"My music is a catalog of songs that I have loved all my life. It's the music I grew up with. Each song has a personal resonance, a place in my heart. Playing them becomes as easy as talking because I have a feeling for them." - Steve Khan
The life and times of guitarist extraordinaire Steve Khan stretch through a high volume of evolving chapters that fuse together like the passages of a finely crafted arrangement. An expansive conversation with Khan touched on a variety of memories. Still, this is perhaps the Reader's Digest version of the seventy-three years old musician and composer's remarkable journey.
The fusion turned Latin guitarist has recorded over twenty studio albums and appears on nearly one hundred more records with other jazz greats. Over the years Khan has played with Ron Carter, Steve Gadd, Anthony Jackson, Steve Jordan, Manolo Badrena, John Patitucci, Jack DeJohnette, Randy Brecker, Michael Brecker, Dennis Chambers, David Sanborn, Bob James, Al Foster, Larry Coryell, Dave Weckl, and so many more giants of the industry.
The son of a legendary songwriter, Khan talks about how and why he changed things up and made it on his own. "I thought everyone had Frank Sinatra over for Sunday barbecue," Khan states, illustrating the unfazed reality of his Hollywood celebrity laced childhood. A bevy of often humorous and certainly life-defining moments are shared. In many ways, they are period pieces that open up a window to another place and time.
As we enter stage right, Khan is about to tell us about his career threatening hand affliction...
[AllAboutJazz.com]: Well, Steve, before we get too far into things, let's dive right into your latest release. You have been exploring the Latin sound for well over thirty years now. It would seem that you have peeled back yet another layer with Patchwork (Tone Center, 2019). This is, I believe, your fourth consecutive final album, right? (laughing)
[Steve Khan]: (laughing) It might well be the sixth. But actually, it is the fourth. Parting Shot (Tone Center, 2011), Subtext (Tone Center, 2014) Backlog (Tone Center, 2016), and now Patchwork are all really an extension of one piece of work. In December of 2012, I was diagnosed with Dupuytren's Contracture. I wasn't in any pain, but still I didn't know for sure that I would be able to finish these records. I saw a little bump on my left hand and ended up going to a couple of hand specialists. They both confirmed the same diagnosis. The second doctor was more of an expert about this particular affliction. I knew that physicians are not in the prediction business, but I asked his opinion on whether or not I would be able to do the record. I even offered to sign a waiver of responsibility. I just wanted his professional opinion, not a guarantee. The doctor told me that, based on what he saw, he thought that I would be able to do it. And somehow, I made it through from Subtext to the present.
[AAJ]: I'm not familiar with that affliction. What can you tell us about Dupuytren's Contracture?
[SK]: Basically, it will make it so that you can't open your hand anymore. Some people think it is trigger finger or something like that. It is not. I have information about it on my website (stevekhan.com) for anyone that wants to know more about it. It's hereditary. Not a lot is known about it. I could go the rest of my life with that little bump there and nothing ever happens. Or I could wake up tomorrow, and my fingers are all closed-up and I can't open them. it goes without saying that, for a guitarist, this would hardly be a good thing!
[AAJ]: Interesting and scary at the same time. Hopefully you get lucky.
[SK]: Honestly, I don't know. I have noticed over the past few months that the bump has gotten a bit larger. I'm not in any pain or discomfort of any kind. But there is no doubt in my mind that it is bigger than it was before. I just keep going forward. I'll worry about it when, or if it happens. But even now, the mental toll is there, I feel it. Anytime I feel anything physically in my left hand, I can't help but feel like, "Uh-oh, here we go. This is it." This has weighed heavily upon me while working on these four recent records. But back to the original question, I feel like we all just got better and better at doing this. Obviously, guys like Rubén Rodríguez, Bobby Allende, and Marc Quiñones don't need to get better. This is their music. They were born to do this. The rest of us grew along the road.
