Steely Dan Aja - More than Drums

ohiodrummer1964

Senior Member
I was just listening to the song Aja by Steely Dan, and thought about all the times I've read other drummers on here talking about how good Steve Gadd's drum fills are in this song. I absolutely agree, but one thing that doesn't seem to get mentioned is how well the drums fit in with the rest of the instrumentation, or how well all the players on that track work together to create the mood of the song.

For instance, Gadd's first flurry of fills is played underneath Wayne Shorter's first sax solo. Until then the song has a legato feel. Then, when the solo starts, Shorter builds in intensity, and Gadd does too. While they're doing that, the rhythm guitar, bass and piano start playing a driving, staccato rhythm that just builds in tension. Then when everything builds to the peak of intensity, everyone drops off out of nowhere and slowly winds down the tension and volume on a descending chord structure that ends back at the first chord that was played in the song, and then resume the legato feel they had played earlier. The overall feel of that solo is like climbing and clawing your way up the side of a mountain, and then when you reach the peak letting yourself fall backwards over a cliff and floating in the wind back down to the base.

I think that shows what true masters are capable of. A lot of people can play with great technique, but don't have the interpretive skills to paint a picture like that (say speed metal). And I love a lot of very simple musicians who have emotional depth but don't really have the technical ability to play beyond the simple (say Layne Staley). The players on Aja - Steve Gadd, Chuck Rainey, Michael Omartian, Larry Carlton, etc. have the chops to play whatever chart is put in front of them, but they go beyond that. It's like the technique is just one of the tools in their toolbox, but their true musicianship is in knowing how to use that tool to contribute to the finished work in its entirety.

Listening to music like that is like viewing a great painting. If you want to focus on brushstrokes and all the details that make the painter a great craftsman you can, but you can also look at the "overall" painting and just appreciate how all the colors blend and/or contrast to create a mood, which to me rises above the details.
 

larryace

"Uncle Larry"
What a thoughtful post. That pretty much sums up a lot for me. Great music goes beyond technique, beyond time and tempo, beyond cool fills... it takes you on a journey that is so much more than the sum of the notes. It uses the language of music to make you experience something beyond the face value of the notes played. It's like musical wisdom, and what can be achieved, what should be strived for, in an ensemble situation. Musical peaks and valleys, just one way, out of many, to move an audience. Very nicely written.
 
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Anthony Amodeo

Guest
great post

this is a credit to the production of Gary Katz and the ideas of Fagan and Becker ....not to mention the laundry list of engineers

lots of players tracked that song and they just picked the appropriate takes built it in post like almost every Steely Dan song ever aside from the very first album

Steve Gadd once mentioned at a clinic I attended that he had no idea Wayne Shorter was on the track until he heard the finished product.
he also said it's a good thing that he didn't know because he would have approached what he played differently

he didn't even know if he would make the final cut
 
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GruntersDad

Administrator - Mayor
Staff member
If I'm not mistaken that album won a Grammy for Best Engineered Recording, Non Classical. All of it is just great IMO.
Edit....this is correct I just researched it
 

inneedofgrace

Platinum Member
When I was in college, my friend, who played jazz trumpet, turned me on to Steely Dan. What an eye opener. They made some of the most amazing recordings of all types from Aja to My Old School to Bodhisatva (sp?). It is some of the best studio work ever. Try listening to the songs on a good set of headphones - it will blow you away.
 

Bo Eder

Platinum Member
Becker and Fagen are really country songwriters. They tell stories and we all go with it ;) The musicianship they use is secondary to the central theme that we all understand. George Lucas has done the same thing with Star Wars, as have all good storytellers.
 

Florian

Gold Member
Huge fan of the 'Dan'...and great post OP. Ive listened to these guys for years and this is the first time Ive heard Aja described in such wonderful, colorful words. Thanks for opening my eyes a bit to more than just the notes.... Larry, youre spot on in your summary


F
 

ohiodrummer1964

Senior Member
Becker and Fagen are really country songwriters. They tell stories and we all go with it ;) The musicianship they use is secondary to the central theme that we all understand. George Lucas has done the same thing with Star Wars, as have all good storytellers.
I guess I see what you mean about Becker and Fagen being country songwriters, although I usually don't think of country as having surreal lyrics about prostitutes, heroin and LSD, LOL.

You capture what I meant in my original post with your comment about the musicianship being secondary to the central theme, although I think one could also say that the musicianship sets the right mood to tell the story in and therefore becomes a contributing factor in the overall listening experience. To me that's a big part of what makes players like Gadd and Carlton and Rainey more than just great drummers, guitarists and bass players: they transcend the technical "performance" and see how their individual part fits into the whole from a compositional and production perspective. That's my personal definition of what musicianship is: rising above being just a "drummer", and being a "musician".

By that definition, not everyone has to be a technical master of their instrument. Kurt Cobain wasn't, and I think he captured the mood of what he was trying to say perfectly, so I think he qualifies as a great musician. However, Cobain worked within a somewhat limited scope: musicians like Gadd and Carlton have the ability to create a greater variety of moods/textures/etc. than someone like Cobain due to their greater mastery of their particular instruments. The trick is to go beyond just mastering your instrument: measuring how good a drummer you are with a Drumometer is pretty shallow and vapid.

I think I could have used a better title for this thread. I was just using Aja as an example of musicians who go beyond being "craftsmen" to being "artists". Another good example of this is the first few bars of Miles' "Freddie Freeloader". The chord change on the piano, the walking bass line, the ride cymbal and the minor interval Davis plays instantly set the mood for the piece, and you got no soul if you listen to that from a technician's perspective. OK, unless you're trying to learn and improve your own playing, but still, you can learn a lot about just relaxing and getting into the music from that piece.
 

Anon La Ply

Renegade
You capture what I meant in my original post with your comment about the musicianship being secondary to the central theme ... they transcend the technical "performance" and see how their individual part fits into the whole from a compositional and production perspective.
Quality songs give musicians something to sink their teeth into, and there's Becker and Fagan's vision and direction that ensures everyone is focused down to the tiniest detail. If a player wasn't serving the song, they'd skip the take. Rick Marotta described them as "microscopic" :)
 

8Mile

Platinum Member
I've probably listened to Aja from cover to cover more times than any other album, ever. It's a musical work of art. Those guys are geniuses in my book.
 
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