Steve Khan: June, 2011 Interview

[1]    Tell me what you like about "PARTING SHOT" and, what you hope others can draw from it.
[SK]  On the most basic of levels, I'm really proud that we all did this together, the six of us. Each of the other five players has played a significant role in my development as a musician, and here, to my capacity to express something via the Latin idiom. Everyone has already noted that this is probably the first Latin Jazz album led by a guitarist since Grant Green's "THE LATIN BIT"(Blue Note) from 1962. So, it has almost been 50 years since that great recording. Beyond that, I am growing really pleased with the sonic, or audio presentation of the music. Engineer James Farber did a wonderful job in representing each player and his instrument(s). The music has power and clarity, and I couldn't ask for more than that. I can't control the way others will hear it, and I know that there are no "perfect" mixes but, I feel good about what we've done.
    Simply put, like most musicians who are lucky enough to record, once the work is done, you just hope that the music connects with people. That they will be open to receive it in the spirit in which it was recorded, and now presented. However, I have no unrealistic expectations, I will just hope for the best. As I pointed out in my liner notes, non-Latinos seem to have a lot of trouble with cowbells, so I have no idea how an average listener, a "Jazz" fan will react to 70-minutes of the sounds of Latin percussion. But, we're going to find out. To feel the music the way that I do, the way that I hear it, people have to really crank their stereos, and give the recording, what I call, the "blast-o-phonic" treatment!

[2]    What was the most difficult aspect of putting this all together once you got into the studio?
[SK]  Once one is in the studio, and ready to record, perhaps the most difficult aspect is in trying to wear all the hats that one must: musician; arranger; artist; producer; psychologist; diplomat; parent; disciplinarian; best friend; and being the banker too!
Dennis Chambers Steve Khan Anthony Jackson     There is one overall goal to accomplish, and you have to try to not allow anything, nor anyone, to impede the progress towards a final result that you can be pleased with. It's not a secret that, for me, the most mercurial personalities to deal with are always Anthony Jackson and Manolo Badrena. Each one requires extreme patience, and great thought as to how to encourage the best results for the music from both of them. They are two of the most brilliant and unique musicians I have ever had the good fortune to play with, but they can be so damn difficult that it can make you want to pull out your hair - or worse! In Manolo's case, on this recording, it was especially difficult, because I was asking him to completely avoid all the basic sounds of Latin percussion which were being covered so beautifully by Marc Quiñones and Bobby Allende. I would never want to insult Manolo in any way, because I have such great respect for his artistry - but, I knew that asking him to do this was like asking him to play with one hand tied behind his back. In the end, more or less, he grasped what I needed from him, what the music needed from him.
    What actually became the most difficult aspect for me was during the mixing process. In all my years of doing this, I have never had to recall 9 of the 10 mixes. For me, the problem was that somehow I could not feel Dennis Chambers' drums as being in my face. And, I also had trouble distinguishing Anthony's pitches, the actual notes. This is extremely rare. So, in the end, it was worth the time and expense to work harder at this with James, and to try to create just the right blend and balance between all the instruments. It's so difficult to do because, for example, just the sound of my guitar alone can act to mask or cancel out some of the important sounds of the conga. It's very frustrating when this happens. But, often times, when mixing, something has to give. There are never any perfect mixes, and someone is always going to be unhappy with something that you've done. But, I believe that each musician knows that, even if they perceive a mix, a balance, to be in error, it is never because I didn't care, or didn't try my best.

[3]    Your career has included working with artists like the great Donald Fagen. Are there any different mental gymnastics you go through when working with him, or anyone else, as opposed to on your own music?
[SK]  Well, you've brought-up a most specific case when you mention Donald Fagen, or Steely Dan. In brief, Donald is a great artist, and above all, he is a unique, and very special songwriter. As the son of a lyricist, a songwriter, Sammy Cahn, I have always appreciated such talents, and in a big way. I don't have those talents. For me, I have always had a singular approach to working on the music of another artist. My credo, if I could be so bold as to say that, is very simple: "Serve the song!!!" Which translates to: Just do what you feel is right for the song - or, at times, exactly what you are asked to do.
    In the end, as a craftsperson, we are asked to fill a very small role in someone else's overall vision of their own music. Most times, we can't really see or hear what the finished product is going to be. So, you try your best. In working with Donald, I have experienced him liking what I did, and I have been erased too. I feel less bad when I've been erased from a track where he decided to keep the drums or even everyone else. When that has happened, at least I know that what I played helped to create the drum groove that they wanted. A small victory. The hard thing is that you tend to fall in love with their songs, and it's hard to let them go. But, in the end, for your own sanity, you have to.
    Recording and producing my own recordings, this is a form of exquisite torture that only those who do the same thing would understand. For me, it's brutal to have to listen to myself playing over, and over, and over again. It's a process of learning to "let go," and as quickly as is possible. Hard to do when you know that you're going to have to live with those results for the rest of your life. You also know, after years of doing this, that there will always be things that you hear that drive you completely crazy. You have to let go of that too.
    But, in the end, at the very least, it IS your own music, and your own vision - and that makes all the self-inflicted torture almost worth it!!!