[AAJ]: Well, that makes a lot sense now that you say that. This is a quadrilogy of sorts that continues to grow and spread its wings. What can you tell us specifically about the latest addition, Patchwork? How do you choose the material?
[SK]: Well, that process has evolved. On the first record, Parting Shot I wrote seven of the ten compositions. As time went on, I wrote less and less and less. On Subtext, I only wrote two songs, and co-wrote "Cada Gota de Mar" with Mariana Ingold. But then, I didn't write anything on Backlog and just one song on Patchwork. I struggled to write that one tune, "Naan Issue." All these records, and really through my entire recorded history, you will hear the music that inspired me to get better and try to do this. It's music from the mid-fifties through the early sixties. Blue Note, Atlantic, Riverside, all of those records. The tunes I pick, from among these jazz standards, are ones that nobody, or very few others play. Very few of them have been played beyond the original. The main thing is that each of those songs have to have some personal resonance, a place in my heart. Playing them becomes as easy as talking, because I have a deep feeling for each one. Interpreting them with Latin rhythms makes no difference to me. It is still the same music. The sense of swing might be different, but the thrust of the music is not changed by a different rhythmic approach. Emotionally it feels the same to me.
[AAJ]: Well, I think you make that quite relatable to your core listener. I, for example, very much have a place for Bobby Hutcherson's "Bouquet." It's such a beautiful and truly unique song. I never thought anyone would or could do that. Yet, your reinvention is stunning. I understand now that your love and affinity for "Bouquet" truly resonates.
[SK]: Thanks Jim. Well, you know it's funny too that I had recorded it once before, many years ago. In 1975 Larry Coryell and I went out as an acoustic contemporary jazz guitar duo. I was in charge of picking all the music that we were going to play. One of the songs we played was "Bouquet." It's on our album Two for the Road (Arista, 1975). I was not happy with how that particular version came out. This now is my way of expressing my love for that piece and that Bobby Hutcherson album. On Backlog there are two songs from that album, Happenings (Blue Note, 1966). "Head Start" and "Rojo."
[AAJ]: That's nearly forty-five years of honing your craft between recordings of "Bouquet."
[SK]: Yes, sometimes you can love something at another point in your life, but it doesn't mean that you are ready to play it or express it properly. The interpretations of all the songs on those four records come from a better place within myself where I felt ready to do them. Twenty years ago, maybe not. This just felt like the right moment.
[AAJ]: You have broadened and expanded your Latin sound over a sea of high-end albums over the years, many more than the four we have referenced. Do you feel that Latin music has infinite levels of depth to uncover?
[SK]: Yes, it is infinite. I get deeper and deeper with it the further we go. If some fictitious offer was on the table to keep doing another record every eighteen months and to do whatever I wanted, I would keep exploring this area of our music. This rhythmical approach to the same music that I have always loved puts me in a place, essentially, all alone. I am the only Latin jazz guitarist with the full complement of percussion. There can be Latin jazz with just a conga or a drum set. I'm approaching it with the full complement of timbal, conga, bongó, percusión menor, including güiro, maracas, chekere and everything else. I feel very comfortable in this place, because I am pretty much there by myself.
[AAJ]: Flashing back to the beginning, I have to be honest with you, Steve, that only recently did I learn that your father was legendary songwriter Sammy Cahn. With the different spellings of the last names, I never made that connection. How did that spelling change evolve?
[SK]: That's kind of a funny story. My father grew up in the early 1900s on the lower east side of New York. Like many other Jewish people, he was trying to assimilate into the culture. I didn't know until I was well into my twenties that my father had been born Sammy Cohen. My father, the family, was very poor back then. As poor as poor can be. When he was fifteen years old, without having graduated high school, dad went off to play his violin with a band in the Catskills. Somehow from there he ended up going to Los Angeles looking to have a career as a songwriter, as a lyricist. He opted to change his name for his career, and was going to go with Kahn, However, there was already a successful lyricist at that time named Gus Kahn. So, dad went with Cahn. When I entered the world in 1947, I was Steve Cahn. That's how I grew up. Years later, when I first started having my name on records, the spelling was all over the place, Not by my design. Kahan, Kahn, Cohn, every combination you could think of, all due to errors on the production side. When I moved to New York, I still spelled it Cahn. I had never changed it. But it kept happening. So, I decided to pick one spelling that I thought was the most interesting, that being Khan. Later I realized, psychologically, I was trying to separate myself from my famous father so that people wouldn't think that I was Sammy's son. I didn't want people to ever think that Steve got that job because his father made it happen for him. I wanted to rise or fall based on my own talents, if I had any.
