Guitarist Steve Khan

Mike Brannon By

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Wes Montgomery completely turned my life upside-down, I had never heard anything like him... and later, I had never seen anything like him either. His tone, his feel, and how melodic his improvisations were have stayed with me as ideals to this day.
When Japan's Jazz Life Magazine took a poll of the 22 greatest Jazz guitarists, Steve Khan was on the list, alongside greats (on any instrument) like Wes, Martino, Hall, Django, Christian, Benson, McLaughlin, Metheny, Stern, Sco and Frisell.

As both player and sometimes producer, Khan's had the fortune to work alongside the likes of Brecker, Stern, Fagen, Zawinul, Sanborn, Erskine, Weckl, Anthony Jackson, Dennis Chambers and Manolo Badrena, to name only a few.

In addition to teaching, he has also released instructional texts of solo transcripitions of two guitar legends without peer: Wes Montgomery and Pat Martino.

Among Steve's current projects is a group called The Caribbean Jazz Project with Dave Samuels, Dave Valentin, Rubén RodrÃ-guez and Richie Flores with which they cover both originals and covers of Trane's "Naima" and Duke's "Caravan."

All About Jazz: How did it affect you, having a musical icon, Sammy Cahn, for a father?

Steve Khan: It's very hard to measure a response to this. In such a situation there will obviously be positives and negatives, and that is just in general. Then you take the two personalities: my father and I, and then you've got a whole series of other problems. On the positive side, I grew-up in a home surrounded by music, wonderful music, music of all styles and genres. But mostly we heard the wonderful "popular" music of the '20s, right through to the early '60s. Though, like all youngsters, I eventually broke away from this. In the end, I am so grateful for having been exposed to it all. Now, in my middle to later years I am often moved to tears when I hear certain songs from that period.

On the negative side, my father and I never really had a great father-son relationship and this continued right up until his death. And sadly with the repercussions of his passing the chasm still exists and will always be there. There are times, however, when I can enjoy some of his tunes. It is especially gratifying for me to see artists, whom I respect, covering his tunes. Recent versions of his standards interpreted by Keith Jarrett and Ralph Towner have been especially moving for me. My sister, Laurie, has often said that the "sound of the typewriter coming from dad's office was the soundtrack to our childhood."

How ironic it now is that I spend so much time typing at the keyboard of my computer!

AAJ: That's true. You'd mentioned Wes Montgomery, Kenny Burrell, Grant Green, and Jim Hall, as original influences. Briefly, what have you learned from each of your influences?

SK: I came to the guitar and a commitment to music very late, at least as these things were judged then. I began to play at 19 yrs. old. Today, because of all the educational material available, kids are simply "killin'" & "shreddin'" at 10 yrs. old(more or less!). Some of the first guitar music that appealed to me was by the Three Kings... B.B. King; Albert King; and Freddy King. I used to love to learn those Freddy King instrumentals. And, to this day Albert King remains my favorite of the three. But, I was also very drawn to the R&B of that time as well, all the great music from Stax/Volt; Atlantic; and King Records, which brought us most of the great James Brown recordings.

Wes Montgomery completely turned my life upside-down, I had never heard anything like him... and later, I had never seen anything like him either. His tone, his feel, and how melodic his improvisations were have stayed with me as ideals to this day. Both Kenny Burrell and Grant Green reached me with their bluesy approach to jazz, very "rootsy" and very soulful. Jim Hall reached me in a very different way. He possessed a kind of grace, a dignity, a gentleness and an alternative melodic sense which influenced so many of my peers. In the end, with all four of these great players, it's the "feeling" I get when listening to them playing and to try and put that into words is extremely difficult.

Later, I was influenced by George Benson and Pat Martino. Both of whom, in completely different ways, seemed to be the "sons of Wes." Special and individual extensions of something Wes had started. As they came right out of the organ trio tradition, there was also a 'bluesyness' and 'funkyness' which appealed to me.

After this, there was Larry Coryell, and when I heard Duster by the Gary Burton Quartet, this recording turned my life around again. Larry showed us all that, in a jazz setting, anything was possible on the guitar. And the jazz critics embraced him and thereby opened the doors for all of us who were to follow. Perhaps first amongst those was John McLauglin who ended-up blasting right past Larry Coryell. Perhaps it was because when Larry left Gary Burton to begin his career as a solo artist, he wasn't really ready to be a focused bandleader.

When John McLaughlin came along with the first incarnation of the Mahavishnu Orchestra it demonstrated that a band, led by a guitarist, could change the way we all heard and made music. In truth, if one is to view the recent history of "jazz," it's apparent that some of the greatest strides in music making have come from groups led by guitarists. In another time, this would have been unthinkable, unimaginable. To some of the more stuffy jazz "historians," it IS impossible to accept!

