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Steve Khan: Patchwork


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Steve Khan: Patchwork
Amongst the many myths out there about music-making—especially in jazz, where the improvisation quotient is often so high—is that composing may, indeed, be work, but doesn't require the kind of relentless attention to detail that far more truthfully defines how many artists write and arrange their music. These days, one need only look to music by artists including Pat Metheny, Antonio Sanchez and Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah to find music conceived with intimate and painstaking detail while, at the same time, possessed of plenty of interpretive and improvisational freedom.

But for a real window into just how much consideration, time and sweat goes into conceiving a single tune (let alone an entire album), just take a look at the news section of Steve Khan's website where, in addition to other regular (and enlightening) bits and bobs, the guitarist regularly posts detailed notes about the conception and execution of his recordings.

Case in point: Khan's notes about Patchwork, the guitarist's fourth installment in a most decided and inimitable exploration of the nexus point where jazz guitar and Latin/Afro Cuban rhythms meet. His website notes reveal, with extraordinary honesty, everything from crises of confidence and moments of grand inspiration to the cornerstones of his ever-imaginative arrangements and much, much more.

Those who've followed Khan's career over the decades know that he's been moving towards this truly unique intersection point for a long time. The Latin influences are crystal clear on earlier Tone Center albums of the new millennium, like 2007's Borrowed Time and 2005's The Green Field.

Still, the guitarist's love affair with all things Latin actually dates further back still, to albums like Public Access (GRP, 1989) (recently collected, almost in its entirety, on BGO Records' 2018 double-disc set Public Access / Headline / Crossings). And while a little less overtly so, there are still plenty of hints of what's to come across Khan's three early '80s Eyewitness band albums, recently reissued, again by BGO, on its 2016 two- CD set, The Eyewitness Trilogy, which collects Eyewitness (Antilles, 1981), Modern Time's (Trio Records, 1982) and Casa Loco (Antilles, 1984).

But beyond Khan's gradual, relatively late in life emergence as the preeminent guitarist in Latin jazz, there's another thread that connects every entry in what has, with Patchwork, now expanded to a quadrilogy. Literally every album, from 2011's Parting Shot through 2014's Subtext to 2017's Backlog seemed, at the time, like it would be Khan's last.

And yet, from fearing loss of inspiration to physical issues that might have brought his days as a guitarist to an end (but, thankfully, have not), with each album since Parting Shot Khan has not only continued to hone his distinctive marriage of the many facets and touchstones of his musical career into a Latin-informed musical context; he's also managed to raise his game significantly with each successive release.

After a slight personnel detour with Backlog, where Khan's longtime first-call drummer Dennis Chambers was replaced by the equally talented but alternately focused Mark Walker (Oregon, Caribbean Jazz Project, Lyle Mays), the veteran Brecker Brothers, John Scofield, Steely Dan and John McLaughlin stick man is back, once again teaming seamlessly with percussionists Marc Quinones and Bobby Allende, along with Ruben Rodriguez, who has been Khan's recent bassist of choice.

As irrefutably fine as the lineup on Backlog was, it's great to have Chambers back in the fold, giving Patchwork the same kind of effortless energy and percussion simpatico as Parting Shot and, in particular, Subtext, where longtime Khan contrabassist Anthony Jackson was replaced, permanently it would seem, by Rodriguez, who first appeared with Khan as a guest on three of Borrowed Time's nine tracks.

Perhaps the biggest shift, personnel-wise, with Patchwork is the far greater participation of keyboardist, composer and arranger Rob Mounsey. A longtime Khan collaborator with a résumé that includes, amongst many others, Steely Dan, James Taylor and Paul Simon, not to mention his 1987 Denon/Passport duo recording with Khan, Local Color, Mounsey has contributed, increasingly, to all of the guitarist's albums beginning with Borrowed Time. But this time, rather than receiving a "guest musician" credit, Mounsey receives, for the first time, a full band member listing. Between his astute keyboard parts, compelling orchestrations and, on two tracks, full orchestral arrangements, Mounsey's contributions to Patchwork's warm sonics and harmonic sophistications simply cannot be understated.

