Steve Khan’s Latin Muse

Veteran Guitarist in Fine Form on New Album

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Steve Khan’s Latin Muse

During the 1970s, guitarist Steve Khan strung together three fusion albums for Columbia Records—Tight Rope, The Blue Man, Arrows—that saw him sustaining the sound of the original Brecker Brothers band, which he was a member of from 1976–77. He continued in a hard-hitting fusion vein with the CBS All-Stars, featuring Billy Cobham on drums, Tom Scott on saxophone, and Alphonso Johnson on bass. As a ubiquitous session musician during the 70s, Khan also appeared on pop albums by such well-known artists as Billy Joel, Kenny Loggins, Phoebe Snow, and Steely Dan. 

After staking out new musical territory during the 80s with his innovative band Eyewitness, Khan began testing the waters of an exciting Latin jazz hybrid on 1994’s Crossings, which saw him injecting mambo, bembé, and montuno rhythms into clave-fueled renditions of jazz standards by Thelonious Monk, Wayne Shorter, and Joe Henderson as well as Great American Songbook numbers that included compositions by Steve’s famous songwriting father, Sammy Cahn. While he had already alluded to this new direction, Khan plunged deeper into Latinization on 2007’s Borrowed Time, which introduced Afro-Cuban percussionists Bobby Allende and Marc Quinones, Afro-Cuban bass stalwart Rubén Rodriguez, and Eyewitness holdover Manolo Badrena. Khan then became fully immersed on a trilogy of albums beginning with 2011’s Parting Shot, which added super drummer Dennis Chambers to the mix, and continuing with 2014’s Subtext and 2016’s Backlog. 

For his most recent release, Patchwork, Khan recruited the same crew of Allende, Quinones, Rodriguez, and Chambers for a fourth installment of guitar-centric Latin jazz. From a polyrhythmic take on Monk’s “Epistrophy” to salsified renditions of Ornette Coleman’s “C. & D.” and “T. & T.,” both underscored by infectious montuno grooves, to bolero renditions of Bobby Hutcherson’s “Bouquet” and Joe Henderson’s “A Shade of Jade” and a cha-cha interpretation of Keith Jarrett’s “The Journey Home,” Khan re-imagines these jazz staples through an Afro-Cuban filter.

“People always ask me, ‘Why the sudden fascination with Latin music?’ But it’s kind of always been there on all my records,” said the guitarist in a phone interview from his Upper West Side Manhattan apartment. “And that fascination really goes back, believe it or not, to my father in the 50s, when the U.S. went cha-cha crazy. I’ll always remember him bringing home this record of Peggy Lee singing a song of my dad’s called ‘Come Dance with Me,’ which she does as a cha-cha [from 1961’s Olé ala Lee]. And I never forgot that feeling of the cowbell on that song. That sound of cowbell is on all these tunes from our rock ’n’ roll time as kids, like Mickey and Sylvia’s ‘Love Is Strange,’ the Beatles’ ‘You Can’t Do That,’ the Stones’ ‘Honky Tonk Women,’ Mountain’s ‘Mississippi Queen.’ So many hit songs have had Latin cowbell in there, so it’s been a part of my musical makeup since I was a kid.”

A couple of years after his encounter with Peggy Lee’s cha-cha record, Khan became enamored with Herbie Hancock’s 1963 Blue Note album Inventions & Dimensions, which featured Willie Bobo on drums and timbales and Osvaldo ‘Chihuahua’ Martinez on Latin percussion. “The tune ‘Succotash’ from that album completely turned my whole world around,” he recalled. “To hear someone playing so freely within this Afro-Cuban 6/8 thing was thrilling to me.” 

Other Latin-flavored favorites followed, including Cal Tjader’s Soul Burst and the Jazz Crusaders’ Chile Con Soul. “But the fascinating thing about those records is that they were produced by non-Latinos,” Khan explained. “And if you listen to them, there’s no cowbell on any of them, there’s no cascara, where the timbales player plays on the shells because the producers told them not to do that, even though the players’ instinct would be to play those things, those sounds. But for some reason, they were considered annoying sounds, so the percussionists on those sessions had to find another way to play and not lose the rhythm.

“I was just listening the other day to the famous Cal Tjader record Soul Sauce,” he continued. “They play Mongo Santamaria’s ‘Afro Blue’ on that album, and I was laughing when I heard it because the classic bell pattern that everybody plays on a 6/8 tune is played on the guiro, which is just not right. So for me, part of this journey of mine is trying to put the percussion as it’s supposed to be as best I can, having it all represented authentically, especially on these last four records.”