[AAJ]: Yeah, I figured part of it was wanting to make it on your own merit.
[SK]: Yes, absolutely that was part of it. The other part, since I frankly had a difficult relationship with my dad, it was a way of just saying, "Fuck you dad." So that's the story, and after all these years, people still spell my last name incorrectly (laughing).
[AAJ]: (laughing) Difficulties with your dad, but what was that like growing up with Frank Sinatra and other big stars being part of the ordinary?
[SK]: Here is my best perspective on that. When I first moved to New York in 1970, I had a very small apartment, and one night I was watching the Tonight Show. Rob Reiner, the actor famous from All in the Family and other things, was a guest that night. He was, of course, the son of Carl Reiner, a brilliant writer, comedian, and actor. So, in one sense, Rob was like me, the son of someone famous. Johnny Carson asked Rob a very similar question to the one that you just asked me, "What was it like growing up with a famous father." Rob said that he never thought it was much of a big deal, he just thought that everyone had Mel Brooks over for dinner.
[AAJ]: (laughing) That's great. That had to hit home.
[SK]: Yeah of course, I laughed too. But Jesus. That was it. I felt exactly the same way. I thought everybody had Frank Sinatra and all of these other amazing people from 'old Hollywood' over for Sunday barbecues. It was a while before I realized that not everybody had this going on. My sister Laurie and I didn't go to fancy private schools or any of that. The best thing my parents ever did for me was to put Laurie and I into public schools. It was fantastic. A public school education in the fifties was great. There were two other people that also came out of University High School in West Los Angeles that were in my sister's grade, two years younger than me, and they grew up the same way. One being Jeff Bridges, the son of the famous actor Lloyd Bridges, and Bonnie Raitt, daughter of Broadway singer John Raitt.
[AAJ]: They lived very much the same life.
[SK]: The same thing, The same high school. There is a bond between the three of us that is sort of unbreakable, because we understand something that is there that just comes with the territory.
[AAJ]: What else did you have to compare it to? Makes sense that it would become the norm for you, and as you say, for other children of a famous parent.
[SK]: One day I was home, and a friend came over. All I wanted to do was to shoot some baskets or toss a baseball around like most kids back then. My friend goes into another area of the house to use the bathroom. He comes back out and his mouth is gaping open. He says to me, "Oh my God, do you know who is in your living room?" I said no. He excitedly says, "Dean Martin." I responded, "Yeah, so what? Let's play catch." It took me a while to realize the significance of my friends seeing famous people in our living room that they had only seen at the movies or on television.
[AAJ]: Also, at home you started on the piano. Because it was there, because of your dad, or?
[SK]: My father wanted me to be everything that he never had the chance to be. Again, he grew up very poor. His dream for me was that I would become become a lawyer. Later on, he would say to me, "Steve, music comes and goes, but there will always be a need for the law!" Of course, to start with, he wanted me to graduate from high school and then, graduate from college. Fortunately, I ended up doing just that. In addition to that, he wanted me to be the musician that he never had the chance to become, even though he had enjoyed huge success as a lyricist. He shoved me in front of the piano when I was five years old. I played until I was twelve. I really hated it. I wasn't really learning anything. My whole goal was to get through the lesson without getting rapped on the hands with a ruler for not playing something correctly. What I learned to be was a great mimic. I would cajole my teacher into playing the passage one more time so that I could watch her play it. Then I could just play it by copying her, not from learning it. I wasn't really reading the music. I just didn't want to do it. At twelve, I finally told my dad that I didn't want to play the piano anymore, and that I wanted to play sports. He was crushed and very angry with me. But that was the end of the piano for me, at least for then.
