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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.

I felt that, because I would have with me these three great percussionists: Jack DeJohnette; Ralph Irizarry; and Roberto Quintero, this was too good a moment to waste. And so, I composed this small vehicle for the freedom of their expression. I also added a double-time section to the end, modeled after "Four Beat Mambo" and this is where the guitar is featured. But, my approach here was to use the guitar, again in conjunction with the Korg DVP-1, to create a psychedelic "Latin Big Band" feeling using short phrases to shout over the insistent rhythms which Ralph describes as the Puerto Rican rhythm of "Bomba coming from his cowbells. The usage of this approach, this musical device was born in my brief time playing alongside Joe Zawinul in Weather Update in 1986.

It's hard to describe the joy we all felt in performing this piece. And, it's incredible how Ralph's timbales solo inspires Jack's drum solo!!! Check that out!!!

People often ask me, "Why is it that you grant so much freedom to drummers and percussionists on your own recordings?" The answer is rather simple, I appreciate what they do very much, and I have always understood that a band, any band, only can go as far as their drummer will take them. And so, I simply allow things to happen around me. Drummers and bassists seem to enjoy making music with me because the texture is so "open......"and this means that there is room, space, for each sound to exist with a sense of its own purity!

"Sanctuary/Nefertiti" (Wayne Shorter) (7:56)

Wayne Shorter's "Sanctuary" has always been a very special piece to me, since I first heard it on Miles Davis' Bitches Brew (Columbia, 1969) many, many years ago. It took forever to understand any number of things about it. Several years ago, when I was on tour in Europe with the Caribbean Jazz Project, we played an outdoor concert in, I believe, a small town in Italy, and after we had played, we were taken to dinner by the promoter, but we could still hear the sounds of Wayne Shorter's group playing as the music filtered through the streets to our ears. I felt that I had heard a familiar melodic grouping, but, I wasn't certain. And so, upon my return home, I e-mailed John Patitucci and asked him if they had opened their set with "Sanctuary." And, he wrote back that, "Yes!" that's exactly what it was. And so, I asked him if I could see Wayne's chart to this tune.

More than anything, I was fascinated by what Miles and Chick Corea had improvised out in front of the piece on the original recording. Was that part of Wayne's composition too? Well, what John sent me did not answer that question at all. I was really confused. And so, having recently given my sister Laurie a gift of The Complete Bitches Brew Sessions (Legacy Recordings, 2000), I phoned, and asked her if within the CD booklet, it said anything about that "Intro....."the answer surprised, shocked and stunned us both. Believe it or not, it stated that, for some time, before the recording, in live performances, Miles and Chick had played an improvised duet out in front of "Sanctuary......"and that duet was on "I Fall in Love too Easily" which was, of course, written by my father, Sammy Cahn!!! And so, I knew that I would then have to make a small medley, combining this piece with the ever-mysterious, "Nefertiti," which I had already decided to do as a slow, romantic cha-cha-cha, featuring the Latin rhythm section.

We recorded "Sanctuary" on the first day with Manolo Badrena, knowing that he would sing the melody, in vocalese, doubling John's bass expression of same. This also came out beautifully. As the statement of the melody concludes, Ralph Irizarry's 'avanico' leads us into the arrangement of "Nefertiti," which also features a tremendous timbales solo from Ralphy!!! Ralph's timbales solo is an absolute gem. I wish everyone could have seen Jack's smile of admiration, as he witnessed this kind of artistry.

"Eronel" (Thelonious Monk) (5:25)

Everyone knows of my great reverence and respect for the music of Thelonious Monk. I often try to find what is romantic—located deep within his compositions. "Eronel"—'Lenore' spelled backwards—has a very romantic side to it, and I enjoyed playing this very much with John and Jack. I especially wanted something to feature Jack's unique and brilliant brushwork.

The rhythmic feeling I was going for here was actually something I had heard Roy Haynes play on Chick Corea's version of "Pannonica." At times, it feels as if Roy is alluding to a 6/8 Afro-Cuban feel on the brushes, against what is clearly a 'swing' feel, felt 'in two.' I'm not certain just how much of this feel is alluded to on our particular version.