Since Parting Shot, Khan has gradually moved away from his own writing, with that album's seven original compositions/co- compositions reducing to Subtext's three and Backlog's none. Khan's focus may, indeed, have leaned further away from original composition, moving more decidedly towards imaginative and innovative Latin-inflected rearrangements (both harmonically and, perhaps most importantly, rhythmically) of music written by artists including, most prominently, Thelonious Monk, Ornette Coleman and Bobby Hutcherson. But the guitarist's interpretive skills are so strong, so vivid and so inimitable, that even an evergreen tune like Monk's "Epistrophy" feels as much Khan's as it does the original (and similarly unparalleled) composer's.

Khan's connection to Monk dates back to his extraordinary Evidence (Arista Novus, 1980), a solo album that, with multiple layers of overdubbed guitar parts (and, on one track, percussion) and creative arrangements of music by artists including Shorter, Lee Morgan, Horace Silver, Joe Zawinul and Randy Brecker, was the first signal that Khan's fusion leanings were on the wane, and that the guitarist's approach to both his instrument and harmony were in the midst of a major paradigm shift that would become clearer still with the release of the quartet-driven Eyewitness the following year. The second side of Evidence is devoted to a medley that, clocking in at over eighteen minutes and seamlessly moving through nine Monk tunes, is the highlight of an album that represents, truly, a series of watershed moments for the guitarist.

In retrospect it's something of a surprise that Khan's Monk medley did not include "Epistrophy," the legendary pianist/composer's very first copyrighted composition from 1941, co- written with Kenny Clarke---who, at the time, was the musical director of New York City's Minton's Playhouse (located in Harlem), where the drummer had put together a house band that, in addition to Monk, also featured trumpeter Joe Guy and bassist Nick Fenton. But if fans of Khan's regular visits to Monk territory have had to wait nearly forty years to hear the guitarist deliver the definitive, Latin-informed take on "Epistrophy" that opens Patchwork, it's been well worth it.

"Epistrophy" was, in fact, the seed that eventually grew into Patchwork, its germination stemming from a conversation with Mark Walker in July, 2018 that not only led to Khan's arranging the tune with an Afro-Cuban 6/8 pulse (actually, a blend of 6/8 and a swinging six-over-four rhythm) but, with no firm idea for a new album in mind, quickly led to six more arrangements in a period of just six weeks. As Khan enthuses on his website, "To have relocated my creative center felt like a miracle— because I was certain that it was never going to visit me again."

Listening to the finished result, it seems incredulous that Khan had any doubts about his ability to find inspiration for his fourth "final" recording. Once again revisiting regular inspirations Monk (with "Epistrophy") and Coleman ("C. & D." and ""T. & T.," both from the saxophonist's 1962 Atlantic classic, Ornette!, from which Khan had already reworked "R.P.D.D." for his 1996 Evidence date, Got My Mental), Khan continues to mine Bobby Hutcherson's Happenings (Blue Note, 1967), this time adding his gorgeous look at the balladic "Bouquet" to the fiercer "Head Start" and more ambling "Rojo" that both appeared on Backlog.

"Epistrophy" opens Patchwork with the kind of patience that has defined Khan since he deserted fusion forty years ago, with a two-chord vamp driven by the percussion section lasting for a full half minute before Khan moves to Monk's familiar theme, albeit supported by Mounsey in a fashion that may appear to have little to do with Monk directly, but is, in fact, more clearly connected than it might seem with its its skewed harmonic angularity. Add Khan's solo, which blends jagged but still soft-toned phrases with the occasional seamless injection of a harmonizer to broaden Khan's scope, and Chambers' exhilarating extemporizing as the song fades on the same two changes as the intro, and "Epistrophy" sets a high bar for the rest of Patchwork.

