Steve Khan’s Backlog: Interview & Album Review

backlog_esccov_hires600Steve Khan, one of jazz’s most underrated and distinctive guitarists, made two fine fusion albums during the 1980s: Eyewitness and Casa Loco.

His unique chord voicings, intriguing melodic sense and subtle use of effects have also illuminated work by The Brecker Brothers, Steely Dan, Billy Cobham and Joe Zawinul.

Khan’s other solo albums across a 40-year career showcase his enormous versatility, from overdubbed guitar tributes to Thelonious Monk (Evidence) and jazz trios (Headline, Let’s Call This) to large fusion ensembles featuring the likes of Steve Gadd, Don Grolnick, Michael Brecker and David Sanborn (The Blue Man, Arrows).

Khan has also become well known as a master-interpreter and reharmoniser of non-guitar jazz compositions by the likes of Andrew Hill, Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Ornette Coleman, Lee Morgan and Randy Brecker. His new collection Backlog, the third in a Latin Jazz triptych following Parting Shot (2011) and Subtext (2014), continues to plunder the songbooks of his favourite composers.

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The album kicks off with the killer one-two of Monk’s ‘Criss Cross’ and Greg Osby’s ‘Concepticus In C’. The former is inspired by the late great pianist Kenny Kirkland’s Latin version which first appeared on his fine 1991 debut album.

Says Khan, ‘It’s a wonderful arrangement and so good that it’s hard to escape its influence. It took me years to find a way to do the tune in a way where I could put my own stamp on it. As everyone already knows, I love Monk’s compositions and have recorded many of them. I happen to feel that Monk’s tunes have a way of fitting into a Latin context, as if they were made to be interpreted in that style.’

The Osby tune was played by Khan during their tenure together in the New Sound Collective band; the guitarist clearly relishes arranging his version of ‘Concepticus’ on Backlog, adding a funky Joe Zawinul flavour to the tasty harmonies and quirky rhythmic concept.

‘Latin Genetics’, composed by Ornette Coleman and first appearing on his In All Languages album, features a fine guest spot from Randy Brecker on trumpet. On first listening, it seems a light, almost joyous piece of music, but Khan has a different take on it: ‘It’s funny to me that people see this tune as being so happy – I actually see it as a rather dark piece of music, one with many sinister and even humorous qualities.’

Backlog‘s other Coleman cover version is ‘Invisible‘, featuring Bob Mintzer on sax, originally recorded in 1958: ‘It comes from one of his earliest albums, Something Else!!!!, featuring an acoustic piano,’ says Khan. ‘Every time I hear this tune, I feel that Ornette’s playing and improvisational concepts are a bit constricted by having the chord changes applied so literally. There seems to be an absence of space. So, in my interpretation, though there are chord changes, both Bob and I play pretty much unaccompanied, and that’s really how I like it.’

Elsewhere on Backlog, Khan reimagines the music of Stevie Wonder, his father Sammy Cahn, Johnny Mandel, Bobby Hutcherson and Andrew Hill.

Clearly a labour of love, Khan wonders whether it will be his final album: ‘When I recorded Parting Shot, for reasons of the health and condition of my left hand, I thought that was going to be the final album. Then when I decided that I felt well enough to record Subtext, I was even more certain that that would be the final album. But, as 2015 unfolded, I came to the simple conclusion that I just do not feel alive unless I am creatively involved in the formation of new music. So, while I can still do it, I had to do everything possible to record. Can I foresee ever being able to self-finance another recording of my own again? I don’t want to utter the word “never” in conjunction with such a thought, but honestly, I really don’t know. With the release of any new piece of work, there is always hope for better days and better times, but this remains to be seen…’

Backlog is out now on ESC/Tone Center.

Read the full interview with Steve at his website.

Strike A Pose (2016): An Interview With Co-Director Ester Gould

71e6e7c242045b1aefaf0a5aa90969f0In the late summer of 1989, Madonna held a series of dance auditions for her Blond Ambition world tour, eventually choosing seven virtually unknown male artists: Luis Camacho, Oliver Crumes III, Salim Gauwloos, José Gutierez, Kevin Stea, Carlton Wilborn and Gabriel Trupin. 

Camacho and Gutierez were possibly the best known of the group, members of the Harlem House Ball that became famous for ‘voguing’ (as seen in the ‘Paris Is Burning‘ documentary and Madonna’s ‘Vogue’ video).

