When musicians find their voice within a style, they usually formulate an approach based upon a study of influential role models . . . but what happens when they are no role models to follow? Guitarists have been between a rock and a hard place in this regard when it comes to Latin Jazz; it’s just not a style that has traditionally integrated the instrument. Several jazz guitar players have played Latin music as part of a larger repertoire and a few modern players have even found a home in this world. When you go back to the core rhythm sections that wrote the book on Latin music though, you’re going to find piano, bass, and percussion. The guitar has relatives in the Cuban tres and the Puerto Rican cuatro; there’s certainly some basis for study here, but not the treasure trove of resources found by pianists, bassists, and percussionists. So guitarists are left taking bits and piece from pianists, bassists, wind players, drummers, and pretty much whoever else they can follow. That’s a tall order that can easily result in a chaotic approach to the style that never quite gels. Fortunately, there are players like Steve Khan, who have studied extensively and produced albums like Backlog that both respects the style while resonating with personality.
Khan’s Guitar Serving Many Roles
Khan brings his guitar to the forefront of several tunes, serving as the only harmonic instrument. He sets up a deep groove with an addictive guitar montuno on “Criss Cross” before flying into the melody over the churning rhythm section. The band breaks down for a return to the montuno until a band break sends Kahn soaring into a statement filled with smart melodic development. The guitarist takes his time bringing his idea to completion before falling back into the main montuno while Quiñones and Waker trade explosive rhythmic ideas. A Puerto Rican Plena groove sets the foundation for a joyful melody from Khan and trumpet player Randy Brecker that resonates with a beautiful simplicity. A minor tonality kicks off Brecker’s solo in an ominous way until a return to the initial feel brings him back into a boppish flow of running notes, complimented with a taste of blues. Khan starts his solo with careful note placement before moving into a combination of single note lines and dissonant chords that build towards a unison romp between the two melody instruments. Khan and vibraphonist Mike Mainieri spin short rhythmic phrases into the catchy melody on Bobby Hutcherson’s “Head Start” before exploding into a unison riff with Rodriguez’s electric bass. Mainieri attacks a stream of smart rhythmic ideas that play upon syncopations across the instrument, until the unison run sets up an aggressive solo from Khan. The band breaks down behind the guitarist’s montuno, setting the stage for a tasteful display of percussive virtuosity on drum kit from Mark Walker. These tracks find Khan filling many roles, pushing each song forward as a montunero, a comping instrument, a soloist, and more.
Adding Options & Some Funk With A Keyboard
The presence of keyboardist Rob Mounsey on four tracks opens new possibilities for Khan and adds a funky edge to the music. The striding sound of Mounsey’s keyboard pushes a cha cha cha groove towards an angular melody from Khan on “Concepticus In C.” The sound of Khan’s synth guitar takes him twisting and turning through a roller coaster ride of a melody that sails between heavy doses of tension and brief reprises into consonance. As a band break sends Khan into his solo, he finds a smart blend of funk, jazz, blues, and cha cha cha in his phrasing, weaving a clever line between the spaces of the groove. Mounsey establishes a laid back montuno on “Rojo,” adding a slight bit of funk to the groove as Khan travels through the melody on acoustic guitar. There’s a slightly different edge to Khan’s playing as he embraces the earthy tone of his steel string guitar, mixing arpeggios and scalar runs into an engaging statement. Band hits outline attention grabbing solos from both Allende on congas and Quiñones on timbales, and a return to the melody gives way to a climactic solo from Walker. A clever feat of arranging sets the melody for Ornette Coleman’s “Invisible” around an uptempo son montuno, played with a daring bravado by Khan and tenor saxophonist Bob Mintzer. That fierce quality continues into Mintzer’s solo, as he plows through the changes with a bebop influence and a keen awareness of the rhythmic structure. A brief interlude leads directly into Khan’s solo, where he wisely contrasts Mintzer with a straight ahead approach before giving the spotlight to Allende for an aggressive conga solo. The rhythm section lays down some heavy funk with a dose of Afro-Cuban influence on Stevie Wonder’s “Go Home (Vete a Casa),” and Khan turns up the distortion to complement the setting. Blues riffs with a heavy edge dominant Khan’s solo, with occasional flurries of jazz licks that give his improvisation a fusion feel. There’s a sense that Khan feels at home here with a mix of fusion and Latin rhythms, and he takes advantage of that comfort, stretching his statement into a epic and energetic romp. It’s interesting to hear Khan and his core rhythm section alongside Mounsey, as they all explore a slightly different take on the music.