A high bar that's not only met but, in a variety of ways, exceeded throughout the rest of the album. Both of Khan's Coleman arrangements continue to assert the guitarist's remarkable ability to evoke surprising harmonies from music that, at best, only intimated them as a result of Coleman's regular use of chord-less groups on Ornette! and many other recordings from the time. Veteran Yellowjackets saxophonist Bob Mintzer makes a return guest appearance from Backlog on "C. & D.," a song Khan describes as "originally conceived to be played as a songo but ended up being mostly a son montuno." Beyond Mintzer's ever- impressive tenor work, Mounsey's keys flesh out the arrangement, with Khan delivering another solo that combines single-note melodies with electronically harmonized passages.

"T. & T.," another upbeat arrangement of a Coleman tune from Ornette!, is based on the Mozambique rhythm that Ed Blackwell intimated on the original, bass-less feature for the drummer. Likely as a tribute to the late Blackwell, Khan's arrangement for "T. & T." is largely a feature for Chambers, Quiñones and Allende, though the guitarist does take a little time to himself on the fade-out, combining unequivocal respect for Coleman's theme with some truly surprising injections, just as the song fades to black. Joe Henderson is another semi- regular touchstone for Khan, the guitarist adding the bright-tempo'd "A Shade of Jade" to Patchwork, having already included "Caribbean Fire Dance," from the saxophonist's Mode for Joe (Blue Note, 1966), on both Headline (Blue Moon, 1992) and the archival live recording from 1994, The Suitcase (Tone Center, 2008), alongside the title track from Inner Urge (Blue Note, 1966), which received the Khan treatment on Crossings (Verve Forecast, 1993).

Here, "A Shade of Jade" is most notable for Randy Brecker's virtuosic flügelhorn solo, which combines light-speed lines with equally effortless reaches up into the stratosphere, along with some three- part horn overdubs that Khan had written for the trumpeter but, as Khan relates, "other than a few horn stabs, I never expected that Randy would actually perform them all." The result, beyond Brecker's exceptional solo, which also injects singable melodies into his more visceral instrumental acumen, is the first time that Khan has employed any kind of horn section since his early fusion albums for Columbia (1977's Tightrope, 1978's The Blue Man and 1979's Arrows), all collected into a two-CD set by BGO in 2015.

In yet another collection that finds Khan raising his game on all fronts, Patchwork's arrangement of Bobby Hutcherson's "Bouquet" is a particular high point. Khan first performed the song during occasional all-acoustic duo gigs with fellow six- stringer, Larry Coryell, the cream of the crop documented on Two for the Road (Arista, 1977), the first release to feature Khan's name on the marquee (albeit shared with Coryell). All too often, it's artists' more up-tempo work that gets the lion's share of the notice, but the truth is that ballads are often the more difficult to play, as the existence (ideally) of a lot of space in the music frequently challenges musicians when it comes to both time and choices.

Performed as a bolero, with its harmonic underpinning reflecting an unmistakable voice that dates back to Khan's earliest recordings, Mounsey's orchestrations for "Bouquet" entice some of Khan's finest steel-string acoustic guitar playing to date, driven gently by Chambers' subtle brush work and similarly tasty percussion from Quiñones and Allende. It's difficult to overstate just how successful Khan's reading is, here, of one of Hutcherson's best compositions from one of his most memorable Blue Note recordings from the '60s.

Khan has only visited the music of Keith Jarrett once before, rearranging "Common Mama," from the pianist's sole Columbia date, Expectations (1972), for Got My Mental. But that only makes it an even greater treat to hear the guitarist cull a tune from the pianist's much-lauded "European Quartet," specifically "The Journey Home," from Jarrett's 1978 ECM album My Song, as an even deeper combination of the balladic and rhythmically propulsive on Patchwork. Khan once again makes the song his own, in a 15-minute episodic interpretation that takes Jarrett's musical intentions even further.

A stunningly beautiful rubato duet intro, featuring Khan's gorgeous nylon-string guitar work and Mounsey's dark-hued Fender Rhodes and subsequent orchestrations, leads into the cha-cha-cha-driven second section, where Khan's warm- toned electric guitar evokes all of Jarrett's melodic and harmonic ideations and more. His lengthy solo unfolds slowly, the absolute epitome of taste and restraint, with overdubbed, whammy bar-driven Stratocaster chords adding further tension and release.

