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Steve Khan: Reflections on the Making of "The Green Field"

Steve Khan By

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When one has had to endure a nine-year absence from recording as a leader, it would seem obvious that the next recording would be of special significance.
[Editors Note: In this, the first of a new series dedicated to giving artists an unedited forum to speak completely with their own voice, veteran guitarist Steve Khan reflects on the making of his new album, The Green Field (Tone Center, 2006)—his first as a leader in nine years.

Khan emerged in the 1970s as part of the New York scene that included Randy and Michael Brecker, Don Grolnick and many others. He released three fine fusion albums for Columbia, featuring his trademark Fender Telecaster tone—Tightrope (1977), The Blue Man (1978) and Arrows (1980)—in addition to participating on countless recording sessions for artists including Billy Joel, Steely Dan and Phoebe Snow.

1980 saw the release of Evidence (Novus)—a remarkable solo tour de force that featured extensive overdubbing and, along with shorter covers of material by Wayne Shorter, Joe Zawinul, Lee Morgan, Randy Brecker and Horace Silver, an imaginative 18-minute medley of Thelonious Monk tunes.

But it was in 1981, with the formation of Eyewitness—also featuring bassist Anthony Jackson, drummer Steve Jordan and percussionist Manolo Badrena—that saw a stylistic shift in Khan's musical approach, the germination of a new direction that he continues to hone to this day, and is heard to its greatest effect on The Green Field.

What follows are Khan's reflections on the making of The Green Field, including a track-by-track analysis that addresses both concept and execution.]

Steve's Personal Reflections

When one has had to endure a nine-year absence from recording as a leader, it would seem obvious that the next recording would be of special significance. When you add into the equation that this would be the 5th time in my career that I have paid, out of my own pocket, for the privilege to record, it becomes even more difficult to estimate just how much The Green Field has meant to me.

People often ask me, "Why was there so much time between Got My Mental (Evidence, 1996) [soon to be reissued in Europe on ESC Records] and a new recording?" Well, the answer to this becomes painfully obvious. No one on the recording executive side of the table felt that I was worth recording. One can attempt to dance around the truth, but you would always return to the same, sad conclusion. For some, this would be too much. But, for some reason, it only seemed to strengthen my resolve in finding a way, no matter how long it might take, to get something recorded and released.

After a lunch/meeting during 2004 with Hiroshi Itsuno, who had just launched his own label, 55 Records, in Japan, I felt confident that, no matter what, the recording would have a home, and would, at the very least, be available somewhere on the planet. I also knew that I was going to record again with John Patitucci (acoustic bass), Jack DeJohnette (drums), and Manolo Badrena (percussion)—all players with whom there exists a great musical empathy. Just as it turned out with Got My Mental, I could not escape the presence of the Latin element in some of the music. And so, I knew that Ralph Irizarry (timbales) and Roberto Quintero (congas) would be added to the trio for those tunes. As the sound and approach to the music-making of the basic guitar trio does not change, the core, the thread would be consistent no matter what. And so, on May 23rd-24th, it all finally came together at Avatar Studio 'A' with Malcolm Pollack behind the console.

It is important to always hold one notion in your thoughts, and that is this: Recording is a privilege, and not a right! When a recording company is paying the budget, it is most easy to forget this. To some, it is license to abuse the privilege. But, when you pay for it yourself, the understanding of just how great a privilege it really is becomes magnified a thousand-fold.

"El Viñón" (Steve Khan) (9:21)

Believe it or not, I have actually had the fundamental 'germ' for this piece since 1984, after Casa Loco was recorded. I have no idea as to just why I was never able to finish composing this piece until now. However, when I returned to New York from a European Tour in March of '05, I knew that I would be dedicating every waking moment to the completion of my original tunes, and to the arranging of the others. And so, I was confident that this piece would finally come into its finished form. I chose to frame everything within the context of a minor blues, and, in a sense, I even put to use "solo changes" which are reminiscent of harmonic devices Wes Montgomery had employed in the past.

Obviously, it is dedicated, and with all due reverence, to the great Elvin Jones! It was designed to feature all the significant players, and, at the end, to give Jack DeJohnette a chance to express himself in this regard. As it is with everything I write and/or choose to play, the most important thing to me is that it must have mood and attitude!!! Those two elements arrive immediately with the basic vamp of the piece!!!