[AAJ]: Yeah, you wanted to be out playing ball. As you alluded to earlier, we all did back then.
[SK]: I always thought that I was going to be a baseball player.
[AAJ]: You and me both! I guess a few million other kids too. After that, you somehow ended up playing drums in a surf rock band.
[SK]: The Beatles hit the scene in the early sixties. Suddenly, all my friends wanted to play guitars and be in a band. I wanted to be in the band with my friends. I saw what they had, and didn't have. Drums! They don't have drums. I said to myself, "That looks easy, I can do that." What an idiot I was to have thought that at the time, but, I asked my dad about getting me some drums. He was in the recording studios a lot in those years, and I thought that maybe he could throw together a drum set from spare parts from all his famous musician friends. He said to me, "I'll do that for you, but only if you take lessons." I rolled my eyes, thinking, here we go with lessons again. I had no choice, so I agreed to take lessons. And this is where the story gets interesting in retrospect of the big view of my musical life.
I was driven out to a little music lesson studio in the San Fernando Valley. There were a bunch of little rooms for guitar lessons, bass lessons, etc. I was all excited to walk into a room and start smashing and bashing around on a drum set. But when I entered that little room, the only thing in the room was a little woodblock with a circular piece of rubber in the middle of it, and a couple of chairs. The teacher walked in, and introduced himself and I asked him, "Where are the drums?" He said, "Oh, we're a long ways away from that." Rudiments, fundamentals, and stick control all had to come first. Again, I was rolling my eyes. I told the teacher, "But I want to play, I want to bash, I want to hit things." I never got it. That was the end of that. But somehow, I was good enough to keep time, and I was in a band with my friends. DK and The Cavities, with my dear friend Dan Keller, was that first band. This band was kind of goofy. We had three guitarists, no bass, drums, and a lead vocalist.
[AAJ]: You took what you had amongst your friends and you made a band out of it.
[SK]: Yeah, it was fun. I started going out to see other bands. Remember, this is Southern California and surf bands were very popular at the time. I went to see The Chantays, who had the hit song called "Pipeline." I was like a groupie following them around damn near everywhere. They were also playing other kinds of music, like the great Freddie King instrumentals. I became fascinated with that. The two guitarists in that band, Brian Carman and Bob Spickard in particular, turned me on to everything. Freddie King led to B.B. King, and that led to my favorite, Albert King. Then he played me my first Wes Montgomery record. I was maybe sixteen or seventeen. This opened the door to the guitarist I am now. It sounds like I am making this shit up, but a surfing guitarist turned me on to Wes Montgomery!
[AAJ]: ...and that changed your life.
[SK]: Yes, and it takes me to the follow-up on the woodblock story. Years later, after I had moved to New York City, I was in a studio with Steve Gadd. He arrived on the New York scene about the same time that I did, coming out of Rochester. We are all sitting around waiting for Steve's drums to arrive, with nothing to do except wait. There was just a snare drum sitting there. All of a sudden, Steve sat down and started playing that snare drum. I sat there mesmerized. I never saw someone sit there and make so much music out of just a snare drum. Suddenly, this giant light bulb went off in my head.
[AAJ]: Ah, back to the teacher.
[SK]: Exactly, Jim. Back to the teacher in the studio with that little woodblock. I finally realized what that teacher had been talking about. Here was the realization of all those rudiments and fundamentals that I didn't grasp at the time. I never looked at the study of music, the pursuit of excellence the same way after that. It was one of those moments when I just got it, and it all came flooding in.
[AAJ]: All about timing, just like "Bouquet," and so many other things.
