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Steve Khan: Eyewitness Trilogy


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Steve Khan: Eyewitness Trilogy
Emerging on the New York scene in the mid-1970s, guitarist Steve Khan didn't long at all to develop a strong reputation as both chameleon-like session guitarist—comfortably crossing over from the jazz world into pop and rock and gracing albums by artists ranging from Esther Phillips, Freddie Hubbard and David Sanborn to Phoebe Snow, Billy Joel and Steely Dan—and valued member of the Brecker Brothers Band, playing on the seminal uptown group's sophomore effort, 1976's Back to Back, as well as 1977's Don't Stop the Music, both on Arista Records. Before long he was signed as a solo artist by Columbia Records, releasing three albums that, while intersecting stylistically with the Breckers' more funkified music, placed his sharp-toned Fender Telecaster—blues-inflected but with a more sophisticated harmonic bent that made him instantly recognizable—front and center.

Still, while the three albums Khan made for Columbia—1977's Tightrope, 1978's The Blue Man and 1979's Arrows—remain compelling on the two-disc 2015 BGO complication that brought these three albums back into print internationally for the first time in many years, by 1980, with the release of Khan's groundbreaking Arista debut, Evidence, it was clear that change was in the air. Khan's Columbia recordings were all exceptional recordings, but they were also, to some extent, obvious albums, where Khan's attention-grabbing writing laid the foundation for some aggressive, fusion-centric soloing that, clearly for the guitarist, had a limited shelf-life.

Evidence, on the other hand, was a true solo album, where Khan layered guitar upon guitar (upon guitar) in a setlist consisting completely of other peoples' writing. The first side of the original vinyl release collected compositions—some well-known, others more obscure—by jazz luminaries including Wayne Shorter, Joe Zawinul, Lee Morgan, Horace Silver and his previous employer, Randy Brecker. But it was the second side, an 18-minute medley of music by renegade composer/pianist Thelonious Monk, that was the knockout punch on a record that, from start to finish, demonstrated greater breadth—texturally, harmonically and conceptually—than any of Khan's previous recordings...and despite his more reductionist approach. More in service of the song than ever before, Khan also demonstrated greater attention to space and the idea that less can, indeed, oftentimes be more.

These changes were all the beginning of a paradigm shift for Khan, but it was with his next three albums, all featuring the same lineup, that the guitarist truly honed these changes as a guitarist and composer with the precision of a fine sculptor, but this time in the context of an empathic quartet featuring bassist Anthony Jackson, drummer Steve Jordan and ex-Weather Report percussionist Manolo Badrena.

The group's first album, Eyewitness (Antilles, 1981), was the subject of an extensive Rediscovery column at All About Jazz in early 2015, and it's flattering to learn that the column was one of a number of factors that led Khan to approach BGO Records with the idea of doing the same thing they'd done with his three Columbia recordings the previous year, but this time with the three albums released by the quartet that gained its name from that 1981 debut.

And so, BGO's reissue also includes the live Modern Times (Trio Records, 1982)—released in the USA as Blades (Passport Jazz)—and studio follow-up Casa Loco (Antilles, 1984) alongside Eyewitness: newly remastered (and approved by Khan) and spread across two CDs, with extensive liner notes by Matt Phillips. Eyewitness/Modern Times/Casa Loco rights a wrong by putting these albums back in print: three important records that truly redefined Khan as a guitarist, composer, interpreter and bandleader. They also set the stage for everything that was to follow, even if future albums ranged from the freely interpretive trio of The Green Field (Tone Center, 2006) to the guitarist's most recent Tone Centre releases—2007's Borrowed Time; 2011's Parting Shot; and 2014's Subtext—which more decidedly explored the guitarist's career-long interest in all things Latin and Afro-Cuban.

But in a career that's positioned Khan as a guitarist's guitarist, it's with these three Eyewitness albums that everything changed—and began again—for Khan. The Rediscovery column may, indeed, be amongst the final words on Eyewitness, describing the genesis of the group and how Khan applied a sparer, largely gentler approach that eschewed overt pyrotechnics and, instead, made deep grooves, group interplay and, most important, collective listening Eyewitness' significant modus operandi.

No group is worth its salt, however, if it doesn't continue to evolve, and this two-disc set demonstrates just how Eyewitness grew over the course of an eighteen- month timespan, from the November, 1981 recording of Eyewitness through the May, 1983 sessions that yielded the more provocative Casa Loco.

It also demonstrates how Khan had grown into an artist who felt ready to take real chances; Modern Times may possess the feel of a group that's spent some significant road time together, but this May, 1982 live date from Tokyo's The Pit Inn was, in fact, Eyewitness' first ever live date. Given the tenor of the times, with the emergence of the young lions and neoconservative jazz movement in full, well, swing, Modern Times represented a significant risk on many fronts, beyond being the group's first live performance. First, this was all-original music: three compositions by Khan and the closing title track—a collectively composed piece that moves from brooding, ethereal opening to four-on-the-floor theme, driven by Khan's whammy bar-driven chords, ultimately opening up to a solo section for Khan that's propelled by the reggae-inflected Jordan, Badrena's empathic punctuations, and Jackson's remarkable ability to completely anchor the group while, at the same time, altering the harmonic centre of the piece and acting as an near-telepathic melodic foil for the guitarist.

Second, this was a live album (then an LP) with four tracks all hovering near the 11-minute mark: a bold move (and, truthfully, a hard sell for Khan) made all the bolder still when taking into account that some significant editing had to be done in order to get the tunes down to that length. More than anything else, this was a playing band that also applied judicious editing in the studio (considering the number of fade-outs on Eyewitness and Casa Loco), but which applied absolutely no restrictions on how and where the music took it in either context.

