10 Questions for Guitarist Steve Khan

By Todd Whitesel (Photo courtesy of Steve Khan/by Richard Laird)

Guitarist Steve Khan may not be a household name, but the records he has played on and the musicians he has played with are certainly in many homes.

One of the most in-demand players in jazz, Khan has worked with George Benson, The Brecker Brothers, Larry Coryell, Miles Davis, Maynard Ferguson, Billy Joel, Buddy Rich, and Steely Dan, among others. In addition, Khan has released several stellar solo albums and has published guitar transcriptions of Pat Martino and Wes Montgomery as well as books on jazz guitar instruction.

His new album, The Green Field, is scheduled for release Feb. 21 and finds him reunited with bassist John Patitucci and drummer Jack DeJohnette. Goldmine spoke with Khan about jazz, guitar playing and The Green Field.

Goldmine: You started playing guitar relatively late. Who were your influences, and how long did it take to find your own voice?

Steve Khan: Yes, I started to play the guitar at 19, after having been a pretty awful rock drummer. When I began to play, my guitar influences were pretty diverse: On the jazz side, they included Wes Montgomery, Kenny Burrell, Grant Green, and Jim Hall. But, I also was crazy about the playing of Albert King, Steve Cropper, Jimmy Nolen, and Curtis Mayfield, amongst others.

In my case, I believe that I stumbled upon “my voice” in 1981, when I recorded Eyewitness with Anthony Jackson, Steve Jordan, and Manolo Badrena. Since then, everything has been a process of refining whatever others might hear as my voice. What is so ironic is that I recall that one reviewer, while speaking of Eyewitness, called me “a space-age Wes Montgomery.” That comment was very meaningful to me, because, without playing an octave, an L-5 [guitar], or anything Montgomery-esque, someone heard the presence of Wes in my playing. The truth is that it is always there, even if my playing has moved on beyond that.

You have a beautiful guitar tone. How much of that comes from the guitar, and how much comes from you?

Firstly, thank you for the compliment! In the end, the truth is that everything is born of touch. One’s “touch” on the instrument is measured by very small, tiny increments, and they are almost unnoticeable. Though it seemed amusing at the time, I recall being at an Eyewitness rehearsal, and Steve Jordan had a copy of a Jaco Pastorius interview in Bass Player Magazine, and in one of the quotes, which was blown-up, Jaco said, “The sound is in my hands!” Well, when you consider that at that point in his life Jaco, when speaking, sounded more like Sammy Davis Jr. than he could have imagined, what he said was actually profound and all too true. One’s sound is not, in total, in the instrument one might choose to play, the strings, the amp, the speakers, the effects — it is, in fact, in one’s hands — in the way one touches the instrument. It sounds so simple, and yet it can be the quest of a lifetime.

The Green Field is your first release as a leader in nearly a decade. Were the songs you wrote composed over that long period of time or recently?

The original songs were only completed recently. For example, the “germ” of “El Vinon” I had laying around since just after Casa Loco was recorded in ’83. The germ, or part A, of “The Green Field” has been laying around for about 10 years, and I just couldn’t complete it. The other two pieces are very recent. Since Eyewitness and 1981, I have only played in keyboard-less contexts, so in that regard, everything is designed for a guitar trio plus percussion.

“El Vinon” is dedicated to the memory of the great drummer Elvin Jones. What were you trying to say musically?

The germ of this tune had been around for nearly 20 years, and every time I began to play it, I could hear Elvin and his rivet cymbal clanging away, all with his unmistakable pulse — those rolling, huge loops of rhythm. The title was actually the last thing to be arrived at. It is derived from the way my dear friend, the late, great “Chino” Pozo used to pronounce Elvin’s name. Musically speaking, I was only hoping that between John, Jack, Manolo, and myself, we could create a feeling that might remind others of what Elvin might have sounded like, without specifically imitating him. When the piece begins, I want it to reflect mood and attitude!

You give a nod to two other percussionists, Tito Puente and Willie Bobo on “Cosecha Lo Que Has Sembrado” (“Reap What You Have Sown”). And Manolo Badrena, Ralph Irizarry, and Roberto Quintero add their talents to the recording. What’s the relation between percussion/ Latin percussion and the way you play or write for jazz guitar?

That particular piece was created specifically to feature Ralph, Roberto, and Jack DeJohnette. It was modeled after the tune “Tito On Timbales,” which appeared on Tito Puente’s landmark LP Puente In Percussion, which dates back to 1957. On that recording, Tito performs with Willie Bobo, Mongo Santamaria, “Patato” Valdes, and bassist Bobby Rodriquez. But, Willie Bobo has been a huge influence on me, especially because of what he brought to Herbie Hancock’s great recording Inventions And Dimensions. That recording really changed my life and opened up new zones of the possible to me.

Percussion, in the hands and imagination of Manolo Badrena or Airto Moreira, or Nana Vasconcelos is a most magical and spontaneous thing. But, with artists such as this, the most important thing is that one must create the context which will enable them to feel free enough to express themselves in a particular way. Without the “context” there would be nothing. To blend in true Latin percussion with the jazz sensibilities of a Jack DeJohnette is a much more difficult task, but it can be done. It does require a bit more care and thought, because there are rhythmical rules — the clave — which must be adhered to. I am especially fond of juxtaposing, in this case, Jack’s swing pulse against Ralph Irizarry’s cascara as exemplified on a tune like Herbie Hancock’s “Riot.”

