Guitarist Steve Khan's latter day work has been increasingly focused on Latin jazz fusion of various shapes, so the scope and direction of Subtext should come as no surprise to his longtime followers. This album arrives three years after Parting Shot (Tone Center, 2011) and runs along similar lines. That one was an originals-heavy, percussively-coated session that dipped into the songbooks of Thelonious Monk ("Bye-Ya") and Ornette Coleman ("Blues Connotation" and "Chronology"); this one is a mostly covers companion piece that also touches on the work of those same iconic artists.
On Subtext, fronting a percussion-heavy quintet, Khan refashions some classics, unearths some rarely covered gems, and delivers a trio of originals that fit nicely into the mix. Khan works with a highly capable crewdrummer Dennis Chambers, bassist Ruben Rodriguez, and percussionists Bobby Allende and Marc Quinones. Together, these men could wreak havoc and set four-alarm fires, but the guitarist mostly holds everybody in check, preferring to create a rhythmic mesh instead of a blazing inferno.
That quintet defines the sound of the record, but several guests drop in to add their two cents. Trumpeter Randy Brecker wields his flugelhorn on Coleman's "Bird Food"; Rob Mounsey provides orchestrations for a few numbers and appears twice on keyboards (the too-sleek title track and just-right, M-Base-meets-Santana rewrite of saxophonist Greg Osby's "Heard"); while accordionist Gil Goldstein and vocalist Mariana Ingold appear on "Cada Gota De Mar," a number influenced by Colombian Vallenato music co-written by the vocalist and Khan.
The remaining tracks all find Khan in fine form. He cooks on Freddie Hubbard's infrequently explored "Baraka Sasa," delivers a spicy songo-influenced take on Monk's "Hackensack," imagines "Never Let Me Go" as a relaxed-and-moody bolero, turns Wayne Shorter's "Infant Eyes" into a 6/8 Afro-Cuban vehicle, and closes out the program with the simmering cha-cha original, "Bait And Switch."
Subtext is a pleasing, low-flame Latin outing delivered by some of the best in the business. It's occasionally wanting for a bit more bite and flight, but the balance of restraint and strength demonstrated has always been a Khan calling card; his desire to flow rather than fly has often kept him under the radar with the public, though most musicians know the score when it come to this venerable guitarist: Khan kills in his own special way.
Bird Food; Blue Subtext; Baraka Sasa; Infant Eyes; Heard; Never Let Me Go; Cada Gota de Mar; Hackensack; Bait and
Steve Khan: guitar, voice (9); Rubén Rodriguez: electric bass, baby bass; Dennis Chambers: drums; Marc Quiñones: timbal,
bongo, percussion; Bobby Allende: conga, bongo (1); Randy Brecker: flugelhorn (1); Rob Mounsey: keyboards (2, 5),
orchestrations (3, 4, 6, 7, 9), coro (7); Gil Goldstein: accordion (7); Mariana Ingold: voice (7).
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