In truth though, the greatest influence, on how I've now come to play and approach music, comes from pianists/keyboard players. I would have to mention(and in no particular order): McCoy Tyner; Herbie Hancock; Chick Corea; Bill Evans; Joe Zawinul; Larry Young; Keith Jarrett; and the gorgeous harmonies of Clare Fischer.

AAJ: All of them are originals, as are you. What makes a musician an original?

SK: This is so tough to answer. But firstly, I don't think one can try to be "original." One just has to follow their own voice, their own path and maybe, just maybe others will see you as "original." I think if you talk with any of the great players, they might all say that they're still playing things connected to their influences. Most great players are exceptionally humble. However, to try and answer the question a little more directly, I think one must somehow come upon a "personal vocabulary," a means of expression that is accidentally unique to that person. Usually, it comes to you over a great period of time, as if by accident, not by design. Sometimes it's born of what you can't do more than of what you can do !

AAJ: I just had the chance to interview Pat Martino not long ago and, for me, he's always symbolized the obvious step from tradition into the modern exploration of the sonorities and logic of guitar, music and its elements. Sort of a fearless, methodical type who ended up creating new sounds in jazz guitar and beyond, as a result. You've written a book of Pat's selected transcriptions. What is it about him that strikes you that much?

SK: All the Martino transcriptions, which became a book, were done during my college years at U.C.L.A. where I was trying to teach myself how to understand this great music, and how to play it. On Pat's earliest recordings for the Prestige label, what appealed to me most was his unrelenting time feel, his precision in execution, and a playing style just brimming with its own intensity and passion. Also, then when he was still playing a Gibson L-5, his tone was spectacular. For someone who was influenced by Wes, and who was cradled by those who cradled George Benson, his feel and attack were so different. Usually when players pick every note, it tends to sound very stiff in a jazz/swing setting but, and I still don't know why, Pat never sounded or felt like that to these ears.

AAJ: Metheny is much the same as far as originality stemming from tradition. It's amazing that, of all the guitarists there have been, fresh ideas and approaches continue to emerge. How do you think this continues to be true considering that we all use much the same elements?

SK: If what you're intimating is true, perhaps it's because we're living in a time where, for many of us, "everything" and "anything" is possible in music. And "improvised" music, whether or not it conforms to the rather narrow descriptions and rules of some, "jazz" has been freer to embrace all that is possible for decades now. The guitarists who've come along, more or less at the same time as me, simply reflect this attitude. As if to say, "I hear something, and that's what I'm going to try to do, and nothing is going to stop me from trying!"

AAJ: Wes is another guitar great whom you've published transcriptions of. Though he came up literally playing Charlie Christian solos on stage, he developed into a hard swinging, guitar innovator. How would you describe his contribution to jazz guitar?

SK: Obviously Wes changed how guitarists improvise with his usage of octaves and his incredible chord solos. But, I believe that more than these things, which most historians always point out first, he brought a kind of unbridled joy to playing. I've never seen anyone smile so much, radiate so much joy in music making as Wes. He was spectacular and he created beauty in all that he played. His touch was unlike anyone's. The gentleness of the flesh of his thumb against the cold metal of the strings. It's something to emulate no matter how one plays. In the end, everything comes down to touch! The smallest "stroke," that moment when both hands touch the instrument is where it all comes from. Great players all have a great "touch" on the their instrument.

AAJ: You've mentioned Michael Brecker a lot and besides playing together, you've done transcriptions of his solos. His harmonic thing is so effective...do you tend to learn the solos and/or analyze the implied harmonies as well?

SK: Michael and I have been dear friends and colleagues for over 30 yrs. now, having moved to New York City at virtually the same time. He's a great, great artist and has left a mark on our music and his instrument which few can touch or hope to achieve. The transcriptions of a couple of Mike's solos which appear at Khan's Corner at my website were done at the requests of various private students who wanted to try to understand just what Michael was doing. So, I tried my best to transcribe what he played and then to use it to explain various concepts in improvising.

Most guitarists whom I know and love, and respect would all die to be a tenor saxophonist or a pianist, but, try and try as we might... it's never going to happen. The mechanics are just too different, and it's a wind instrument possessing a truly vocal quality that the guitar does not have. Though in fairness, some of the great players who employ the best overdriven sounds, they get a pretty "vocal" sound from the guitar.

Many, many years ago when we would be playing together, during rehearsals or recording, I often asked Mike, "What was 'that' you just played?" This after hearing one of his characteristic 'journeys' from one consonant point to eventually landing at another. In those years, his answer was always the same. And I paraphrase him rather loosely, "It's nothing, it's Trane, b5 substitute....that's all!"


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