklet then you will be pushed to the Analogue Productions version. The Japanese version does not have a booklet.

Comment by Mark Werlin - April 7, 2024 (2 of 7)

I agree with Downunderman's evaluation of the differences between the 2010 SHM-SACD and the Bernie Grundman-mastered AP SACD. Both the Grundman SACD and the current 24/192 remaster sound better than the SHM-SACD on my system, taking into account my preference for a more vinyl-like representation.

Comment by Downunderman - April 19, 2024 (3 of 7)

Great review Mark. My favorite titles from many artists tend to be the 'imperfect' ones, so not Dark Side Of The Moon or Automatic For The People for me.

Perfectionism sure can be the enemy of artistic excellence..........though Punk was usually too prone to swinging the other way!

Comment by Mark Werlin - April 20, 2024 (4 of 7)

Thanks for the positive response, Downunderman. Aja is No. 63 on Rolling Stone's 500 Greatest Albums of All Time, so it's almost sacrilegious to slam the album. Clearly, I'm in the minority, but I'm in good company!

The central criticism in the review is directed against Becker and Fagen, not the brilliant musicians they hired. Having to listen comparatively to multiple reissues of the album was a chore, but it deepened my appreciation of Bernie Grundman's remastering.

Comment by John Bacon-Shone - May 10, 2024 (5 of 7)

I find it strange that Mark Wenlin feels the need to spend so much time criticising the music! Sorry, Mark, this is not about whether this is good Wayne Shorter, but is it good Steely Dan, to which I can only say, I believe that this album is *consistently* wonderful to anyone who loves Steely Dan, so I am very happy with the time Bernie G took to make it sound great on SACD.

I think your criticism *is* valid for the albums that followed, where they spent too much trying different options and failing, but Aja is one of my all time favourite albums - I love every track and if someone likes pop and jazz, they should give it a listen.

Comment by Mark Werlin - May 13, 2024 (6 of 7)

John Bacon-Shone, I'm sure that fans of Steely Dan and listeners who are interested in 1970s-era pop and jazz will enjoy this reissue and the high quality of Bernie Grundman’s remastering.

However, it would have been dishonest to leave out the opening section of my review. I listened comparatively to five different versions of the album, researched and read interviews and reviews, and seriously considered my own negative response to the music. All that listening and reading informed my comments, and though I'm in the minority, I think I raise some valid questions.

Whether their use of so many different drummers on “Aja” was a stroke of genius or a display of arrogance depends on your perspective. On an earlier Steely Dan album, “Katy Lied,” Jeff Porcaro played drums on almost every track. Jeff's performances were not only technically superb, they gave the album a unified rhythmic feel.

I was at school with Jeff Porcaro and his brother Mike (bassist of the group Toto), both of whom died too young. It’s impossible for me to separate my life experiences, musical preferences dating back to my teens, and broader interests of more recent years, from my reviews. I doubt that my opinion of the music and the process of recording the album will deter anyone from purchasing the disc.

The news of David Sanborn's death on 5/12/2024 prompted me to remove a reference to him in the review. Sanborn was a highly respected saxophonist who contributed a distinctive jazz voice to recordings by artists ranging from Stevie Wonder to David Bowie.

Comment by John Bacon-Shone - May 14, 2024 (7 of 7)

Dear Mark

Sorry for misspelling your surname. Interesting that you should mention Toto - I love their musicianship, but find much (but certainly not all) of their music too bland, so clearly we must agree to differ on the merits of both Toto and Steely Dan! Sorry to hear of David Sanborn passing - he played many great solos on pop albums.