Drummer Steve Gadd has been a familiar face behind the kit with classic rock luminaries including Paul Simon, Eric Clapton, James Taylor and Carly Simon. He has also done a lot of session work, so, understandably, he didn’t remember playing on the title track to Steely Dan’s classic Aja album when he heard it. Longtime Steely Dan producer Gary Katz shares the story during a lengthy chat centered on the 1977 album by the group.
Katz was behind the glass for all of the band’s albums through 1980’s Gaucho. He continues to be proud of the work he did with Walter Becker and Donald Fagen and participated in a recent sold-out “Immersive Sound” listening event devoted to the Aja album. Katz spoke with UCR to share some of his choice memories regarding the record and other highlights from his time working with Steely Dan.
The Aja album is a desert-island disc for so many fans. Why do you think there’s so much love for that album?
I really don’t have the answer to that. All of the albums had a sense about them as an album, but there was never a theme. They were all a collection of songs that hopefully meshed together musically and made sense. But the songs weren’t connected. I think the level of success that we received gave Donald and Walter an extra sense of freedom to move forward with what we had started. Can’t Buy a Thrill is not like Aja in lots of respects. Some people say it was moving on and they were getting better and so forth. I just think that everybody was learning their jobs, so to speak. Because of that, it got better. They were extraordinarily talented.
One day, Walter said to me, “You and I will never work with anyone this talented again.” I’ve worked with some really fabulous people, Laura Nyro, Joe Cocker and Diana Ross, but I have to agree. He is remarkably talented in a unique way.
There’s the story that they felt like they needed one more song for the album, and out comes “Peg.”
I don’t think that anecdotal story is actually correct. All of the songs were ready before we went in. I’ve never once in all of the years stood in the room and heard someone say, “You know what? We need an up-tempo song.” The songs were the songs. Creating the music, I’m sure they kept in mind the tempos of the songs and the style of each song. You weren’t going to have 11 dirges, you were always going to have a mix of material that was slower than some, faster than some or more chorus-y than some. It just happened to be that way. But it came from the songs, not because I or anyone said, “You know, we don’t have any fast songs.”
Listen to Steely Dan’s ‘Peg’
For Aja, they brought in Steve Gadd, someone you all did not know personally, to play drums on the title track. It seems like a good part of the Steely Dan magic was taking chances on things that were unknown, for the great things that might come out of the experience.
In that aspect, the three of us would just sit around like you and I are talking now. There were no meetings. We rarely called on people who we didn’t fully expect to be as good as they were. I mean, to call Jim Keltner, I’m not worried. I’m going to get a track. Or Larry Carlton or Dean Parks or Ray Brown, who played one track for us. The way it came about, you know, after there was a level of success and we got to Pretzel Logic and started to use a few more outside people, we’d sit around and one of them would say, particularly “Doctor Wu” [from Katy Lied] for instance, which I think might be my favorite Steely song, we’d sit around and we’d say, “You know, it would really be cool if we could get Phil Woods to play the solo.” Usually, Walter would say to me, “Why don’t you call him?” I called Phil Woods and he had no idea who I was. I’m guessing he might have known who Steely Dan was, although the first two albums were not in Phil Woods’ wheelhouse so to speak. I called him and he said, “Hey, how are you doing? I live here in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. Sure, I’d love to play.” I put him on a plane, we picked him up at the airport, he came to the studio. He played it once and Donald said, “That’s it.” I said, “Hold on, let’s just have him play two more times. We flew him here, besides that, it’s always going to be different and we’re going to like it.” He played it two more times and we picked the one we liked the most. He went back to the airport and that was it.
There was no big deal about making arrangements. I picked up the phone. I remember Walter one day saying, “Why don’t we call Illinois Jacquet,” who is kind of a well-known jazz player. He said, “Nah, I don’t want to do that.” But he’s the only one. One day, you’re talking about the song called “Aja” that has some really interesting anecdotal material, that song. Especially with Steve. We’d never worked with Steve. I’m too embarrassed to go into the reasons why, but we’d never worked with him. When we got to “Aja,” my cadre of musicians as far as drummers, wasn’t up their alley. It wasn’t for Jeff Porcaro, it wasn’t for [Jim] Keltner. It was obvious who was going to play that track, just for the 32 bar drum solo. None of my guys were going to do that. We did this out in L.A. at Producer’s Workshop and it was just a fabulous band. Victor Feldman and Chuck Rainey and Joe Sample. You know, all of our guys who we loved. Steve knew them like they were corner buddies because, with all of these guys, it’s a clique. So when he walked in, it was his guys. These are guys he’s known for 30 years and played with. I went out and actually had to introduce myself because I had not known him. The chart was long. It was 16 pages. So they built a horseshoe of music stands for Steve, to put all of the pages around the drum kit.
After a little while, Steve said to Joe and Chuck, “Just play it so I can hear how the song goes and I’ll make some notations on the chart for myself.” Donald went out as he usually did and stood in some corner and would sing a scratch vocal low, so the guys could hear it while they are playing. Walter and I were in the control room with Bill Schnee, a very famous engineer and producer at Producer’s Workshop, which was really his studio and he was the only one who knew how to make it work. He said, “Okay, let’s do one.” The track you hear is the only time he played it.
