Steely Dan's Aja by Breithaupt Don

Steely Dan's Aja by Breithaupt Don

Author:Breithaupt, Don
Language: eng
Format: epub
Publisher: Continuum International Publishing
Published: 2007-04-14T16:00:00+00:00


TALK IT OUT TILL DAYLIGHT

Process

“Hot licks and rhetoric don’t count much for nothing,” sang Donald Fagen on “Throw Back the Little Ones,” the closing track of 1975’s Katy Lied. If the Steely Dan organization seemed understaffed in the years following the Great Band Member Purge of ’75, it remained crowded at the top: supreme executive power was still wielded by Becker, Fagen and Katz (“a most difficult troika if ever there was one,” says Steve Khan). The abiding impression among rock journalists was that, like Alfred Hitchcock, whose detailed shooting scripts made actual filming a form of drudgery, Becker and Fagen had everything planned down to the last detail before they began production. This was pure conjecture, of course, as journalists generally weren’t allowed at Steely Dan sessions (although Rolling Stone’s Robert Palmer got clearance to watch a full day of work on delay settings for a backup vocal in 1980), and no one outside the musical community had ever seen a Dan chart. But data be damned—from polished results, critics inferred persnickety methods.

In fact, Steely Dan records weren’t hatched in pre-production. Partially incubated, maybe. “There would be a chart, and we’d usually have a demo,” says Fagen. “We weren’t using click tracks yet on Aja—Bernard Purdie was a click. There was more of a blueprint when I did my Nightfly record, because that’s when I started doing demos using a sequencer, and I could actually hear what the track was going to be like. When we first started, Walter would talk to the rhythm section, and I’d talk to the guys who played chords. It got less rigid as we went along. Also, when we started out we were scared to talk to the older session guys, so a lot of times we’d transmit things through Gary. The first time Chuck and Bernard came in to play, we were terrified of them. Gary knew them from sessions in New York. He could talk sports. The session guys in New York, especially the black guys, used to play this rummy betting game called Tonk. Gary could play Tonk. He knew all that stuff. But it didn’t take long for us to start developing some rapport with the musicians. After we had a hit record, and they were on it, they became our pals.”

Becker, Fagen and Katz had many lieutenants on Aja, among them executive engineer Roger Nichols, frequent tracking and mix engineer Elliot Scheiner, rhythm section co-arrangers Larry Carlton, Dean Parks and Michael Omartian, and horn arranger Tom Scott. “For the horns, Walter, Tom and myself would have a session at the piano,” says Fagen. “I’d sometimes come in with some lines that I liked. A lot of times I’d give Tom the top line and then he’d fill it in. I’d say, ‘I really like Oliver Nelson,’ and sometimes I’d show him a chord voicing. He’d say, ‘I got it.’ He knew what we wanted, essentially. He knew the era and he knew the style, and he’d always come in with pretty much what we wanted.



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