How would you describe the interaction with when playing with DeJohnette and Patitucci?

For me, I adore making music with John and Jack. They are brilliant players, and, more than anything else, they come to play and to play hard. These are two people that you will never see skating through a performance — never!

To me, if one just approaches music as if it is a conversation and then just listens to what is going on around him, it makes everything considerably easier. Again, to me, it is about creating a context in which the other players feel comfortable being themselves. There are no constraints on the creativity, and no one watches the clock. Part of the beauty of music like this is that you can’t truly anticipate what anyone is going to do.

Five of the nine songs here are covers. Do you approach an Ornette Coleman tune differently than a Wayne Shorter or Thelonious Monk piece?

I recall that a wise musician once said: “If you can take a standard and make it sound like a free piece, and if you can take a free piece of music and make it sound as if it were something completely familiar…. then, you’ve got something!” I absolutely believe in this, but I don’t sit around and consciously try to force that to happen. It is more in the manner in which one approaches making music that brings this aesthetic into the realm of the possible. More than anything, as a matter of respect, I try to bring something very personal to any piece that I choose to interpret. The Ornette tune [“Congeniality”] was given a different harmonic treatment for some of the melodic material. Wayne Shorter’s “Nefertiti” was played as a cha-cha-cha. And I hear something very romantic in many of Monk’s tunes. “Eronel” has a lot or romance to it, and that’s what I tried to capture and bring out.

There’s a famous story about Miles Davis telling John McLaughlin to play guitar like he doesn’t know how. Would a suggestion like that help you when improvising or trying to write something new?

Well, Donald Fagen once said to me, “Try to play as if you were Howlin’ Wolf’s guitarist but as if he knew how to play changes!” This, of course, washes down to: “Play with a bluesy feeling.” And, I think Miles was saying the same thing to John. I think when the guitar began to filter into Miles’ music — perhaps with George Benson’s appearance on “Paraphernalia” on Miles In The Sky — I believe Miles was looking for two things: 1) lines with a bluesy character and/or 2) sonic effects, colors.

However, when you are in the presence of someone who has been one of your most exalted heroes, you probably can’t interpret such instructions in the best way, because they are cryptic at best, and you’re just too damn nervous. Not so cryptic is just getting fired! But if you listen to the interviews given in the film A Different Kind Of Blue by players like Herbie Hancock, Dave Holland, Chick Corea, Airto, Gary Bartz, Dave Liebman, and Keith Jarrett — recounting their experiences with Miles during the post–Bitches Brew era — all of their stories have a common thread, in terms of directions they were given by Miles. But the most powerful direction to each of them was always: “Listen, then play!” It’s worth seeing the film alone to hear what each of these brilliant and visionary players had to say. And, look at the depth of the music most of them have gone on to play! How about that for taking something positive away from a musical experience?

The 18-plus minute title track is a standout. How much of it was charted out, and how much was improvised? It has a rather unusual ending — fading out with about two-minutes of lone percussion.

The title became attached to the tune just as it neared completion. Again, part A had been laying around on a piece of music paper for years. Part B was composed as a separate fragment and only as the recording was approaching. But, after some reflection, I came to realize that they were actually part of the same piece. That was a great moment for me. Once the two fragments were put together, the overall layout became much more clear.

In truth, at least at our one rehearsal, I really didn’t have to say very much to John, Jack, or Manolo about what I was hoping that we could create together. The written lead sheet only spans three pages. At times, between some of the phrases, I use squiggly lines to indicate that there is “space to be filled” — how we fill it is totally in the moment and up to each individual. How long those spaces will be are determined spontaneously. We only did one take, and I have no idea what might happen were we to perform it again.

I had no idea what would actually happen once we began to play the piece. My sense was that it would probably end-up being in the 10-12 minute area. And, if you look at your CD counter, by the time we’ve completed the last statement of A, I believe you’ll see that we are around 11 minutes. What happened after that was totally spontaneous and was driven by Jack’s unrelenting energy and creativity. The rest of us just went with it. I had no idea where we were headed — I just surrendered to what was happening and used melodic fragments to glue it all together. I also had no idea how the piece would end or even if it was actually going to end. There is no “fade” per se. Jack brings the tune to its proper conclusion by somehow ending while thrashing at his hi-hats. He brings the volume down himself. Once he stopped playing, I knew, in that very moment, that there was no way I was going to edit the piece, nor fade it. Though few may actually listen to the whole thing, there is a reward for those who commit the time and sit through the journey with us. I can’t explain just how proud I am that this was captured and resides on a CD of mine.

What is the next frontier for jazz guitar?

Wow, I wish I knew! I do know our instrument is in excellent hands. If I look at players considerably younger than me, they are all playing the instrument better than I could have ever envisioned for myself. I am speaking of players like Peter Bernstein, Ben Monder, Adam Rogers, Jonathan Kreisberg and several others.

The guitar, in jazz, began as a second-class citizen, the last instrument to solo. By the time it was allowed “in the club,” a language had already been created. But, if you view the history of the music, perhaps beginning somewhere in the ’70s, some of the best music, the most enduring music was made by groups led by guitarists. Who could have ever envisioned that?

I think that there are guitarists who are looking beyond the instrument, and the potential is there for great things, truly great things!

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