Overdue Ovation: Steve Khan

From session ace to Latin-jazz innovator

SteveKhan

Steve Khan

On a shelf in the living room of Steve Khan’s cozy apartment on New York’s Upper West Side, there’s a row of boxes. Inside the boxes are big stacks of manila envelopes. They contain the individual charts for every piece Khan has recorded in his 40-year career as a bandleader, organized by album. No PDFs converted from Sibelius or Finale files here; Khan wrote them all by hand, one for each instrument on any given session.

“If you can keep a chart to three pages, that’s ideal,” says the 70-year-old guitarist with the trademark mustache. He flips through the bass parts for 2016’s Backlog (Tone Center), the most recent in a chain of releases on which he’s established his voice in harmonically advanced, guitar-centric Latin jazz. “To me,” Khan says, “giving the guys you’re playing with a set of charts like this is a sign of respect, so they’re not coming into a project with no idea what’s going on. Some players appreciate it.” He pauses and grins. “Some may think I’m a control freak!”

A better term might be “meticulous.” That view is bolstered by a visit to the “Khan’s Korner” section of stevekhan.com, which features reproductions of many of these charts, plus transcriptions and detailed theoretical analyses of nearly 100 solos by such artists as Herbie Hancock, Freddie Hubbard, Wes Montgomery, Paul Desmond and Khan himself. It’s the product of a man who goes deep, not just because he likes to but because he’s internally compelled to. “I didn’t start playing guitar until I was 19,” explains Khan, who’d had lengthy prior engagements with piano and drums. “So I’ve always felt behind everybody else. That’s a sobering thing, but it makes you work harder.”

The hard work paid off after Khan, a Southern California native, earned his undergrad degree in music composition and theory from UCLA and moved to New York in 1970. He became a prized sideman and session player, working with the Brecker Brothers, Steely Dan, Billy Joel and Phoebe Snow, among many others. Columbia Records signed him and, through Bob James’ Tappan Zee imprint, put out his jazz-rock solo debut, Tightrope, in 1977. Everything seemed to be going great. But within a few years, Khan would learn that getting along in the music industry requires a jaw of steel to go with the iron work ethic. “When I first got signed, I really believed that this was it,” he says. “I was on the same label as Miles Davis, I’d be on that label forever, and fusion would go on forever. But three albums later, they had flooded the market with fusion, and I was the low guy on the totem pole.”

Dropped from Columbia in 1980, Khan got together with Weather Report percussionist/singer Manolo Badrena, bassist Anthony Jackson and drummer Steve Jordan. “We were trying to create music from nothing,” Khan says. “The records I’d been making were very structured. This was a complete break with all of that.” Eventually given the name Eyewitness, the band won some acclaim, making three albums that were reissued last year by BGO and deserve rediscovery.

But from a business point of view, Eyewitness was another disappointment. Its loose, genre-hopping sound was difficult to categorize. Three years passed between the recording and release of the band’s first album, and by that time gigs outside of New York had gotten nearly impossible to come by. The original Eyewitness dissolved in 1985, although Khan has revived the general band concept a few times since, with Dave Weckl and Dennis Chambers taking Jordan’s seat.

In subsequent years, Khan has often found himself in a catch-22 situation. It’s been tough for him to record and tour without big-name guests on hand, but the big-name guests can’t always be given the money that he feels they deserve. Phases of activity that produced albums like 1994’s superb Crossings have alternated with non-active periods that sometimes lasted years—“black holes,” Khan calls them now. “There’d be moments when I’d wake up and say to myself, ‘What the fuck am I doing?’”

An answer of sorts came when Khan turned to Latin music, first with vibraphonist Dave Samuels’ Caribbean Jazz Project in the early 2000s, and then on his own. “I went back to two of the most influential records in my musical life: Herbie Hancock’s Inventions & Dimensions and Cal Tjader’s Soul Burst,” he says. “Those aren’t typical ‘Latin’ records, but they helped instill a longstanding passion in me for Latin rhythms. Latin jazz is usually very piano- and horn-oriented. I wanted to hear Latin jazz with an electric guitar playing all the melodies and playing solos. This may not be 100-percent true, but I feel like I’m the only guy doing this.”

Khan introduced his new approach on 2005’s The Green Field and has maintained it for five albums. As it has evolved, he’s gradually moved away from his own compositions—to the point where there are no originals on Backlog—and toward “Latinizing” the catalogs of others. These include artists he’s long had a soft spot for, like Thelonious Monk and Ornette Coleman, as well as such seemingly unlikely subjects as saxophonist Greg Osby, starting with “Heard” on 2014’s Subtext and continuing with a Backlog highlight, the crazily darting “Concepticus in C.”

“I first played those tunes when I toured Europe with Terri Lyne Carrington, Jimmy Haslip and Greg after leaving the Caribbean Jazz Project,” Khan recalls. “Before we went on the road, I bought Greg’s albums, studied them and said, ‘He expects me to play this?’ When I looked at his scores, none of it made any sense to me except the melodies, and yet on his records it all seemed to make sense. These tunes left such a lasting impression on me that I wanted to do something with them myself. It took a while, but I finally got an idea: They both worked as cha-chas. There’s no melody as such in the B section of ‘Concepticus,’ so I listened back to a live recording of us and included some of what Greg played in my arrangement. It was like putting together a jigsaw puzzle.”

Khan doesn’t just write out charts; he also records demos in his home studio using Pro Tools. Then he meets with one of his principal collaborators, percussionist Marc Quiñones, to go over the parts. “I work with these great Latin musicians like Marc, [bassist] Rubén Rodriguez and [percussionist] Bobby Allende, and I often think, when I’m making an arrangement, ‘They’re going to think this is really fun.’ Then they read through it, and sometimes they look at me like, ‘Why are we doing this?’” No sense of suspicion is audible in the final result, though, probably because for Khan, melody dictates all.

“There’s a common misconception that in Latin music the clave determines how you’re going to play the tune, but it’s the other way around,” he says. “You can try to apply any of the great Latin rhythms to any tune, but determining where the clave is going to sit comes from the melody. And because a clave is a two-bar pattern, it works well with AABA song form, so it’s not that hard to map out standards in a Latin style.”

When it comes to standards, Khan is about as schooled as anyone could be; his father, lyricist Sammy Cahn, was a principal author of the Great American Songbook. (A lovely version of “Our Town,” which the elder Cahn co-wrote with Jimmy Van Heusen, appears on Backlog.) Although music was in Khan’s blood and in his house from birth, it was not encouraged as a career. “My father wanted me to be a lawyer, because he knew how painful it was to be in the arts,” he says. “But when you have a passion for something, you’re driven to do it. That’s assuming your life circumstances don’t drive you out of it, which can happen. I’ve seen guys come to New York who were a thousand times the musician that I am, but they’re gone. This is a rough-ass business, and life is hard in this city. I’m lucky to still be here.”

A few minutes later, on reflection, Khan acknowledges that there may be more than luck involved. “Sometimes you can’t see yourself getting out of that dark tunnel of self-doubt,” he says. “You don’t think you’re good enough; you don’t believe anyone wants to hear you. Then what do you do? I’ve been in that place many, many times, and somehow I’ve fought my way out of it. It’s will more than anything. I’m just stubborn.”

Recommended Listening

Tightrope (Tappan Zee, 1977)
Crossings (Verve Forecast, 1994)
Subtext (Tone Center, 2014)
Backlog (Tone Center, 2016)

Listen to songs and albums by Steve Khan on Apple Music.

Read Bill Meredith’s review of Parting Shot album by Steve Khan.

Read David R. Adler’s interview with Kurt Rosenwinkel