[SK]: I always find it fascinating to look at the learning process. You can go back and realize that this teacher or that teacher was not really a jerk at all. It was none of that. It was that I, as the student, was not ready to receive what he was trying to give me.
[AAJ]: Again, it was timing, being in the right place at the right time, that led to you playing with the Chantays, yes?
[SK]: Yes, their drummer, Bob Welch, had left the band for some reason and they were stuck. I couldn't play any of the stuff that Bob Welch was doing. He was really a great drummer. Why they asked me to join, I will never know. The next thing you know, I'm out on tour with the band. I'm still a kid in high school. I got a taste of what it was like to be on the road. We were mostly driving long distances, playing ballrooms, and other venues like that. It was my first experience with travel, and that led to having my own money. The first thing that I bought was my first stereo system. You and I were talking the other day about having components. I bought a turntable, some kind of integrated amp, and a pair of custom-made speakers. It was a big deal to have my own stereo in my own room.
[AAJ]: Yeah, it sure was. Like we were saying the other day, putting cool components together is now a lost art. I quote Peter Erskine in saying, "If you are listening on those silly little earbuds, then you are really cheating yourself."
[SK]: A while back, I was on a train heading north to White Plains and I was sitting across from a young girl, an au pair from Brasil with earbuds. She was traveling with a friend who was getting off at the next stop, and she handed her one of the earbuds to share the listening experience. I asked her how she could listen to music like that (now reduced to only one bud), hearing only half of it. She replied, "Oh, it's not a problem, we do it all the time." I couldn't believe it. It was yet another rude awakening relative to how music gets listened to by average people.
[AAJ]: Man, I don't know whether to laugh or cry. But getting back to real listening and the excitement of having your own stereo in your room.
[SK]: It sure was, I started listening to so much music. It was an unbelievable time of discovery and inspiration.
[AAJ]: Including a lot of Montgomery, I'm sure, and then on to starting to play the guitar at age nineteen.
[SK]: Yes, as you know, the path is long when it comes to hearing new music. You are listening to something by one artist whom you like, and you decide to check out the drummer on that record, and other recordings he has done. Then you check out something by the bassist on that album, etc. Back in those days an LP was only two dollars. So, if I had twenty dollars, I could buy ten albums. How great was that?!?!?! I would ride my bike over to Westwood Village and buy ten records at a time. I bought Wes Montgomery's Movin' Wes (Verve, 1964) album. I had forgotten that one of the many albums that Bob Spickard had played for me was by this same Wes Montgomery. It was Boss Guitar (Riverside, 1963), which later ended up being my favorite Montgomery album of all time. But at the time, the only reason I had purchased Movin' Wes was that the cover showed him walking and playing a Gibson L-5. It somehow looked like the same guitar that B.B. King was playing on one of his Custom Records album covers. So, I figured that this guy must sound like B.B. King. I had no idea! When I turned up the volume, I was greeted by Wes playing a big brassy Johnny Pate arrangement of Duke Ellington's "Caravan," it was as if the music had been shot out of a cannon. More than that, I was listening to Grady Tate on drums, and I said to myself, "Oh my God that's what being a musician, a drummer is all about." It was not just the speed of the tempo of "Caravan," but when I heard Grady's press roll @ :37 of "Movin' Wes"(Pt. 2), I almost fell over. I just could not conceive of how one does THAT!!! And so, I went into the room where my drums were and sat down, and I came to the painful realization that I couldn't play. Who was going to hire me? If excellence is what I heard in Grady Tate, then I am not even in the same zip code. I put down the sticks, and I never played again. Over the next few weeks, I somehow came to the conclusion that I wanted to sound and be like Wes Montgomery.
[AAJ]: High aspirations for a guy that as yet hadn't started playing the guitar.