The heightened environment of the Blond Ambition tour forged a bond between Madonna and the dancers but also conjured up some demons. ‘In Bed With Madonna‘ (AKA ‘Madonna: Truth Or Dare’), Alex Keshishian’s hugely successful 1991 film of the tour, had ramifications for the dancers too – three filed a lawsuit against Madonna, claiming she had invaded their privacy.

A fine new documentary ‘Strike A Pose’ catches up with six of the dancers nearly 30 years on (Trupin sadly died of an AIDS-related illness in 1995), investigating the impact that instant fame had on their lives and unveiling the deep, personal traumas that haunted many of them before, during and after the tour.

Co-directed by Ester Gould and Reijer Zwaan, it’s a powerful, sometimes moving meditation on ageing, artistic integrity, celebrity and identity. I caught up with Gould to chat about the film.

MP: Where did the original idea for ‘Strike A Pose’ come from and was it easy getting the funding?

EG: The original idea was co-director Reijer Zwaan’s: he was 11 when he first saw ‘In Bed With Madonna’ and was immediately blown away by these seven dancers and the film’s bold, liberating message. For the first time in mainstream media, there was this wild, loud, fun-loving troupe of dancers who were being themselves – gay and happy. Over the years, Reijer wondered what had happened to those men. When he told me about the idea for the film, I immediately loved it. We did some online research and found out that there was an entire generation out there thanking these guys for helping them dare to be themselves. At the same time, it wasn’t till we met each of them separately in summer 2013 that we knew we had a film. Our premise was that these paragons of pride and self-expression had each, in their own way, struggled with shame and self-doubt. We always wanted ‘Strike A Pose’ to be more than a ‘where are they now?’ story. We were looking for a larger narrative. It took us about 18 months to finance the film mostly with Dutch government funds. There were questions about whether Madonna would be on board and how she’d be depicted; it’s strange that when there’s a celebrity in the picture there are always forces who want to attack or uncover some dirt. For us, it was never about that.

Was it difficult tracking down Luis, Oliver, Salim, Jose, Kevin and Carlton? And were they easily sold on the idea?

Thanks to social media it wasn’t that hard to find them, but it took some time to get some of them on board, specifically José and Luis. They were tired of people asking them to gossip about Madonna – how could they know we were any different? There was also some fear going back down memory lane perhaps because it had been so hard to move on with their lives after such an impactful experience. What persuaded them was our genuine interest in telling their stories.

The film is a powerful statement about the devastating physical and mental issues around HIV and AIDS, and also the social stigmas surrounding them. In that respect, ‘Strike A Pose’ feels just as relevant today as ‘In Bed With Madonna’ felt in 1991. Was it your intention to make a ‘statement’ or just tell an interesting story about these attractive, fascinating people?

We did want to make a statement, but for us that statement isn’t solely about HIV and AIDS. It was about the emotional consequences of hiding a part of yourself, of feeling unworthy of being loved. It’s really hard to dare to be yourself, to fully accept yourself, if you feel different for whatever reason. Because we all want to belong – it’s deeply engrained in human nature. Of course, gay rights and AIDS awareness have improved since the early ’90s. On another level, it’s one thing to be loud and provocative when you’re young, it’s another to accept yourself on a deeper level when you get older and reality kicks in.

Reijer Zwaan and Ester Gould at the 'Strike A Pose' premiere, Tribeca Film Festival, New York City, April 2016

Reijer Zwaan and Ester Gould at the ‘Strike A Pose’ premiere, Tribeca Film Festival, New York City, April 2016

At any point did you seek a contribution from Madonna for the film, and has she made any public or private comment?

We did successfully reach out to her management and lawyers to secure the rights to use fragments of the original film. We also thought a lot about asking her to be part of ‘Strike A Pose’ but always felt like her presence could overshadow the whole film. In a strange way, she was the elephant in the room, because even if she had turned up at the reunion dinner, wouldn’t that somehow ruin the point that these young dancers have moved on, matured and become grown men? We did have one specific scene in mind, almost a title sequence at the end, which was to see these men and Madonna performing ‘Vogue’ once more on stage. We wrote to her about the scene but never got a reply. We do know that she has seen the film and liked it.

What’s your favourite scene in the movie and why?

My favourite scene is the one with José, his mother and her disappointment that he never managed to buy her a house. It’s really hard-hitting and there’s something painfully beautiful about the fact that José is translating what his mum is saying in Spanish, and at the same time he’s moved by what she’s saying, by her sadness that he’s messed up his professional career. We see two broken people and it’s such an honest scene about shattered dreams.

