“The Making of Aja” Is A Must See For Fans Of True Music Craftsmanship

Documentary provides commentary from Donald Fagen, Walter Becker and studio musicians who were involved in the recording of Steely Dan’s masterpiece

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With my Steely Dan show (okay, make that Donald Fagen and the Steely Dan band) coming up tonight, not surprisingly, Fagen and his former partner in crime Walter Becker have been on my mind. As I usually do prior to concerts, I was browsing YouTube last night to get a peek from the band’s recent performances. Since I’m admittedly a bit of a music geek, of course, I’ve also checked setlist.fm and have a good idea of what to expect. Suddenly, I stumbled across The Making Of Aja, a fascinating film that documents the recording of what I feel is Steely Dan’s absolute masterpiece and certainly one of my favorite records of all time.

Surprisingly, there is very little public information about the film. According to IMDb, it appeared in 1999 and was produced by British television director Alan Lewens. The documentary’s official title is Classic Albums: Steely Dan: Aja. It breaks down each of the magnificent tracks on the record, featuring interviews with Becker, Fagen, Aja producer Gary Katz, guitarists Larry Carlton and Dean Parks, bassist Chuck Rainey, drummer Rick Marotta and other musicians involved in the cumbersome process of recording the album.

Even if you don’t love Steely Dan’s music, I think you’ll still enjoy this documentary, as long as you like music craftsmanship and have at least some degree of interest in how great music is created. Enough of the upfront talking, or I should better say writing, and time to get to some clips!

Here’s the section of the film that discusses the songs Black Cow and Home At Last. It starts with Fagen doing a hilarious rap singing uptown, baby, uptown, baby, alluding to the track Deja Vu by Lord Tariq and Peter Gunz (frankly, no idea about these guys!), who sampled a snippet of Black Cow. Among others, he and Fagen also discuss the meaning of the title; other than that it was a soft drink with ice cream that was popular when they were kids, the two music geniuses don’t appear to be absolutely sure what was in the beverage!

The next film excerpt is about Deacon Blues, my favorite Dan tune. Among others, Becker and Fagen isolate different tracks of the song on the mixing board, which I find particularly fascinating. Also very telling is the following commentary by session guitarist Parks: “One interesting thing about Donald and Walter is that perfection is not what they are after. They are after something you wanna listen to over and over again. So we would work past the perfection point until it became natural – until it sounded almost improvised.” That’s an interesting observation. You’d think that doing the same parts over and over again would be the equivalent of over-rehearsing, which to me sounds like the opposite of improvisation!

The last section I’d like to highlight is about the album’s closer Josie. It starts off with bassist Rainey discussing the song’s bass line – something I’m particularly drawn to as a former bass player. Fagen and Becker also discuss their reliance on session musicians. “Around the time we made Aja we had figured out what it was we sort of wanted to do, you know, musically” explains Fagen. “We realized that we needed session musicians who had a larger pallet of things they could do and who were also good readers because they were coming in cold.”

Have I whet your appetite? Well, in case you’d like to watch the remainder of the documentary and don’t mind Japanese subtitles, here’s a clip of what appears to be the entire film or most of it.

Sources: Wikipedia, IMDb, YouTube

7 thoughts on ““The Making of Aja” Is A Must See For Fans Of True Music Craftsmanship”

  1. I remember these all being shown on TV back in the late 1990s – they were pretty fun, especially when they get into the studio and play the individual instrument tracks. I remember Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours and Elton John’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road being featured too.

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  2. I have this recorded but have yet to watch. AXS has been re-showing all those “Classic Albums” docs. How was the show? I saw them a couple summers ago and thought it was great, although Fagen somewhat sarcastically pointed out they were there to play their hits (suggesting he would’ve rather gone a little deeper into their catalog).

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    1. Both The Doobies and Fagen/Steely Dan put in dynamite performances last night, so I’m really glad I went there!

      The Doobies sounded just as great as they did when I saw them for the first time 20 years ago. The harmony singing was perfect, and so was how they delivered the music. For the most part, they played their top 40 hits.

      I was also pleasantly surprised about Fagen’s vocals. I had read in some reviews his voice was slacking, so had lowered my expectations. I thought he was in terrific shape last night. And, frankly as I expected, so was the band!

      The majority of their set included many of their popular songs with a few deeper cuts mixed in. While they did various tunes from my favorite album “Aja,” they didn’t play my favorite my all-time favorite Steely Dan tune “Deacon Blues.” They also skipped “Do It Again.” Based on my previous review of setlist.fm, none of that was unexpected. Plus, they did play two other gems from the “Can’t Buy A Thrill” album: “Dirty Work” and “Reelin’ In The Years”!

      I’m planning to write something up today. I also captured plenty of video.

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