[SK]: Yes, well I just started immersing myself in this new and very mysterious music. I graduated high school in 1965, and I began attending UCLA. I started out as a psychology major. I really thought that I was going to solve all the problems of the world. I was going to help people. I was slowly picking up the guitar at that time. After not doing particularly well at the psychology survey courses, I changed my major to music. I saw all these classes that were announced as: beginning harmony, beginning theory, beginning everything.I figured that I was a beginner, so I signed-up for these classes. What I didn't realize as I walked into these classes as a sophomore was that I was in a classroom with students, the same age as me, except they had all been playing classical music since they were five years old. Whether it was the piano, the violin, the cello, the viola, the clarinet, the trumpet, or whatever instrument it might have been. At the time, UCLA didn't recognize the guitar as an instrument. So, I couldn't get any instruction as part of the program. I started to freak out because all these students already knew everything, the literature, and I didn't know anything. I had to find a private teacher and I was incredibly fortunate to study with a wonderful woman, and she saved my life. I studied piano and harmony & theory with her. Had I not done that, I would never have made it. In the process of all that I started meeting musicians. I was invited to these jam sessions that I look back on now, and I wonder why or how I ever got invited when I could hardly play. For some reason, these players liked me, and it led to meeting some really great musicians that were way above my level. Two of the musicians I met were a pianist named Clarence McDonald and drummer Michael Carvin. They had just gotten back from Vietnam. Their life perspective was very much on a life and death level that I had never been close to. Not to mention all kinds of racism and the horrible shit that sadly is still going on in this country today. But Michael and Clarence became very good friends of mine. Clarence had become the musical director for the Friends of Distinction. They were just starting up as group, and later became famous for the hit record "Grazing in The Grass." Next thing I knew, I was in their band, and I was traveling and playing with them - and with Clarence and Michael too.
[AAJ]: Right, yeah. That was a huge hit. I can dig it.
[SK]: They used studio musicians on the record, and I learned the painful lesson that there are touring musicians and then there are those who actually play on the recordings. One day, I was with Clarence preparing to rehearse, and he received a phone call from pianist/arranger Phil Moore Jr. Phil was about to be making a record for Atlantic Records. He could hear me noodling around on his end of the phone, and asked Clarence who it was that was noodling on the guitar. Clarence tells him that, "It's this kid named Steve." And of all the crazy things, Phil said to him, "Well tell him to come to our rehearsal tomorrow." Next thing you know, I am walking into this rehearsal and who should I see but Stix Hooper on drums and Wilton Felder on bass.
[AAJ]: Wow, the Jazz Crusaders. That had to be mind boggling.
[SK]: You got to remember, Jim, I had just started playing. Now I am in the same room with them. I idolized the Jazz Crusaders. I almost fell over from a heart attack. I couldn't believe it. I tried to be cool about, but are you kidding me? Anyway, I got through the album. I was really lucky. I was very inexperienced. I'm still not sure what they heard in me. That album became, Right On(Atlantic, 1969).
I have to now add to the story by sharing that the 'other drummer' on this album happened to be a guy named André Fischer. I hadn't heard of him before, but what struck me immediately at the rehearsal was that André possessed a quality that i hadn't really heard or felt in a drummer - where somehow R&B meets Jazz. Yes, I was a big fan of both Earl Palmer and Paul Humphrey, but André had, what I would describe as, a BIG BEAT with a BIG SOUND - you could really feel it. Somehow, even then, I sensed that "this guy has something special, unique." And then, one day years later in 1974, 5 years to be precise, I'm watching "SOUL TRAIN" and a band named Rufus is playing "Tell Me Something Good" - and I believe that Don Cornelius introduced the band, and WHO should he introduce on drums - none other than that same André Fischer! I was really filled with joy for André because, after playing with him, I just had this feeling that he could do something special. And, lo and behold, he did!!! When we somehow reconnected along the way, I told him how very happy that I was for him - and we've stayed friends ever since!
[AAJ]: That timing thing again. But also, as you said, they liked you. That has something to do with it. I've had many musicians tell me how important it is to get along and have a good chemistry together.