"You Stepped Out of a Dream" (Gus Kahn-Nacio Herb Brown) (5:36)

Another one of my favorite standards! During my earliest years in New York, during a time when Don Grolnick, Will Lee and Christopher Parker actually all lived in the same building in Greenwich Village, we often used to get together to play, before, after and during our rehearsals as part of the Brecker Brothers Band. And, one of the tunes Don always loved to play, on Fender Rhodes, was "You Stepped Out of a Dream. But he had a particular approach to the chord changes which appear in "A2 of the tune, and I always loved them. So, sometime ago, when I was creating a play-along for myself to use at various clinics, I did this tune, but in the keyboard style of Clare Fischer. And with Don Grolnick's changes. I didn't believe that I could actually cover all that harmony on guitar, but after some study, I realized that I could do it and so, with the addition of Ralph and Roberto, it is given a special Latin treatment.

"The Green Field (El Prado Verde)" (Steve Khan) (18:07)

The explanation of this piece of music requires far more time and patience, but I hope that it is worth the time and effort. Here is the story......

I was having a discussion about death with an old and dear friend, Venezuelan singer/songwriter, Frank Quintero during his stay at my apartment with his wife, playwright, Indira Páez, over one of my delicious omelettes, and I said something like this......

..."When one is in their 20s, as we look ahead, far into life and the future, as we can see it from that perspective, the green field which lies ahead of us seems endless, and so full of possibilities. But, as one grows older, sadly seeing your parents pass away, seeing one's friends and contemporaries die around us (sometimes even those considerably younger), the view of the green field changes. Suddenly, it is a much shorter green field, and the opportunities that remain must be guarded and treasured in a far different manner, and, from a perspective of greater maturity and wisdom. At least we can hope for that.

Clockwise from top left: John Patitucci, Steve Khan, Jack DeJohnette



Like anyone else, perhaps, I fear a prolonged and/or painful death, but, death, in and of itself, I do not fear. I don't know that one never gets to do, nor accomplish all that they would like, but, for my part, I have led a rich life, often times filled with beautiful and wonderful people. If it were all to end tomorrow, I could never feel cheated by any thing, nor anyone, for I know that I have been a lucky man, and will leave behind my good work, and even some good deeds.

The piece of music is also something which I've had laying around on various strips of paper for quite some time now. That was the basic "A section of the piece. While that was laying dormant somewhere, I was also composing what now stands as the "B section. Suddenly, I realized that these two seemingly unrelated pieces of music were actually part of the same piece. Both tied together by, what I envisioned as, Jack DeJohnette's relentless ride cymbal pulse, with percussive colors added in by Manolo Badrena. Initially, I thought that John and I would play all the melodies in a 'floating' style over the pulse. But, as it turned out, that didn't feel right for the "A sections, and so, those melodies were played in time. The only other piece of music that reminds of this is the title track from Ralph Towner's CD, Batik (ECM, 1978). Which, by the way, was only 16-minutes long!!!

When we performed this piece, I had no idea how long we had been playing, but it felt right to the four of us. When we went in the control to listen I was stunned to learn that we had been playing for 18:07!!! I've had some long tracks on my recordings (many which have been over 10 minutes long!) over the years, but none this long. I have done everything in my power to preserve the integrity of what we played, especially the artistry and energy of a Jack DeJohnette on something like this. On the other hand, one can never overlook the same form of artistry which emanates from Manolo Badrena. How does one explain exactly how to play a piece of music like this? It is impossible, simply because one either has an instinct for it, or not. More than anything one must not be afraid, not afraid of the space, nor of the energy. One thing feeds the other!

If one is wondering, "Exactly what is Manolo saying in some of those moments, those episodes?" Well, I can only tell you one thing. I know that at two points in time, he does say the word: "Sounds in English!!! And, if you think that you heard the word "Peace too, you did!!! The rest of it, I have no idea.....but, I know this, it is not in his native Spanish!!!

So, from all of us, to all of you, we are thrilled and proud to share this performance with those of you who can find the time to listen.

Visit Steve Khan and Tone Center on the web.

Related Article

Guitarist Steve Khan (2004 interview)

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Richard Laird
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