Steve Khan: A Rich Discography and A Priceless Left Hand

Jim Worsley By

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AAJ: You came to New York to pursue a career as a jazz guitarist. Fusion was in bloom about the same time you arrived. Talk about the impact that made on your personal direction.

SK: I came here thinking there was going to be a Jimmy Smith style organ trio on every street corner and that I would get into one and learn how to play it. But when I got here nobody wanted to hear that. Everything was fusion. I was disappointed. I didn't know how the hell I was going to learn to play if they are playing this music that, although I felt comfortable playing, isn't what I wanted to do. But everything was going in that direction. I had to go with it. I had to change guitars and do stuff I thought I would never have to do. It became comfortable for me though, because it had the same weight to it as playing jazz. Going back and forth between R & B, jazz, and rock suited me fine. That's how we all felt and we just sort of fell in together.

AAJ: Playing with the Brecker Brothers was no doubt very instrumental (no pun intended) on your career.

SK: I thought that what we were doing was some of the best music you could possibly be playing at that time. I had never heard writing, which was mostly Randy's stuff, like this. The three-horn sound, with the brothers, and David Sanborn, had this incredible blend. There was nothing like it. We were the only horn band playing fusion in that first wave of progressive fusion bands. The other major fusion bands at the time were Weather Report, the Mahavishnu Orchestra, and Chick's Return to Forever. I believed in it with all my heart and soul. As time went on, Clive Davis was sniffing money and it led to the perversion of the original goal of the band, which was to be an instrumental band. There was a somewhat hit song on the brothers first album. I did not play on that record. The song was called "Sneakin' Up Behind You," and it more or less accidentally became a pop hit. Clive decided that he wanted to take the band in that direction. So now there was the conflict between being a mediocre R & B band with a vocalist, or continuing to be what we were, instrumentalists, in a great fusion band. Many of us were very disappointed, and I decided to leave the band. I didn't see how being a part of that was going to be any good for me. Sanborn left around the same time and recorded his first solo album, Taking Off (Warner Brothers, 1975). We all played on that record as well. Fortunately, we all stayed friends. In fact, at that time I had the opportunity to do some records for Columbia. Between 1977 and 1979 I recorded three records, Tightrope (Columbia, 1977), The Blue Man (Sony, 1978) and Arrows (Columbia,1979). I decided to try to continue what we were doing with the Brecker Brothers and just make it a little more guitar centric. I wanted to keep the band together. Mike, Randy, David, Grolnick, Will Lee, Ralph McDonald and Steve Gadd were all involved with those records. We were all fighting to hang onto that sound, which the Brecker Brothers eventually went back to.

AAJ: Then there was a major shift in sound and direction. What inspired that change?

SK: In 1980 Columbia Records saw fusion as dying. In January 1980, they dropped everybody from the label. They had signed a bunch of us and now decided to let us all go. They decided to pare down the roster and they started putting out all these 'best of' records of one guy and another. We used to jokingly call them the brown paper bag albums because the covers were all the same and they looked like a brown paper bag with type on it. I thought it was pretty funny. Here I had only made three records in my life. I hadn't earned the right to have a 'best of' record. I was devastated. I really thought that I was going to be with Columbia for the rest of my life. I was very depressed about the whole thing.

AAJ: Yeah, that had to be a kick in the teeth. Insulting and now what do I do?

SK: Yes, very much so. I was playing a few gigs with Mike Mainieri, Warren Bernhardt, Marcus Miller, and Omar Hakim over on Seventh Avenue South. We were playing all of Mainieri's music. That was a great band. A very young Marcus and a very young Omar Hakim. Two guys that were to become giants. I wasn't happy with the way I was playing at the time. Warren and I were next door neighbors in the same apartment building. We would stay up all night talking about a gig until the sun came up. Warren had already been around a long time and had experienced many things. Those conversations really helped to change and give direction to my life. I put the telecaster away, took out my acoustic and started working on some music. Warren used to hear me through the wall and the doorway. He would come over and ask me what I was doing, which was going back to the music I loved and inspired me to play in the first place. He was like, "Man, I have never heard anyone play Thelonious Monk on the guitar like that. You really should record that stuff." I kept working at it, and then an opportunity came along that turned into the album Evidence (Arista, 1980). This is where I recorded a nine-song, eighteen-minute Monk medley, that was all of side B. The other side was all ballads from the time we have been talking about. I did Wayne Shorter's "Infant Eyes," I did Joe Zawinul's "In A Silent Way," a tune of Randy's called "Threesome," and I did Horace Silver's "Peace." It was the first record that I paid for out of my own pocket because I had no record deal. Of all the other records I have paid for since, Evidence is the only one in which I made my money back. It cost six thousand dollars. Thankfully, Arista Records picked it up and I got my money back.

