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Steve Khan: The Suitcase, Live in Köln ’94

Contrary to the implications of detractors, all electric jazz is not created equal, or with a common pool of aesthetic values. Take the case of guitarist Steve Khan’s trio, which never quite got the respect it deserved, partly because of its subtlety. Khan’s powerfully vibe-y and grooving trio, with expansive handed and minded bassist Anthony Jackson (whose ax is aptly identified as “contrabass guitar”) and intrinsically “electric”-sounding drummer Dennis Chambers was one of the more intriguing and distinctive units in the post-fusion crowd, standing apart by virtue of its house blend of visceral and poetic powers.

Listening to this double-disc live recording, captured in Köln in 1994, almost 15 years later, we get a keen retrospective appreciation for what Khan and colleagues were up to, with the benefit of historical hindsight. At that time in the ’90s, John Scofield had scored a coup with his electro-acoustic group that included Joe Lovano and acoustic bassist Dennis Irwin. In a very different way, Khan’s group brought acoustic values to an electric context. The 15-song set list includes Khan’s own infectiously cryptic tunes and select covers, by Thelonious Monk, Wayne Shorter, Lee Morgan and Joe Henderson, plus a ballad reading of the standard “Dedicated to You,” with lyrics by Khan’s illustrious father, Sammy Cahn.

This group gets to a place where energy and implication meet, with grooves fueled by Latin, funk and swing pulses. Chambers, a commanding force at the trio’s core, is the straight man, in a way. On the electric guitar scene, Khan has always been a fascinating sidewinder (pardon the Morgan-esque pun), somewhere between the jazz-rock and mainstream worlds, not quite clean-toned and mostly eschewing the easy voltage of distortion, and with a style more about the search than the slaying riff. Jackson, who gets righteously ample spotlight on this album, plays a sizable role in the trio’s unique character, with sinuous, insinuating phrases, double stops and chords, and the occasional well-placed dissonant note to keep our ear seductively off-balance.

In all, it’s a tasty relic, fresh as the night it was cooked up.

Originally Published