[SK]: Maybe so. But after that, Wilton Felder asked me to play on what was to be his first album as a leader. That album became, Bullitt. I couldn't believe that these things were happening for me. Especially because I knew that I was not ready - I was sitting next to musicians whose names I had been reading on LPs for years. I was simply nervous, and very scared.
[AAJ]: Some other opportunities came long, but ultimately you went to New York to chase the dream.
[SK]: I first went there in 1968 to visit my dad. He had an old and dear friend named Stanley Krell who was a drummer and percussionist in the classical sense of the word. He was playing in several Broadway shows. So, I went with Stanley one day when he was playing in the pit of Cabaret. This was the very same Cabaret that Liza Minnelli was in. My dad had to talk me into going, saying that I should go and see what real musicians do. I begrudgingly went, and Uncle Stanley told me that I had to be very quiet as they don't permit very many people to sit down here. He was playing percussion at a matinee, which meant timpani, the occasional snare drum roll, and some other stuff. It was very cramped down there, you had to squeeze in between the music stands. My first impression of what this life was like was that I looked at the music stands, and I saw all these Swedish porn magazines.
[AAJ]: (laughing) That I wasn't expecting.
[SK]: Me neither (laughing), I don't think I had ever seen porn magazines before. I had seen my father's Playboys, but that's not quite the same thing. So, I wondered what the hell had I walked into? But then, the musicians start to roll in as the show was about to start. I looked over to my right, and I saw none other than the great Art Farmer subbing on third trumpet.
[AAJ]: Wow, likely a bigger surprise than the porn.
[SK]: Oh my God, I almost blurted out, "Stanley, do you see who that is?" During the intermission, Stanley told me, "Yeah, Art Farmer, he subs here once in a while." He said it like it was no big deal. "But, but, that's the Art Farmer who makes those incredible quartet records with Jim Hall," I responded, still in disbelief. He was one of my idols. How could this be? It was just completely incongruous to me at the time. One of the greatest jazz musicians has this secret life playing in the pit of a Broadway show. After that trip, I returned to UCLA and one day, not long thereafter, my father called to tell me that one of Stanley's former students, a vibes player, was coming to Los Angeles. Uncle Stan and Dad thought that he and I should meet, that we would have many things in common. He was going to be playing with folk singer Tim Buckley at the Troubadour. I said sure, and then there came the moment that was to change my life. I met vibraphonist David Friedman, one of the greatest musicians I had ever met in my life. With Tim Buckley, David and bassist John Miller were playing this really progressive brand of folk music. They were introducing elements of jazz into what was basically the folk music of that time. It was an incredible moment in our culture. The late sixties had a lot of experimentation, and the boundaries between genres were melting. Everything was fusing with this and that. The Beatles, of course, paved the way for all of that. I got together with David and John and we were jamming during the off days while they were making a record with Tim at Elektra Studios. It was to be called Happy Sad (Elektra, 1969). The next thing I know, David is inviting me back to New York to play in his newly formed quartet. They had a summer long gig at the famous Music Inn, and would be renting a house in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. It was great. When David started taking me around New York, I realized that, if I am ever going to see if I am good enough to do this, then I would have to move here. I'm not the most adventurous person in the world, so it wasn't an easy thing for me to do. Plus, I still needed another quarter to graduate from UCLA. Moving here was one of the most courageous things I had ever done in my life, because it was so completely out of character for me. David was already doing very well in the music business, and he took me along to do see some jingles that he was contracted to do. The night before, I remember it like it was yesterday, we had gone to see the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra at the Village Vanguard.
[AAJ]: That had to be incredible.
[SK]: It was an incredible night, because I was expecting to see Sir Roland Hanna on piano and Richard Davis on bass. Instead I see Chick Corea and Miroslav Vitous playing with the Thad Lewis/Mel Jones Orchestra. I wanted to die. I couldn't believe this was happening. Chick had already recorded Now He Sings/Now He Sobs (Solid State, 1968) at that point. I was thinking to myself that this was something that I would never see happen in L.A. The next day David and I were off to his jingle session, and who should I see on flügelhorn? None other than Thad Jones. This can't be, how can this be? But there he was in the first room that we walked into. It just didn't compute that these amazing jazz musicians would be playing some music for toothpaste the next day.