"Congeniality" (Ornette Coleman) (8:07)

This has always been one of my favorite Ornette tunes, and first appeared on his recording, The Shape of Jazz to Come (Atlantic, 1959). In part because it is so singable. I also love the fact that it stops and starts, and stops and starts. As the sections are repeated several times, I decided that I would be faithful to them, in alternation with my own reharmonizations of what I have labeled as the "B sections. Initially, I had envisioned that John, Jack, Manolo and I would come out of these sections by simply having a target tempo in mind and, on a nod from one of us, we would go into time together, or relatively together. "Perfection is not something of necessity in the interpretation of Ornette's music. But, Jack contributed the idea that he would just play two bars of time, and so I decided to go with that suggestion.

When I finally took some rough mixes home with me, and began to listen, I noticed that we seemed to get into a similar kind of interplay that occurred during the recording of "R.P.D.D." on the Got My Mental (Evidence, 1996) CD. It made me smile to hear the way Jack hits the smallest of his 6 tom-toms during the guitar improvisation. This same thing, or something similar, happened some 9 yrs. ago!!!

As it is with most of the tunes I either composed or arranged for the recording, I worked hard at having actual endings, and everyone seemed to really like this one, which is built upon the last phrase. Ornette's version ends on the melodic phrase in Db major, but I chose to extend that phrase and tag onto it what felt musical and logical based upon what had come before.

"Riot" (Herbie Hancock) (7:31)

This is another one of my all-time favorite compositions, and it comes from my favorite period of the great Miles Davis Quintet, appearing on Nefertiti (Columbia, 1967). One which I had never ever considered recording because I wasn't even certain that I understood it as a composition. But, one day, I just decided to write it out, and see if that helped my understanding. In doing so, I suddenly realized that this would be an excellent vehicle for blending traditional Latin rhythmic approaches with what Jack does so naturally. And so, as the sessions approached I knew that I would have Ralph Irizarry on timbales, and Roberto Quintero on congas (as well as güiro and chekeré), and that they would be fearless in trying to create this blend. This is most easily located when hearing Ralph's cascara (paila) on the sides of the timbales against the swing of Jack's ride cymbal. These are the key elements to making it work. Over the past 10 years, I have worked with both Ralph and Roberto a lot and have been a big fan of Ralph's own group, Timbalaye, which is acknowledged as perhaps the best contemporary Latin Jazz group in recent times.

However, to make the piece fit within the bounds of Latin rhythmic patterns, I had to make some small alterations to the layout of this great Herbie Hancock composition. The 3/4 sections which appear normally only have 3 bars of 3/4 before returning to cut-time. I extended that by making it 4 bars of 3/4, and initially conceived of those bars as being played as two bars of an Afro-Cuban 6/8. But, Roberto and Ralph decided that we should treat them in a Venezuelan style, and so Roberto only played maracas in those bars. It's a very special sabor (flavor) to add to the mix!!!

Because of Herbie's own version of this tune which appears on Speak Like a Child (Blue Note, 1968), I decided to use my Korg DVP-1 harmonizer again to express passages which had been played by the three horns (flügelhorn, alto flute, and bass trombone) Herbie had employed in a Gil Evans-ish style. These only appear heading out of the guitar solo, and in the transition from the bass solo.

"Fist in Glove" (Steve Khan) (7:44)

I've always liked this expression, the title. Usually it refers to lawyers and their ability to be "tough" on certain issues, but that "toughness is disguised in a most gentlemanly and civilized manner of presentation. Hence the image of a fist hidden in a glove.

In February of '05, I had the best time playing with organist Larry Goldings and drummer Harvey Mason in Los Angeles for a very special couple of nights at La Vé Lee. I couldn't help but notice this little figure or pattern that Larry often used when major and/or major 7#4 chordal sounds went by, and so I decided to base an Intro around that, which would eventually become the foundation that the drum solo is played over. The tune itself is really a bit of a tribute to Larry Young's "Tyrone" which I recorded on Headline (Blue Moon, 1992). Like that tune, "Fist in Glove" is a 24-bar long-form blues. Notice Manolo's most musical contributions during the melody statements as he catches the little accents on bongos.

"Cosecha lo que has sembrado" (Steve Khan) (7:20)

What does this title mean? Well, it is simply a Spanish translation of a phrase which we all know, perhaps Biblical in its origins. And, it simply says: "Reap what you sow!" Though this hardly qualifies as a full-fledged composition, it serves a most important purpose on the recording. If you are familiar with Tito Puente's classic recording Puente in Percussion (Tico, 1957), which essentially features: Tito; Willie Bobo; Mongo Santamaria; "Patato Valdés; and bassist Bobby Rodr'-guez; you would remember the percussion descarga entitled "Tito on Timbales." It essentially gives each percussionist a chance to stretch out and express himself sandwiched around a little "break" figure which separates each improvisation.
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