Exploring A Different Side To The Music With Thick Orchestrations
There are several songs with thick orchestrations that soften the overall texture of the music and shine a different light upon Khan’s musicianship. A lush layer of synthesized strings soften the steady bolero on “Our Town,” while Khan lets his lyrical side shine with a beautiful interpretation of the classic melody. This track shows a different piece of Khan’s musicianship with sensitive phrasing, a rich connection to jazz changes, and a deep understanding of the bolero. As he stretches out with an extended solo, there’s an intimate connection between Kahn, the harmony, and the melody that gives an organic feel to his improvisation. A richly textured collection of synthesizers float over an Afro-Cuban 6/8 groove on “Emily,” making room for Khan to gently place the melody on top. The orchestration certainly softens the typical feel of the 6/8 groove, but it opens the door to a more reflective side to Khan’s playing, which is refreshing. This is clearly evident in his solo, where he waxes poetic over long phrases that extend from one elegant idea to the next, culminating in a breathtaking statement. A sinister rumba flamenco feel underscores a melody from Khan that subtly ducks in and out of the forefront on Andres Hill’s “Catta.” Khan emphasizes the mysterious tone of the song during his solo, spacing out his phrases with careful precision and playing around the arrangement with taste and style. As Khan falls into a guitar montuno, Quiñones erupts into a powerful timbale solo, full of tension building syncopations and intense percussion fills. We hear a different side of Khan’s playing on these tracks, as the orchestrations draw out a more reflective and introspective side.
A Strong Statement Of A Music Invested In The Style
Khan exerts a strong artistic voice on Backlog, fitting his guitar seamlessly into a Latin Jazz context with finesse and style. Granted, Khan came into the world of Latin Jazz with a wealth of performance experience and refined jazz chops; he wasn’t necessarily trying to find his voice, just see where it fit within the context of Latin Jazz. At this point, he has found that sweet spot in the music where style, technique, and vision have blended into an organic whole. On Backlog, part of that melding comes from the best backing band in the genre; Rodriguez, Walker, Quiñones, and Allende groove hard, they step forward as invested soloists, and they make Khan’s already stellar performances shine. Khan has chosen a compelling set of jazz repertoire, pulling lesser known pieces from important composers, both classic and modern. He continues to show an uncanny synchronicity with the roots of Latin music through clever arrangements that shine new light upon the songs and the context where they now sit. Khan makes a strong statement on Backlog as both a musician invested in the style and a guitarist claiming Latin Jazz as his own; with this connection secure, it’s safe to say that future generations of guitarist will have a role model to follow when embracing Latin Jazz.
Criss Cross (Entrecruzado) (Thelonious Monk)
Concepticus In C (Greg Osby)
Latin Genetics (Genética Latina) (Ornette Coleman)
Our Town (Nuestro Pueblo) (Sammy Can-Jimmy Van Heusen)
Head Start (Ventaja) (Bobby Hutcherson)
Rojo (Bobby Hutcherson)
Invisible (Ornette Coleman)
Emily (Johnny Mandel-Johnny Mercer)
Go Home (Vete a Casa) (Stevie Wonder)
Catta (Andrew Hill)
Steve Khan – guitar; Rubén Rodriguez – Baby Bass, electric bass; Mark Walker – drums; Marc Quiñones – timbal, bongo, percussion; Bobby Allende – conga, bongo; Randy Brecker – trumpet (3); Bob Mintzer – tenor sax (7); Mike Mainieri – vibes (5); Rob Mounsey – keyboards (2, 6, 7, 9); Tatiana Parra – voice (10)
Check Out More Great LJC Content:
Album Of The Week: Mr. EP – A Tribute To Eddie Palmieri, Charlie Sepulveda & The Turnaround
LJC Picks: Top Five Latin Jazz Videos, February 2017
Album Of The Week: Tributango, Emilio Solla
Latin Jazz Corner 006: Brent Fischer Interview (Part 1), Emilio Solla, Supporting Latin Jazz In 2017