Watch Steve Gadd Play the Famous ‘Aja’ Drum Fills
Once. As it’s going on, both Walter and I [are looking at each other]. For whatever reasons each of us had, we had never hired Steve [before this session]. And as we got to the end, it was just so fantastic, Walter turned to me and he said, “Maybe we’ve made a mistake.” That’s the only time he played that track, was the first time. Months go by and we were mixing in New York because we’re not particularly fast about how we do things. We were just about finished with the mix of “Aja” at A&R with Elliot Scheiner. It’s as good as you can imagine something sounding on those speakers in the control room. It was magically great. Someone walked in and said, “Hey, you know Steve is down the hall, he’s playing with Michael Franks.” I said, “Oh, cool, Donald, I’ll go down and let him know we’re here.” I did that and he was finishing up. When he was done, he came in and said [his greetings].
He was feeling good. I said, “Sit down, I want to play you something.” We played him “Aja,” which was finished. He sat right between the Altec 604 Utility [speaker] cabinets. It was great sounding. The track ends and he said, “Wow, who is playing drums?” Donald, Walter and I, Roger Nichols and Elliot, are just looking at each other. Because he wasn’t kidding. I say, “You are, stupid!” He went, “Really? I’m a motherfucker!” It’s the best laugh we had in all of the years.
Why is “Doctor Wu” your favorite Steely Dan song?
I don’t know. There’s only one or so tracks that I wouldn’t call my favorites. The rest of them are all my favorites. It was just the time that we recorded that and where I was in my life. I didn’t hear a lot of the songs until we went to the studio. I’ve never seen them write one bar of music. I didn’t need to and they didn’t need me around. Donald was as close of a friend as I had during those 20-25 years. I never saw him write a piece of music. They just did it the way they did it. So he came in and the track was pretty well done. He went out to do a vocal and he sang the first line, “I was halfway crucified/ I was on the other side/ Of no tomorrow.” I pushed a button and I said, “That’s just not fair, Fagen.” That’s how I felt.
Listen to ‘Doctor Wu’ by Steely Dan
“Barrytown” from Pretzel Logic is a Steely Dan song I’d consider to be underrated. Is there one that you feel deserved more attention?
Honestly, so many. But when you say attention, you know, there were singles and there were tracks. I’ll put up our tracks to anybody. Save the Beatles, who were just another thing. But I’d put up our tracks with anybody’s. I wouldn’t necessarily say that about all of our singles. But you know, in writing, they were aware of needing singles, so to speak. But they didn’t write singles. It was just part of the process. Sometimes, I’d hear a song like “The Caves of Altamira” and it was so good to listen to. I worked as a fan. I mean, I was the fan and I got to hear the music before anybody else. So I’d hear these songs. “Third World Man,” drives me wild, which is a good story in terms of the “Aja” story. Like I said, Steve only played “Aja” once. Well, we were done at two o’clock. Donald said, “You know, we’ve got Gadd here. I’ve got a song, let’s cut another track.” It’s not a track we intended [to use]. I knew the song, “Were You Blind That Day.” Donald went outside, you know, these guys can play a song after hearing it once. Donald went out and sat at the piano and he said, “Let’s try this song.” He played it, each of the guys took a piece of paper and made some chord charts.
But we didn’t need that song. We weren’t intending to use that song for the album. But since we had Steve, we cut it. When we got to Gaucho, we were missing a song. Donald said, “You know, we’ve got this track from Gadd, I’ll rewrite it.” He rewrote it and it was “Third World Man,” which is one of my favorites. I’m just wild about that song. “Fire in the Hole” [from Can’t Buy a Thrill] that’s another one. It’s one that makes me say, “This is why I will do this music as long as I can.” No one knows that song.
It’s been said they’d chart things out for some players, but not for others. How common was that for other bands and artists you worked with?
Well, I don’t play. The only thing I work with, for better or worse are my ears and taste. Oddly enough, what we did and the way we did it, was really compatible, for no reason that I can tell you, it just was. I always wanted that to be the case. The only time people knew what to play, by instruction, so to speak, were horn charts — because the charts were written — even though we might amend them during the session. The two string sessions we did in all of the years that we worked. Otherwise, I can’t think of one musician on any track that we worked with, where we told them what to do. I always considered the band a workshop. That would be the expression I would use. I’d say, “Don’t worry about it, this is a workshop, we’ve got good guys here.” I mean, you call Larry Carlton, you don’t need to tell him what to play — and we didn’t. I can’t even remember guys saying, “So what do you want?” It just sort of happened. The songs were great and we hired great musicians to do what they did. I didn’t want to tell them what to play.
Every once in a while, Chuck Rainey, because Walter was the bass player in the band and we had developed friendships, he would say to Walter, “In this section here, do you want me to do this?” Not notes, but he’d ask, do you want me to make this section move a certain way? Other than that, I can’t think of anybody asking them, ‘What do you want?’
Did their time on the road touring help them evolve in the studio?
No, they were as good before I met them as they were at the end of those tours. They were just great. They’re great musicians and great writers. Their songwriting got refined. You know, as you write more songs and you record them, you develop styles and ways of doing things musically that you like that maybe you didn’t do beforehand, so you evolve as musicians and songwriters. But as far as playing and knowing how to do it? They knew it from day one. I don’t know how, but they did.
Steely Dan Albums Ranked
Steely Dan’s recorded output fell into three separate, yet very distinct eras. But which one was best?