I agree. Your film reminded me a little of ‘Anvil! The Story Of Anvil’ in its depiction of fast fame and then the return to ‘normal life’, but you don’t go into much detail about the dancers’ professional lives after the Blond Ambition tour – was that a conscious decision or one forced by time constraints?

I would say it was mostly forced by time constraints but also for us it was more about this larger narrative that the individual facts. We wanted the film to be cathartic but it was quite hard to interweave all these individual life stories into one film. Also, the reunion of the dancers kind of got in the way of shedding more light on their current lives. Hopefully you do understand that they all still dance or teach dance and have overcome their darker moments. We end with the power of dance rather than talk about their lives today.

‘Strike A Pose’ has enjoyed a limited but successful run at the Dochouse in London but what’s next for the film? Will there be a DVD release?

The film will very soon be released on digital platforms in the UK. And then later this year it’ll be on Netflix, so there are lots of chances to see it.

This is a golden era for documentaries and ‘Strike A Pose’ is a fitting addition. Have you got another project in the pipeline?

I’ve just finished a six-part documentary series for Dutch public television, co-directed by Sarah Sylbing, which was a great success. It’s about the debt problem. We set out to make it as exciting and compelling as fiction, looking at ‘The Wire’ for inspiration. I’m still busy with the impact of that series. I’m also cooking up new ideas but it’s too early to say anything concrete. What I can say is that I love documentary filmmaking and have a lot of faith in its narrative power to reach audiences, especially since there is much more freedom now with genre and form.

‘Strike A Pose’ is still being shown at selected cinemas, details here.

From The Comic Strip to Castle Donington: An Interview With Nigel Planer

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Nigel Planer as Den Dennis, Castle Donington, 16th August 1986

If you were a British teenager in the mid-’80s, ‘The Young Ones’ and ‘The Comic Strip Presents’ were pretty much required viewing. In fact, it’s hard to imagine that period without them. They fused comedy and music with anarchic zeal and have endured as bona fide TV classics.

Nigel Planer was an integral part of both groundbreaking shows, working alongside Adrian Edmondson, Dawn French, Jennifer Saunders, Ben Elton, Rik Mayall, Alexei Sayle, Peter Richardson and many more. He brought the world such classic characters as the perennially-prickly hippy Neil and Den Dennis, heavy metal’s unluckiest guitarist.

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Since then, Planer has appeared in countless quality TV productions, written several books and plays and starred in the hit musicals ‘We Will Rock You’, ‘Evita’, ‘Chicago’, ‘Wicked’, ‘Charlie And The Chocolate Factory’ and ‘Hairspray’. He’s also worked on several BBC Four music documentaries and is currently revisiting an early interest in songwriting.

I began my chat with Nigel by asking him about his musical influences.

MP: There was a great punky energy about the early days of The Comic Strip troupe, but I’m guessing your own musical tastes weren’t rooted in punk. Did you play in bands before becoming a pro actor?

NP: I was more into psych-folk and new-age jazz stuff. I didn’t so much play in bands but I did make a bubblegum pop record with my brother Roger, and I had a publishing deal for my songs which were sort of sub-Nick Drake, soft, liberal, poetic things.

We all loved your portrayal of Neil in ‘The Young Ones’ (I think I still have ‘Neil’s Book Of The Dead’ somewhere…), but how much of that character was yours and how much of it Ben Elton and Lise Mayer’s?

Well, the original Neil comes from a show I wrote and performed with Peter Richardson and Pete Richens called ‘Rank’. Many of the characters later to appear in Comic Strip films stem from this show. We first did it at the Roundhouse and then on tour with various bands. We were trying to be like Alberto y Los Trios Paranoias or The Fabulous Poodles, if anyone remembers them. We ended up more like a Mike Leigh play with a rock band in it. When we made our double act, Neil came along with us and so he was my character in the ‘Young Ones’ setup. He was mostly my character but Ben and Lise made him more stereotypically hippyish.

Your cover of Traffic’s ‘Hole In My Shoe’ got to number 2 in the charts in July 1984! Any good memories from Neil’s ‘pop’ period? 

It was an incredible experience, to be a pop star all of a sudden without having to take the consequences of that decision because I was in character. I learned that I would hate to be a pop star.

Who or what was your inspiration for the brilliant Den, the hapless rhythm guitarist from The Comic Strip‘s ‘Bad News Tour’ and ‘More Bad News’?