AAJ: Then you consequently reinvented yourself with the beginning of the Latin sound you have personified for some thirty-five years now. What was the catalyst for that?

SK: Well, I was again playing with Mainieri. This time on his album Wanderlust (Warner Brothers, 1981). Percussionist Manolo Badrena from Weather Report was playing on the album as well. As I was playing with him, I realized that I had never been around someone with the kind of energy he has. His spontaneity and crazy way of making music just seemed so right to me. I made a note to myself that I wanted to be around somebody like that more often. After that I got my Gibson 335 out. I brought this guitar with me when I came out from L.A., but I hadn't been using it. I took it out of the closet in order to go back to basics, do something simpler, and create a clean jazz guitar sound. I don't know what gave me the courage to do it, but I called Anthony Jackson, Steve Jordan, and Badrena, to see if they would be interested in pursuing an idea I had. I couldn't really explain it to them, but hoped that we could just sit down and jam and figure it out. They all said yes.

AAJ: And Eyewitness was born.

SK: Yeah, we started out at Jordan's loft. I started making cassettes of what we were doing. I knew right away that I had never been part of something like this. The other guys sensed that too. I decided that I wanted to record before we really knew what we were doing.

AAJ: As in the raw spontaneity that would ultimately be altered over time in rehearsing together.

SK: Yes, exactly. I didn't want it to be too polished, too slick. I knew a promoter named George Braun that was able to connect us with a Japanese company that wanted to do the recording. In one weekend we recorded what turned out to be Eyewitness (Mercury, 1981). You notice that none of the songs have endings. We did what I hoped. We captured stuff before we really knew what we were doing. I didn't suggest a Latin element going into this. It just seemed to be there. Maybe having Manolo there had something to do with bringing some of that out.

AAJ: Very interesting to know that the conception wasn't Latin themed and instead evolved that way naturally. Fortunately, you had the foresight to record early. That fresh sound may otherwise have been polished away and diminished. We haven't talked about any previous work that was Latin based. What prior experience with it did you have?

SK: In about 1972 I played with a saxophonist named Steve Marcus. He had been playing with Larry (Coryell) in a band prior to Larry forming the Eleventh House. He played in my band of lousy music, that I mentioned earlier, that Randy and Mike salvaged. Steve Gadd had a cowbell mounted on his drum set. On one song he started jamming on it, and just like that we sounded Latin. So, when I did the three albums for Columbia, I always made sure that I had one song that had Gadd's cowbell. So, in other words, the Latin fusion element always had a presence. It's always been there. I just wasn't aware of it. I wasn't labeling it.

AAJ: Eyewitness garnered a faithful niche audience and you were able to do a few more records together.

SK: Yes, Modern Times (Trio, 1982) and Casa Loco (Island, 1984) were the follow-ups. Down the road, I put together a couple of more. One that had Dennis Chambers (Got My Mental, (Evidence, 1997). Previously one with Dave Weckl (Public Access (GRP, 1989). It's interesting how much the Eyewitness records resonated with drummers and bassists. They continue to do so actually. It's not unusual to hear comments about those records all these years later.

AAJ: What precipitated the change to Chambers and Weckl in place of Jordan?

SK: That was simply a case of Steve Jordan just being too busy with other projects. I was very fortunate to be able to make those records with Dennis and Dave.

AAJ: You did some other fine trio work with Ron Carter and Al Foster, as well as with John Patitucci and Jack DeJohnette.

SK: I worked with a lot of combinations with part of it being the hopes of being able to tour in support of them. It just never seemed to happen for me. So, after Public Access I decided to do what I came here to do. I pared down to a trio with acoustic bass and drums. My goal was to have five different drummers and five different bass players and mix and match as their availability dictated. I toured with a lot of different combinations. My favorites were Jay Anderson on bass and either Ben Perowsky or Joel Rosenblatt on drums. I was hoping to make a record with either one of those trios, or both of them. I sent my A & R guy in Japan a demo that I had made with Jay and Joel. He said that he loved it. He thought it was great and wanted to do it. But he told me that I had to play with bigger name players, or we can't do this. I tried to think of a combination that my peers hadn't already used for a recording. So, I reached out to Ron and Al, both of whom I knew, and they did the record. That was Let's Call This (Blue Moon, 1991). The ironic thing is that after we did that record, they wanted to do another with Ron and Al. They wanted me to mix it up with Dennis and Manolo Badrena back into the mix as well. That was easy enough and we found our chemistry again very quickly. That became Headline (Mesa/Blue Moon, 1992). Then they suggested a record with a guest artist. That became Michael Brecker on Crossings (Verve Forecast, 1993). That was essentially an Eyewitness record with Michael on three tunes. All of that and all that we have talked about up to and including Patchwork are a collection or perhaps a catalog of songs that I have loved all my life. It's the music I grew up with, from the same period of time.