As the piece moves into its third section (really two parts in 3/4 and 9/8 respectively), through-composition re-emerges as Khan moves, first, from a melody that gradually evolves with the addition of wordless vocals from Khan and singer Tatiana Parra (back from Parting Shot and Backlog), leading to an elegant synth solo from Mounsey that gradually builds towards the song's ultimate fade-out, with Chambers not exactly featured but nevertheless driving the song to its inevitable conclusion through a remarkable stylistic cross- pollination of, as Khan describes it, "gospel music, R&B, and jazz and jazz fusion."

Potent stuff, all making "The Journey Home," despite being Patchwork's penultimate track, somehow feel like its centerpiece.

While largely sourcing his music from jazz composers, it's a rare Steve Khan album that doesn't include at least one song from the Great American Songbook, and Patchwork is no exception. A beautiful, string-augmented arrangement of the Alan Jay Lerner and Burton Lane classic "Too Late Now" graces Patchwork. A song originally written for Stanley Donan's 1951 film Royal Wedding but recorded many times since, it's singer Nancy Wilson's version on Tender Loving Care (Capitol, 1966), with orchestral arrangements written and conducted by Billy May, that was the inspiration for Khan's own arrangement.

If Khan's love and respect for Mays' orchestral work on the Nancy Wilson version is clear, so, too, are his similar feelings for Mounsey, whose own orchestral contributions to Khan's arrangement of the song for Patchwork are just as impressive, with the song also reflecting the two musicians' clear love for keyboardist/composer/arranger Clare Fischer. Khan's solo evokes the emotional intent of the song (love and love lost), with surprising injections of bluesy bends and, as ever, an ability to say so much without ever saying too much. Khan may generally eschew overt displays of virtuosity but he's not afraid to pull them out when circumstances call for it, injecting the occasional light-speed run without ever losing sight of the song's overall context and heart.

Khan also delivers some surprisingly virtuosic work, this time on nylon-string guitar, for "Huracán Clar," an album-closer with an unusual backstory. Jorge Estrada's composition is, indeed, a curious inclusion in that its instrumental core came from a session that Khan did for bassist/producer Jimmy Haslip and the composer, intended as part of a planned tribute project to Fischer. When it became clear that the track and project was not going to be finished and released, Khan offered to try something a little different for Estrada: let Khan's Patchwork group record the tune as the guitarist envisioned it, while still including all of Estrada's principal parts.

With the advent of DIY studios, the idea of musicians recording their parts separately but bringing them together through file sharing is far from novel; still, the idea of having a group record a version of a song but also including original parts from a completely different session is. And between the rubato melody that appears at various points throughout the song (again bolstered by the guitarist's wordless vocals), a bright-tempo'd main section that leads to Khan's fiery guitar solo, Allende's fiery conga feature and an equally impressive electric piano solo from Estrada, it brings Patchwork to a fitting close.

Or does it?

The CD clearly features only nine tunes, closing with "Huracán Clare," but there was, in fact, a tenth piece arranged and recorded for Patchwork. With insufficient space to include it on a CD that already clocks in at nearly 78 minutes, Khan's relatively short, largely through- composed arrangement of eden ahbez's 1947 classic, "Nature Boy," is, nevertheless, a compelling look at another evergreen tune that has something of is own unusual backstory.

First recorded by Nat King Cole and released as a single the following year, it unexpectedly garnered the pianist/singer a wider white audience at a time when there was a major race divide in American music, making it difficult to build a broader fan base for African American artists. Khan wrote his arrangement for Rekha Ohal, a Denver-based singer asked to sing the song at a wedding but mistakenly telling Khan that it was for a funeral. And so, with "funeral" in mind, the guitarist crafted a short arrangement that, in its indigo beauty, stands as a most unusual reading of this popular song, interpreted as a simple bolero. Khan's band nailed the arrangement in one take during the recording of Patchwork , but since there wasn't room to squeeze the nearly three-minute arrangement onto the CD Khan's inimitable look at "Nature Boy" is now available as a bonus track in the digital domain.

