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.

steve_khan

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.

Steps Ahead’s Magnetic: 30 Years On

steps

Is this Philipe Petit?

Elektra/Asylum Records, released summer 1986

Bought: Our Price Richmond

8/10

Some improvised music hits you at just the right age, to the extent that 30 years later you can still hum along to all the solos. Baby boomers were lucky enough to have Kind Of Blue, Time Out or Mingus Ah Um, but for jazz fans brought up on Weather Report and ’80s Miles rather than Brubeck and Mingus, albums like Magnetic might well be etched upon the memory.

In the mid-’80s, recording and instrument technology was moving quickly, maybe too quickly. This development influenced all kinds of music, from rock to fusion, and, in the wrong hands, led to a lot of grossly-overproduced, unmemorable stuff that barely holds up today. As a few people have said, 1986 may be the worst music year of the decade.

steps 3But 1986 also somehow produced some really memorable fusion music. Smooth Jazz proper was just a twinkle in some bored record exec’s eye and the ever-reliable Japanese market was keeping quality electric jazz alive; Lyle Mays, Mike Stern, Wayne Shorter, John Abercrombie, Miles, Bireli Lagrene, John Scofield, Bill Frisell and John McLaughlin were going strong.

Though Steps Ahead’s Magnetic album embraces technology to a full extent, even more so than on ’84’s Modern Times, given the writing and playing talent (Michael Brecker, Peter Erskine, Mike Mainieri) it’s no great surprise that they pull it off with so much aplomb. They had also now added the formidable ex-Weather Report bassist Victor Bailey.

A timeless classic it ain’t, but Magnetic isn’t any old ‘what does this button do?’ mid-’80s studio creation. Though the sound and mastering are superb, emphasised by the presence of Brothers In Arms producer Neil Dorfsman on engineering duties alongside future back-room stars James Farber and Tom Lord-Alge (fresh from Steve Winwood’s Back In The High Life), the compositions very definitely come first and the audio ‘experiments’ second.

Despite all this, Magnetic is definitely the least-heralded Steps Ahead album, at least among jazz critics, probably because it’s a real onslaught of styles and sounds, closer to a ‘pop’ album in concept. The melodic themes are strong without ever getting too sugary and each track has a unique flavour. It’s hard to believe the same band can come up with ‘Something I Said’ (featuring one of Brecker’s great ballad performances) and also the coruscating avant-fusion of ‘Beirut’ (developed from a band jam session).

Hiram Bullock plays one of his many classic solos on ‘Trains’, adding some much-needed grit, while George Duke co-produces the weird but exciting contemporary R’n’B of ‘Magnetic Love’ featuring some outrageous sampled Brecker tenor lines and killer Dianne Reeves lead vocals (and great backups from Jocelyn Brown, Janice Pendarvis and Diva Gray).

A synthesized cover of Ellington’s ‘In A Sentimental Mood’ proves Steps’ link to the past masters and features some astonishing EWI (an electronic instrument with the same fingering as a sax that looks like an elongated metal lollipop) from Brecker. There’s even time for some banjo-playing on ‘Cajun’, powered along by Erskine’s superb ride cymbal work. Yellowjackets were definitely listening to that.

It’s weird seeing Steps Ahead playing this material live. They had obviously worked a bit on their stage ‘presentation’ between 1984 and 1986, maybe influenced by Chick Corea and his Elektric Band’s shenanigans. Peter Erskine and Victor Bailey had left to join Joe Zawinul’s Weather Update tour, so ex-Journey drummer Steve Smith, Sting/Miles bassman Darryl Jones and Stern came in, adding some big-name clout and a much tougher sound.

Magnetic was the last major-label action for Steps Ahead. Brecker and Erskine jumped ship but Mike Mainieri would continue with the name over the next few decades fronting a multitude of line-ups. He’s just announced a ‘reunion’ tour with a formidable band featuring pianist Eliane Elias and sax player Donny McCaslin, fresh from Bowie’s Blackstar. I hope to get to the Ronnie Scott’s gig in July.

Story Of A Song: Everything but the Girl’s ‘Driving’

drivingThe 1980s are littered with Brit pop bands going ‘across the pond’ to work with US producers and musicians – Aztec Camera, Scritti Politti, Love And Money, Wet Wet Wet and Simple Minds spring to mind, but the list goes on and on. It was almost a rite of passage, or – according to some music critics of the slightly more cynical persuasion – a desperate attempt at credibility.

You could hardly level that accusation at Tracey Thorn and Ben Watt, AKA Everything but the Girl. They were headhunted by legendary producer Tommy LiPuma, who had just put the finishing touches to Miles Davis‘s Amandla, and their ‘Driving’ single (released in early 1990 but recorded spring 1989) seems a near-perfect marriage of US and UK sensibilities.

I confess I hardly knew anything about EBTG when my brother first played me ‘Driving’. I just heard something extremely classy, with intriguing chord changes, a great singer and strong jazz flavour. I didn’t know Tracey and Ben had spent much of the ’80s building up a considerable rep as ‘indie jazz/folk’ darlings of the music press and enjoying not inconsiderable commercial success too, but I was possibly vaguely familiar with Tracey’s gorgeous vocals on The Style Council’s ‘Paris Match‘, a favourite of my dad’s muso mates back in the mid-’80s.