AAJ: All beautifully reimagined with Latin harmonics and rhythms. You mentioned being told that you had to have bigger names in order to record an album.

SK: Yes, that happens all the time. You can hear an artist that you really like. Maybe the band he has does three of four records and you really like the direction they are going. Then they do a record that has some sort of theme to it and you wonder what the hell is this? Well, you can always smell a rat. Someone on the business end has said, "Let's do something different this time." You would have to be an incredibly powerful artist to say go screw yourself, I'm going to record what I want to record. Ninety-nine percent of us can't do that. You just have to accommodate the changes. You have no choice. It happens all the time.

AAJ: Well, it seems to me that it is most unfortunate for guys like Ben Perowsky and Jay Anderson. That they don't get to do a recording that they were rightfully part of.

SK: Yes, Jim. That is the nail on the head. That was a horrible moment for me.

AAJ: To have to tell them that.

SK: Yes. It doesn't matter if you tell them that you know what it feels like. That it has happened to me about ten or fifteen times. It has nothing to do with it. Here you have guys that spent all this time doing the heavy lifting on the road and somebody says you have to use Coke or Pepsi instead of Shasta.

AAJ: Guys have to wonder just how they are ever going to get the name recognition if they can't get on the album. It would seem like a vicious circle.

SK: It's a terrible and very harsh reality that everyone eventually experiences. It hurts. No doubt, it hurts.

AAJ: I would think, too, that in most cases that the record doesn't turn out better because of the change.

SK: People that heard the original demo were just saying, "Oh my God, this is amazing." You end up sacrificing familiarity for big names. You can't put a price on it when you have been spending months playing this music together. You're breathing as one and moving together as one. Then you have new guys. Fantastic players who are used to adapting quickly, but it's not the same chemistry. That familiarity and trust is completely sacrificed.

AAJ: Going in a different direction, one thing I have learned from talking with other musicians is the importance of knowing the lyrics in order to truly develop a proper ballad of a given song. Did growing up surrounded by so many of your dad's lyrics prove beneficial to you instrumentally?

SK: Oh, I would say that is one of the most beneficial things of all. It's great that you have had other musicians talk about this, because most of the younger guys don't know the lyrics to any of this stuff.

AAJ: Well, I should qualify that it is older guys, like Erskine and Mike Stern, that have made that reference.

SK: Yeah, now that I would believe, because the older guys, I'm talking older than me, the reason that they all started to play was that they adored Nat King Cole. They learned the lyrics from listening to Nat King Cole sing all these great songs. The same with Sinatra and the other great singers. The funny thing for me is that as I was trying to divorce myself from my father's music and lyrics. The American Songbook, as they now call it, is all the great standards with the lyrics. Later in life I started to realize by osmosis that I knew all these songs. I know where they begin, I know how they end, and everything in between. It's the greatest thing. I'll do my poor Miles Davis impression now, as I remember Miles always saying, "If you're gonna play a ballad, you got to know the lyrics." The great players from that era knew the lyrics. You can tell just by listening to their interpretations. Whereas the younger generation may love the standards, but the first time they heard it was hearing Bill Evans play it. They are hearing all these wonderful interpretations that Bill did, but they don't know the original with the words.

AAJ: They don't know what Bill was interpreting in the first place. That's a big difference.

SK: Yes, it really is. And, yes in the long run it has been very beneficial to have been surrounded by my father's music in my youth.

AAJ: One last question, just for fun, what can you tell us about Willie Jenkins?

SK: (laughing out loud) Wow! The story goes back to when I was in college. Earlier I referenced Phil Moore Jr., the guy that I did the record with the Crusaders with. He had a gig in L.A. at an all-black country club. I was the only white guy in the whole place. We did the gig and people seem to be enjoying what we are playing. I don't think anyone was paying attention to me, but I stuck out like a sore thumb as a long-haired hippie at that time. A DJ is the host of the evening and he comes to thank all the people for coming and to thank the band. Now it was time to introduce the band. As he starts to introduce the band, I could see the panic in his eyes. He didn't know my name. He introduces everybody else and finally he comes to me. He looks at me and then he looks at the audience and says, "and on guitar, Willie Jenkins."

AAJ: (laughing) That's hysterical. I didn't know that whole story.

SK: I almost fell over dying from laughter.

AAJ: I'm guessing for the rest of the night you were Willie. Hey Willie, don't forget your gear. (laughing)

SK: (laughing) For a couple of weeks everyone was calling me Willie.

AAJ: On that humorous note, Steve, I should probably let you go. It has been a real pleasure talking with you.

SK: Yeah, it was a lot of fun, Jim.

SK: Thank you for taking the time to talk today. Hopefully, we can talk and have a few more laughs again.

SK: Anytime. Thank you for your interest in my music. Take care now.

Photo: Richard Laird

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