Finally, if Backlog was a rare Khan recording not to feature at least one original composition, the guitarist returns to writing with "Naan Issue," inspired, harmonically, by the title track to guitar legend Wes Montgomery's Movin' Along (Riverside, 1960) but rhythmically driven as a cha-cha- cha. The organically symbiotic blend of Chambers, Quiñones and Allende, in combination with Rodriguez's ever-pliant yet firm anchor creates a perfect vehicle for Khan, his warm- toned hollowbody electric solo blending rare linear conceptions with chordal passages of similarly distinctive harmonic constructions and, since this is, after all, an altered blues, the occasional bluesy bend, and long tones defined by Khan's unmistakable vibrato.

The chemistry of Khan's core group has never sounded this good, nor has the diversity of the material and its reinterpretations been so profoundly broad. Khan's reputation as a guitarist has never achieved the kind of acclaim and attention that his still-living, late sixties/early seventies guitar colleagues including Pat Metheny, John Scofield and Bill Frisell have managed, though Khan remains a guitarist's guitarist amongst those in the know. While his restrained reverence to the heart of a song is, perhaps, best comparable to Frisell, the two couldn't be more different; and while his virtuosic capabilities are clearly something kept in careful check (and for the same reason), when Khan does let loose with some guitar gymnastics, as he does on rare occasion here and on previous recordings, it's clear that he's no less an instrumental master than any of his other colleagues, whether they be in his age group or from younger generations.

It also bears noting that as impeccable and detailed as Khan is in approaching everything he does musically, it's his collaborations with other musicians, arrangers/orchestrators, and with both engineers and pre-/post-production assistance that continue to contribute to the pristine and crystalline yet lush and warm nature of his recordings, especially those in his Latin jazz quadrilogy.

When it comes to Patchwork, Khan's musicians have consistently contributed truly ideal interpretations of the guitarist's original music and his distinctive arrangements of others' writing for a Latin context; renowned engineer/mixer James Farber once again manages to not only capture what Khan and his musicians were laying down in the studio, but successfully carry it all forward into a finished album that truly leaps from the speakers with vivid life and evocative beauty; and Khan's astute sequencing creates an experience far better appreciated as a whole rather than as a collection of individual (and, indeed, individually impressive) tracks.

Khan's career may have had its ups and downs when it comes to popular acclaim, but he remains the critically acclaimed underdog, as he has been for almost his entire career. Still, since returning to regular recording as a leader after a decade-long absence with The Green Field—and, in particular, with his emergence as the preeminent guitarist and arranger in Latin jazz beginning with Borrowed Time but more significantly with the quadrilogy that began with Parting Shot— Khan is irrefutable evidence that artists looking to evolve across the breadth of their careers often create their best work in their latter years.

At 72, Khan clearly has the potential of many more years and, hopefully, recordings to come. But (and this is beginning to sound like a broken record, but meant with the most love and respect possible) if Patchwork were to be the guitarist's final recording as a leader, it would ultimately be viewed as going out on an exceptionally high a note. ..."though I've had countless disappointments, and many regrets," Khan writes, "I can tell you that, when everything is tabulated, I feel like a most fortunate man. And, I am eternally grateful for what I've experienced."

Even if it were based solely on the many creative successes of Patchwork, the only appropriate response would have to be: right back at ya. If Khan is eternally grateful, then those with whom the guitarist has shared his experiences through his music can be nothing less than equally appreciative.

Track Listing

Epistrophy; C. & D. (Civilización y sus Descontentos); Bouquet (Un Ramo De Flores); Naan Issue; Shade of Jade (Un Tono de Jade); Too Late Now (Demasiado Tarde); T. & T. (Tötem y Tabú); The Journey Home (El Camino a Casa); Huracán Clare; Nature Boy (digital-only bonus track).


Album information

Title: Patchwork | Year Released: 2019 | Record Label: Tone Center

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