I’m afraid Den Dennis comes from deep inside my soul…

You famously played the 1986 Monsters Of Rock festival at Castle Donington with the News, how was that? The festival was probably at its peak during that time.

It was our first gig. We were terrified. It looks pretty good in the film – you see all the usual spoof documentary gags, we argue, get ready for the gig, go up the stairs onto the stage. And then in one panning shot you realise it’s real, there are actually 40,000 people there baying for our blood and throwing bottles of urine at us. The compere (Tommy Vance) had to wear a helmet and face guard, but we just walked out there like idiots.

‘Bad News Tour’ famously appeared on British TV long before ‘This Is Spinal Tap’ was released. Have you ever met any of the Tap guys? Are they aware of ‘Bad News Tour’?

I think both ideas were in germination at the same time. Funny how things happen like that. I never met any of them but have a huge admiration.

In Ade’s Comic Strip film ‘Private Enterprise’, you play this great character Derek, a bow-tied, extremely effete A&R man. It’s a brilliant portrayal of a lot of those public school types who got into the music biz in the late-’70s and early-’80s. Was Derek based on anyone you knew?

Not really. I didn’t think of him as a public school type, I just came up with this weird voice. A lot of the time things are just done on instinct and it’s best not to work it out too much. I did feel I knew the kind of person he should be, ie it wasn’t exactly a stretch.

In later Comic Strips, there were cameos and musical contributions from the likes of Jeff Beck, Kate Bush and Lemmy. Any printable memories of working with them?

We used to do this gag where one of us, probably Ade, would turn down volume on his guitar and mime, and out would come the most amazing solo. Then out from behind a speaker would walk Brian May, Jeff Beck or whoever we’d managed to con into doing the solo. Then Ade would stop and shout at the guitar hero: ‘I paid you a fiver to stay behind that speaker, you bastard!’ At The Marquee, we did it not once but twice – after coming out, Brian then turned down volume on his guitar and out walked Jeff. Jimmy Page did the gag with us once too, but I can’t remember where we were playing. Ah, memories… I do remember an early morning filming call in a hotel in Devon on a Comic Strip film. There had been a lot of drinking the night before. I’d gone to bed early, being a professional ‘actor’ you know, but others had stayed up trying to keep up with Lemmy. The next day at 6am, I get down to the lobby for pick-up time – none of the cast are there, not even the runner nor the driver. In fact, the only other person turning up on time for work, with his lines learned, was Lemmy.

You’ve been in the original casts of several very popular West End musicals (‘Charlie And The Chocolate Factory’, ‘Hairspray’, ‘We Will Rock You’) in the last ten years or so – what are the challenges of singing live night after night?

It’s a slog doing eight shows a week on a raked stage. Lots of injuries and physio and the like. The singing is the nice bit. One is also fighting boredom on a grand scale. It’s hard to stay cheerful. But on ‘We Will Rock You’, I remember thinking to myself: ‘Shut the f*** up, you are about to go on in front of 3,000 people and sing a beautiful song with a band of incredible musicians handpicked by Queen and then do about 20 minutes of jokes and make everyone laugh and you’re complaining?’ I’m good at complaining. Ben used to call me Niggle Complainer.

In recent years, you’ve been the go-to voiceover guy for music documentaries on BBC4 – do you enjoy them and are there any more in the pipeline?

None in the pipeline at the moment unfortunately, but they are a really, really good gig. You get to sit for a day listening to all this brilliant music and hear some people talking who maybe meant a lot to you when younger. I particularly enjoyed ‘Blues Britannia’ which I thought was very interesting. The idea that the Brits re-imported the Blues back to America where it was dying.

What are you up to at the moment? A little bird told me you’re working on a music project alongside the acting…

I have a couple of musical projects at the moment. One is a stage musical I have written with Hannah-Jane Fox and Andrew Holdsworth who I met in the ‘We Will Rock You’ days. We’re trying to place it in a theatre now. It’s not usual musical theatre fare. It’s heavy-rock/pop based, a very dark gothic horror story called ‘She Devil’! The other is a psych-folk band called Rainsmoke I have formed with my musician brother Roger and a guy called Chris Wade who is behind the Dodson And Fogg albums. We have one song up on Bandcamp now, and are hoping to finish the album by the new year. Most of the songs are based on all those songs I wrote in the early 1970s when I was a young, green, poet-type guy.

Thanks Nigel.

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Nigel receiving his Honorary Doctor of Arts degree from Edinburgh Napier University in 2011