Taken from The Language Of Life album, the song was recorded in LA at the famous Ocean Way and Sunset Sound studios with pretty much the finest session players money can buy (Omar Hakim on drums, John Patitucci on bass, Larry Williams on keys/arrangements, Michael Brecker on tenor). But, according to Tracey’s superb memoir ‘Bedsit Disco Queen‘, the American musicians were totally ignorant of the fiercely independent English scene from which Tracey and Ben had emerged. When Larry Williams found out that EBTG had recently recorded at Abbey Road, he blurted out: ‘Wow! Abbey Road! The home of the Beatles!’ Tracey’s reply? ‘God, I HATE the Beatles.’ There was a pregnant pause. Eventually Williams spluttered out: ‘You h-h-hate the Beatles?’ But you can imagine such ‘musical differences’ were all in a day’s work for EBTG.

‘Driving’ obviously sounds more like Anita Baker (I’d love to hear her cover it) than, say, The Smiths. It’s sophisticated but still has bite, with rich chords, an intriguing ABAA structure and glorious Brecker solo (inexplicably with a different, inferior take on my 7” vinyl version). Ostensibly a song about ‘cars and boys’ (though written solely by Ben Watt), maybe one could read it as a clear concession to the US marketplace. Or is it the un-ironic response to Prefab’s ‘Cars And Girls‘?

tracey thorn

‘Driving’ became somewhat of an airplay hit in the States (though surprisingly only reached #54 in the UK), and led to several high-profile US gigs which nevertheless unfortunately seemed to precipitate a crisis of confidence for Tracey. The live band, which included future smooth jazz star Kirk Whalum on sax, whipped the crowds into a frenzy night after night, but there wasn’t much space for her subtle, low-key vocals any more. Cue a few years of soul-searching and a distinct change of direction exemplified by 1994’s Amplified Heart.

But re-reading Tracey’s book and listening again to the sublime ‘Driving’ have given me a new admiration for her writing (and music), and a keenness to check out a lot more of Everything but the Girl’s ’80s work. Only took me 25 years.

Jazz, Clicks And Synths: Steps Ahead’s Modern Times

Steps-Ahead-Modern-TimesElektra/Asylum, released July 1984

7/10

Michael Brecker

Michael Brecker

Any budding sax player of the ’80s was learning Michael Brecker’s licks. Jazz people loved his post-Coltrane superchops and forensic exploration of every chord. Funk and pop people loved him because he could play brilliantly-tight horn arrangements with his trumpet-playing brother Randy and solo superbly over vamps, finding endless melodic ideas in the simplest two-chord changes. He was surely the only sax player who could play comfortably with Kenny Wheeler, Parliament and Everything But The Girl (though it has to be said that most hardcore jazz purists were intrinsically suspicious of this, but who cares what they think…).

Brecker formed Steps Ahead (originally Steps) with fellow New York masters vibraphonist Mike Mainieri and bassist Eddie Gomez, put together initially for the Japanese market. Steve Gadd was their original drummer, replaced in the early ’80s by Weather Report man Peter Erskine.

Steps Ahead’s self-titled debut album showcased a mostly-acoustic fusion sound, but the follow-up Modern Times embraced all sorts of ’80s technology to intriguing effect. Of course such tinkering opens it up to sounding somewhat dated these days, but at least the album has ambition, quality compositions and the kind of attention to detail that makes it an interesting companion piece to key mid-’80s pop albums like The Flat Earth, Hounds Of Love, Boys And Girls and So.

Opener ‘Safari’ kicks off with a vaguely Caribbean/reggae groove featuring a multitude of synths and sequencers and a tribal, almost Zawinulesque melody. With repeated listens there are many pleasures to be found; Brecker’s typically incisive tenor solo, Erskine’s subtly-building groove work, the slinky bass line which rumbles on throughout.

Equally arresting is pianist Warren Bernhardt’s title track, a modal piece built over another serpentine, sequenced line, developing into a series of lovely vignettes featuring Brecker’s solos and some very Steely Dan-ish chord progressions. Mainieri’s composition ‘Old Town’ features King Crimson/Peter Gabriel sideman Tony Levin playing some menacing Stick over the sort of exotic, ambient groove Bryan Ferry would utilise on Boys And Girls a year later. And ‘Radio-Active’ taps into some of the World vibes Peter Gabriel investigated throughout the ’80s.

Unfortunately a few tunes let the side down, drifting uncomfortably into smooth jazz territory. Mainieri’s composition ‘Self Portrait’ is almost saved by a lyrical Brecker solo but far too saccharine for my tastes, while Erskine’s ‘Now You Know’ features a melody line (Brecker on soprano) which, though memorable, veers scarily towards Kenny G. And it has to be said that Eddie Gomez’s role in the band would seem to be diminishing very fast, so anonymous is his contribution. He would be gone by the next album Magnetic, replaced by ex-Weather Report man Victor Bailey.

In Modern Times‘ liner notes, Peter Erskine thanks someone for their help with click tracks, and that concept in itself would probably turn off a big section of the ‘jazz’ audience. But some arresting compositions, tribal grooves and typically tasty Brecker solos ensure that one’s attention never strays for long. Modern Times is a key jazz album of the ’80s, albeit one that would probably have given most of the Young Lions nightmares…