[4]    How does the creative process work for you? Where does it begin?
[SK]  I remember many years ago, MANY years ago, someone once asked my dear friend, Will Lee, "Why haven't you ever recorded a solo album?" And to that, he replied quite wryly, "....because I have nothing to say!!!"[delivered with an Oliver Hardy kind of voice] So, looking at a comment like that from such a great musician, I think that the first thing one has to do is to fool oneself into thinking that: "I have something to say!!!" Once you are able to do that, virtually anything is possible. If you become mired in your own mediocrity - for example comparing any work you might do to the monumental output of, for example, Picasso - well, you might be too intimidated to try to do anything! What would the point be? Most of us are just NOT that gifted.
    For me, up until recently, I was always able to have a vision of what I wanted to do next. I was able to do that in spite of the fact that I have not had a real record contract since my years with Columbia Records ended in 1980. It's been scratch & claw ever since. I've now paid for 8 of my recordings out of my own pocket. In most of the other cases, had it not been for the good people of Japan, I would have been musically buried a long time ago.
    Beyond those very practical concerns, you have to hear something, and that comes from within. By that I mean, you are composing something that's original, new to you, or hearing a way to interpret the compositions of someone else in a most personal way. By that I mean, making a 'standard' or a Jazz standard truly your own. It's not so easy to do. Then, it's a matter of accumulating somewhere between 8-12 pieces of music. I usually want to record more than what might actually fit onto a CD. It doesn't always work out that way. After that? The very tedious process of writing out all the music, the parts for the other players. Once that's done, it's time to have someone make the phone calls, and put it all together. I no longer have any patience for that. I like to have someone tell me where to be, and when. I just want to show-up and play!!! Period!!! I'm just too old for all that other bullshit!

[5]    Why not the banjo?
[SK]  You must be kidding, right? O.K., to answer an absurd question seriously: My right-hand technique, whether picking, fingers, or the claw, is so uneven that I would never have been a great banjo player, let alone a decent one!!! Believe it or not, I had to play one once or twice, and I survived by tuning the strings like the top 4-strings of a guitar. Otherwise? No chance!!!

[6]    I have seen you remark more than once that, due to the nature of the business, you often are not sure if any one recording may literally be it for you. Without naming names or labels, or necessarily pointing fingers, what are your thoughts on the industry as it pertains specifically to Jazz. What are the good and bad points for the artist, and their struggle to get their talent noticed.
[SK]  Well, I can tell you that I am not joking around when I express that I can't see myself being able to self-finance another recording. That's a reality, that's my reality. And, if no one is offering to record me, to 'produce' the recording, then I am only left to conclude that "PARTING SHOT" is, in fact, going to be my last recording.Marc Quiñones Bobby Allende Manolo Badrena I am, in no way, trying to be melodramatic. That's just how I see things right now.
    The music business has been in terrible shape for several decades now. It has only gotten worse since the advent of file sharing, digital downloads, etc.! Young people think that everything should be free!!! It all reminds me of the Hippie Days when we used to chant at various protest rallies: "There's no such thing as personal property!" This, of course, is complete bullshit - forgive my French! But, let's face it. as a group, musicians can be the most vulgar people on the planet!!!
    Artists, record labels, publishers, and songwriters, deserve to be, and MUST be paid for their work. And, until there is an agreement, a binding one, on HOW this is going to be done? There is going to be chaos - and all the aforementioned groups will suffer. An artistic work must be protected - especially from unlawful copying, and distributing! Even small artists, like me, get hurt badly by this. With the situation being as it is, Jazz, commercially speaking, is perhaps the low genre on the totem pole, and it will always suffer the most. Just look at what the Grammys did to all instrumentalists when they 'restructured' the categories for the awards. They eliminated about 75% of the options for all of us!
    We are seeing the end of the CD store. In New York City, the "mecca" for Jazz - there's one store left, and it's WAY DOWNTOWN!!! I never go there. I order from Amazon. That's the new reality. Honestly, I don't sit around and blame the record labels for this state of affairs. Pointing fingers is not going to solve this mess. Right now? There are no good points for the artist!
    A younger person probably has more energy to expend on trying to "get noticed" as you put it. Me? I've never been super-aggressive in that way, and I'm still not. Yes, I am aggressive enough to get certain things done for myself - but compared to others? I'm not even in the same league with them.

