The Making of ‘Aja’ Reunion

Chuck with Walter Becker

From the Image Entertainment DVD
 “Steely Dan – Aja”

In 1999 I attended a reunion with 4 other musicians who were instrumental in the making of ‘Aja’, a 1978 Steely Dan album Recording. Although the project was actually recorded in Los Angeles with various musicians, this particular reunion was filmed and recorded in New York City at River Sound uptown in the neighborhood of Spanish Harlem.

The scene was spirited, playful and exciting while the stoic and mundane persona and personalities of ‘Steely Dan’ duo Donald Fagen and Walter Becker was accepted and overlooked and did not dampen our heart felled excitement in being there.

The musicians included Walter Becker, Donald Fagen, Bernard Purdie, Paul Griffen and myself. Also present and a contributing musician in the filming and recording was Paul Harrington, who was not an original musician on the project, but was a member of the Steely Dan touring band at that time. Also present were Elliot Reason and Roger Nichols, two recording and remix engineers that were regulars in many Steel Dan recordings.

Mysteriously absent was producer Gary Katz who was indeed the most important person in the success of Steely Dan recordings. He was the continuity director of personnel and held everything together with a watchful eye representing the record company, Warner Bros. Music. Although the songs written by Donald and Walter were exceptional in their apparent value as songs, Gary’s experience with and knowledge of the ability, success and prominence of valued studio players hired, was the link that tied the project together.

Rhythm section players – Paul Griffen, Bernard Purdie, Larry Carlton, Victor Feldman, Ed Green, Dean Parks, Steve Gadd, Rick Marada, and Joe Sample are just a few of the many celebrated studio ‘sideman’ that participated in creating the music parts, orchestrations and general feel of Steely Dan recorded music. I asked about Gary’s absence, got no answers and put it out of my mind – at another time and place, I asked Gary and got just enough to understand and to leave it alone.

With the exception of meeting for the first time Paul Harrington and although I had seen and worked with Bernard many times since the recording of ‘Aja’, with graying hair at everyone’s temples and mustaches, it was a blast to see each other together again in the same room after some 20 plus years had passed. The affair brought many memories.

We re-recorded 4 original songs from the ‘Aja’ project with added interaction among us for the sake of the film. Although it was many years ‘after the fact’ of the original recording and the interaction was planned, it was still very interesting and musical. However, I am intrigued in wondering how the outcome reality of the original circumstances and un-rehearsed interaction of the original recording of ‘Aja’ would have differed on film for the eye and ear of the public at large who bought that recording many years before.

Like Gary Katz, another unsung hero associated with Steely Dan recorded success was Jeff Pocarro. Jeff was an ‘A team’ studio call at the time and was also an ex member of the original Steely Dan band. During that time Jeff was also a member of Toto. He obviously had a very close relationship with Walter and Donald because he was always either the drummer on any demos that were presented on material to be recorded by ‘Dan’ or for sure the first drummer that I worked with on all ‘Dan’ songs in the studio. For reasons not known to me, he was not aired on the ‘Dan’ albums that I am associated with, but sure had an impact on the feel of what was recorded by the other drummer(s).

My relationship with Walter was never musically strained. During my career most associations with other bass players on a project were always musically strained a bit and somewhat uncomfortable. I found Walter to be very respectful to me, full of ideas and easy to work with and work for – even though he had a tendency to be sometimes strange, but was in his way a ‘people person’ and never difficult to get along with. On the other hand, my relationship with Donald was always a bit strained, but professional and respectful – he was always strange and not too much of a people person.

A lot has been said and written about Steely Dan recordings, Walter and Donald, some negative and some positive, this goes with the territory when a group or artist attains great success. I have been asked hundreds of times why I was not on tour with ‘Dan’ concerts, especially when they got a negative review. I feel that since none of the original players on their recorded mega hit’s from the ‘Gaucho’ back to ‘Pretzel Logic’ toured with them, no explanation is really necessary.

It’s obvious that they had their reasons for not asking any of us and it is their right to do what they think is best for them. There is a drama aspect to everything and each of us probably has a reason of our own and while some of us have talked about it from time to time, that is not my intent in writing about the subject matter – the ‘Aja’ Reunion.

Personally, after seeing them in concert a few times, I would not have felt comfortable being there for many reasons; (1) Although Tom Barney is an excellent bass player and reader, and happens to be a good personal friend, I have yet to hear a clear bass part in the mix at the ‘Dan’ concerts. Since the bass is an intricate part of the ‘Dan’s’ music, I would not like being on stage with them if they did the same to my playing on stage, (2) I’m not sure that I would have the same spirit energy musically, if a Bernard Purdie, Larry Carlton, Dean Parks, Steve Gadd, Victor Feldman, etc., were not also present on the bandstand and (3) I doubt very seriously that I would be financially accommodated to tour with them.

Up until the recording of ‘Aja’, I had been a well known and first call bass player in the world’s community of organized music with all the accolades of success however, my presence on the recording of ‘Aja’ has done more for my career than all the other projects put together. All in all, everyone must acknowledge and remember that ‘Aja’ will go down in history as one of the greatest recordings of organized music and it would not be so without the music and song genius of Donald Fagen and Walter Becker.

I am very proud to have been a part of the project and I thank Gary Katz for thinking of me and putting me in Walter and Donald’s view for their music.

Chuck Rainey