Steve Khan's been on the comeback trail with the fine The Green Field
(Tone Center, 2006)his first as a leader in nine yearsand even more impressive Borrowed Time
(Tone Center, 2007), so keeping up the momentum is a very good thing. While not a new recording, The Suitcase
captures the guitarist in performance with one of his hottest trios evercontrabassist Anthony Jackson and drummer Dennis Chambers.
Recorded in Köln, Germany in 1994, the two-disc set represents a comprehensive cross-section of material beginning with the guitarist's watershed Eyewitness
(Antilles, 1981) through to Crossings
(Verve Forecast, 1994). Opening with an even fierier take of Eyewitness
' first track, "Where's Mumphrey?," it's clear just how far the guitarist's style had evolved. By this time he'd eschewed the more in-your-face pyrotechnics of earlier albums like The Blue Man
(Columbia, 1978). Instead, subtlety, group interaction and a more selfless devotion to song became paramount as he developed a distinctive ability to build extended solo after extended solo with an astute blend of unexpectedly constructed linear phrases and richly voiced extended chordal passages.
That's not to say there's any shortage of virtuosity. Jackson provides both a deep, in the pocket anchor and bright tone that makes his regular ventures into the upper register a melodic and chordal foil for Khan, resulting in a much bigger trio sound. Jackson's opening solo on the twelve-minute title track is freely ethereal, while on "Guy Lafleur" he creates a rich harmonic layer over Chambers' irrepressible cowbell-driven groove. Chambers is a force of nature, with his extended solos on Joe Henderson's bright 'Caribbean Fire Dance" and Lee Morgan's "Mr. Kenyatta" two highlights amongst The Suitcase
's two-and-a-half hours of originals and significantly reworked standards.
While there's no denying the strength and elasticity of the John Patitucci/Jack DeJohnette rhythm team on Khan's albums since Got My Mental
(Evidence, 1996), it's hard to imagine them cutting across such a stylistically broad swath of material with such an unmistakable group sound. Chambers and Jackson swing hard on Monk's characteristically knotty "Played Twice" and Khan's modally boppish "Blue Zone 41," bring out the funk on Khan's "What I'm Said," turn darkly balladic on Lee Morgan's "Melancholee" and get raucous and occasionally rockish on "Blades."
While Khan leans largely towards a warm, clean tone, there's judicious use of processing. He gets positively down and nasty, kicking in some overdriven power chords beneath Jackson's frightening dexterity on "The Suitcase" and, on "What I'm Said," delivering his own rapid fire lines, making it clear he's capable of ripping it upmore often than not he just chooses not to.
For those who consider Khan less significant than some of his peers, one listen to his exhilarating playing here will lay waste to such claims. Khan may often be the antithesis of the guitar hero, but in letting loose as he does here with a powerhouse trio capable of virtually anything, the release of The Suitcase
fourteen years after the fact will undoubtedly open up a lot of minds and ears.
CD1: Where's Mumphrey?; What I'm Said; Blue Zone 41; Melancholee; Played Twice; The Suitcase; Dr. Slump; Blades. CD2: Guy Lafleur; Uncle Roy; Eyewitness; Capricorn; Dedicated to You; Caribbean Fire Dance; Mr. Kenyatta.
Steve Khan: guitar; Anthony Jackson: Contrabass guitar; Dennis Chambers: drums.