[7]    What was the last Jazz CD you bought that blew you away?
[SK]  Would a music DVD count? Recently, someone posted a YouTube video on Facebook, and I was just so moved and inspired by what I heard that, I immediately went to my computer and went to "the jungle"(as some young hipster referred to, and bought "ONE MAN BAND" by James Taylor w/ Larry Goldings. There are times when the art, the simplicity of one incredible singer/songwriter standing there, presenting his songs in a solo format - O.K., in this case, it was a wonderful duo format - is just so inspiring and overwhelming to me that I just can't get over it. After all, again, I am the son of a songwriter!
    Though I have bought their CDs, which are not particularly easy to come by in the USA, I was sent the CD/DVD combo by my friend, pianist/singer Andrés Beeuwsaert, of his group from Argentina, ACA SECA TRIO, titled "VENTANAS." Again, the DVD section was from a concert in Buenos Aires, and the various songs, some of them, have been posted at YouTube, which is where I discovered this group and their music. So, when the DVD arrived, I just sat there one afternoon and watched the whole thing - and then, later that night, I watched several songs again. I am still amazed at what 3 exceptionally talented musicians/singers with a totally unique vision of what songs are, and what music is, can do something like that. Hearing songs with so much content and detail, and all virtually under 3-minutes in length causes me to question everything that I do! Well, at least for a few minutes! [Said with a smile!] For me, this is also truly remarkable music.
    While on the subject of Argentina, once again, via YouTube and Facebook, I just saw a video of my friend, Scott Henderson playing Wayne Shorter's "Sightseeing" in concert in Buenos Aires, perhaps with local musicians, I didn't know them. They were: Alejandro Herrera: elec. bass, and Fernando Martínez: drums. I had forgotten about this tune, so I went into my CDs, and located it on Weather Report's "8:30" album. It's really an incredible piece of music, and speaks to the beauty of one melodic line moving against the bass, and without any formal chords or harmony being played. And, I am also reminded of Peter Erskine's incredible musicianship as he chooses what accents to make while navigating a melody with constant staccato accents that can almost seem random, but of course, they are not!!! This inspired a flurry of e-mail exchanges with Pete.
    Believe it or not, just now, because of hearing it so many times on a TV commercial, after some research via Google, I went to iTunes and bought Boo Boo Davis' great blues tune, "I'm So Tired." Also, after listening to someone's post at Facebook, I bought the Gerardo Nuñez nuevo Flamenco CD, "ANDANDO EL TIEMPO" which contained the brilliant piece, "Soleá De La Luna Coja." With me, you never know what it's going to be.

[8]    Have you ever thought about an all acoustic standards disc maybe featuring your father's work?
[SK]  People who know me well know that I did not enjoy a particularly great father-son relationship with my dad. He passed away in January of 1993, and even at the very end, there was no satisfactory resolution to anything with him. At times, I can become sentimental about his songs, but even that becomes more rare with each passing year. The first time that I recorded one of his songs was on the "PUBLIC ACCESS" CD from 1989, and that was "Dedicated to You" which I had always loved since the great Johnny Hartman-John Coltrane version.
    Since then, I have recorded some of his more obscure tunes, the ones that, for the most part, very few of my esteemed colleagues play: "Autumn in Rome"[from "HEADLINE"(1992); "It's You or No One"[from "CROSSINGS"(1994)]; "The Christmas Waltz"[from "JAZZ TO THE WORLD"(1995)]; "The Last Dance"[from "GOT MY MENTAL"(1996)]; and "You're My Girl"[from "BORROWED TIME"(2007)].
    Honestly, I don't know if I would want to record an entire album of my father's songs, even if a record label offered to pay for such a thing. But, you never know!

[9]    Is there a hot young guitar player now that blows you away?
[SK]  I know one thing, the future of Jazz guitar is in superb hands! "Young" guitar players? It's strange to arrive at an age where suddenly EVERYONE is younger than me - but, SO MUCH younger than me. So, even looking at guitarists who might be in their mid to late 30's, or their 40's, that's young to me!
    In truth, I don't really listen to music all that much, I really try to concentrate on hearing the music that exists inside of me - that's what one should be doing. Often times, if you allow what's going on around you to infiltrate your being, it can all be so good that it can't help but influence you. So, I try to stay away from allowing that to happen.
    However, I do try to keep-up with what's going on - and that can include hearing what some of my good friends and peers are doing - the guys who are around my age, more or less. If one needs a reminder of who those players might be, I moved to New York in 1970, at about the same time as John Abercrombie. Ralph Towner was already here. John Scofield came a bit later - I lent Sco' my amp for his first gig in New York! Bill Connors got here in 1973. Pat Metheny was really in the Boston area for the longest time - but, he's certainly part of this same group. Bill Frisell came a little later too, but I certainly consider him as part of this group of players. It goes without saying that I consider all these players to be great, great artists, each with a unique voice and vision.
    So, of the guys younger than those I have just mentioned, I think that Peter Bernstein is the most musical player of them all. Everything that he plays makes complete and total sense to me. Ben Monder is the most interesting of all the players, but I don't believe that he's made a recording that, for me, represents how brilliantly I've heard him play music. Then, there are players like: Kurt Rosenwinkel; Adam Rogers; Jonathan Kreisberg; and Mike Moreno. They are all spectacular players each with his own voice.
    Where an overdrive sound is concerned, I think that Allen Hinds has the best sound that I've heard. Just spectacular! To be fair, if you visit the STEVE RECOMMENDS page at my website, I list virtually all the musicians and guitarists that I have enjoyed. I appreciate the work of many, many players and in all the genres!

Photos in collage: Dennis Chambers, Steve, and Anthony Jackson
Marc Quiñones, Bobby Allende, and Manolo Badrena
Photos by: Richard Laird