Third, while these aren't what could be called "fusion" records in any way or at any time—though they're certainly both electric and electrifying—there's little to place Eyewitness in the context of the backwards-looking neocon movement of its time. While every piece on Modern Times swings in its own way, for the most part they don't swing the way the Marsalises of the world were asserting as the only way at the time. That said, while "The Blue Shadow" opens up with a bass/drums duet that, more backbeat-driven, clearly demonstrates the mitochondrial connection shared by Jackson and Jordan, it ultimately unfolds into a solo middle section that swings in a more decidedly jazz-like fashion. Jordan makes clear that, as much as his future would be more focused on other arenas—recording with artists ranging from The Rolling Stones' Keith Richards and soulful blues guitarist Robert Cray to country crooner/guitar wizard Vince Gill—at least some of his roots were unmistakably in the jazz sphere, as both he and Badrena bolster Jackson's walking bass lines and Khan's lean phrasing and sophisticated voicings.

It's unlikely that Khan ever crossed paths with Allan Holdsworth, but there's something indescribably Holdsworthian about the construction of "Penguin Village," though once Khan winds his way through the composition's primary theme, it becomes all Eyewitness—the guitarist's sinewy melody driven relentlessly by Jordan's rimshot snare, Jackson's staggered bass lines and Badrena's pulsating congas.

But more than any individual component, that Modern Times was taken from Eyewitness' first live performance only serves to show how astute Khan was in putting this particular group of players together in the first place. The entire album bristles with excitement, even when the mood is more subdued, and there's an overriding sense, throughout its entire 46-minute duration, of a group hanging on for dear life. Still, despite every nanosecond feeling imbued with risk there is, nevertheless, a feeling of confidence amongst Khan and his bandmates; no matter where anyone chooses to go, there's a feeling of certainty that the others will always manage to be there—either to follow the lead...or to grab the reins and drive the music in even more unexpected directions.

Following a paradigm shifter like Eyewitness and a live album like Modern Times may have represented a challenge for some but, if anything, Casa Loco represents a group continuing to evolve...and may well be the best amongst a group of albums where every single one offers something unique and appealing.

Some of Casa Loco's six compositions are more concise. The opening, Simmons drum-driven "The Breakaway"—also featuring Badrena's idiosyncratic vocal utterings—barely cracks the three-minute mark. But if "The Breakaway" and closing "The Suitcase"—also the title of a subsequent live album that, culled from a 1994 German show with Jackson and drummer Dennis Chambers and released by Tone Centre in 2008—are relatively brief, the twelve-minute title track and nine-minute "Uncle Roy" provide plenty of stretching space.

Somewhere in-between, there's the metrically challenging "Some Sharks," and a completely unexpected look at Steve Leonard's 1964 surf hit with The Pyramids, "Penetration," that manages to be both reverent and thoroughly modern. Both tracks flesh out a record that differs significantly from what came before in many ways, if for no other reason than only one of its six songs being written by Khan.

Beyond the guitarist's "Uncle Roy" and "Penetration," Casa Loco's four other tracks are all co-credited to the entire group, making this an even more collaborative effort than what came before. The more pervasive inclusion of Badrena's vocals is another significant differentiator, as is Jordan's fairly liberal use of the then- relatively new Simmons electronic drums, which allowed him to inject a variety of electronic colors throughout the record—-surprisingly, thirty years later, weathering time far better than many of those early electronic drum experiments. And though Khan's tone is largely clean, warm and occasionally chorused, he also injects some unexpectedly jagged overdrive on "The Suitcase" and "Penetration," and leans a little more heavily towards the overtly virtuosic...delivering rapid-fire lines that, nevertheless, never come at the expense of either the collective group sound or the heart of the music.

But while all the definers of previous Eyewitness records remain, Casa Loco is overall a more hard-driving record, with a more aggressive stance. Despite Khan's ongoing commitment to creating distinctive chord voicings and a general eschewal of "look at me" pyrotechnics, Casa Loco lights a fire that even the undeniably incendiary Modern Times failed to light...or, more fairly, lit in an entirely different way. Casa Loco is also an edgier record, with Jackson and Jordan creating a more unsettling foundation, and Badrena's improvised vocals, at times, quirkily idiosyncratic.

Taken together, Eyewitness, Modern Times and Casa Loco represent something all too rare in most musicians' discographies, defining, as they do, a very specific point in time where everything changed. Providing the opportunity to hear and feel Khan redefine both himself and his bandmates to freer possibilities—and with all three albums largely out of print for many years—credit must also go to Britain's BGO Records for being amenable to the reissue of these three important titles. As Khan prepares for a Subtext followup, Eyewitness/Modern Times/Casa Loco not only fills the gap nicely, it should act as a major eye- and ear-opener to Khan fans who've never had the opportunity—and the pleasure—to hear these three absolutely seminal and groundbreaking recordings.

Track Listing

CD1: Eyewitness: Where's Mumphrey?; Dr. Slump; Auxiliary Police; Guy Lafleur; Eyewitness. Modern Times: Blades; The Blue Shadow. CD2: Modern Times (con't): Penguin Village; Modern Times. Casa Loco: The Breakaway; Casa Loco; Penetration; Some Sharks; Uncle Roy; The Suitcase.


Steve Khan

Steve Khan: guitar; Anthony Jackson: bass guitar, contrabass guitar (CD1#6-7, CD2); Steve Jordan: drums, Simmons drums (CD2#3-8) ; Manolo Badrena: percussion, vocals (CD2#3-8).

Album information

Title: Eyewitness Trilogy | Year Released: 2016 | Record Label: BGO Records

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