[AAJ]: At the time, I'm sure that was a mind-boggling reality check.
[SK]: Out of another room someone, a producer, comes out in a dead panic because their guitarist, Jimmy Raney didn't show up. He says, "Oh my God, what are we going to do now?" A very talented guitarist by the name of Billy Mure happened to be standing there. And so, Billy went in and recorded the jingle, and fifteen minutes later it was done. I just couldn't believe what an incredible place this was, and everything that was going on within those walls. Then, I was standing in the lobby of these four studios, and I hear some interesting music coming out of another room. I asked David, who was in there, and he said, "Oh, that's Chico Hamilton, he's producing a jingle."
[AAJ]: Oh man, your head must have been spinning.
[SK]: Jim, I was just dumbstruck by all of this, because I thought that the "Jazz life" was a completely pure one, but I was learning that jazz musicians have to eat too, and support their families. In that one moment, I knew that I had to be there. I had to be in New York. I owe all of that to David Friedman and John Miller. They opened the door to this life, and somehow gave me the courage to move here.
[AAJ]: After you moved, how did your career develop? I know you got in with the Brecker Brothers in the early seventies.
[SK]: When I arrived in January of 1970, Randy Brecker had already been here for awhile. He came directly from the University of Indiana where he had been studying with David Baker. I don't recall exactly how I met Randy and Michael, but we were all just getting started. I had put a band together and my music wasn't really very good, but somehow, I had the nerve to ask Randy and Michael if they would join the band. Fortunately, they did, and of course they had the ability to take some less than ordinary music and make it actually sound like something. There were many of us that all arrived around the same time from different parts of the USA and Europe. A few left because maybe they felt that they weren't quite good enough, or that life in New York was just too damn hard with brutal winters and the heat and humidity of New York summers - but the rest of us helped each other to learn and survive, and we became friends - friendships that have lasted for decades.
[AAJ]: That doesn't surprise me that you had a built-in support system like that. Most musicians, perhaps in particular jazz musicians, have a respectful lean towards being helpful to their brethren as opposed to being competitive. Who else were among those arrivals in the early fusion years?
[SK]: I met John Abercrombie at that time. Ralph Towner was already here and a trailblazer. I already knew Larry Coryell from before. Larry and John McLaughlin were first level fusion guys. The rest of us were trying to find our way. At that time, the great Dave Liebman started this organization to help us young guys who had a lot of ideas, but nobody wanted to hear us. That collective was called Free Life Communication. At the time, I believe that core members were Richie Beirach, Cameron Brown, Michael Moore, Carl Schroeder, Gary Campbell, Frank Tusa, Bob Moses, Dave Holland, Clint Houston, Lenny White, Randy & Michael Brecker, Jimmy Madison, Armen Halburian, Greg Kogan and Marc Cohen (now Marc Copland). It was a place for musicians of our ilk to talk, to have jam sessions, to put on concerts, to exchange ideas, both musically and intellectually. A typical meeting could start out with someone, often Dave, saying that he had read an interesting book that week. Then we would talk about the book. All of this fostered some amazing conversations and incredible jam sessions. This was what we called the loft scene back then. One obviously couldn't be jamming with drums in an apartment. So, guys started renting these empty spaces that were called lofts. They would have someone make a bathroom and a kitchen. Other than that, it was just raw space, and you could play all night. In the midst of all that time together, we became much better musicians. Then too, there was the deepening of our friendships. That group of people expanded to include Don Grolnick, Will Lee, and countless others - players who have gone on to become household names in jazz.
Around this time, I started one of my first bands, which was names "Future Shock" after the Alvin Toffler book. The band included Randy & Michael Brecker, Don Grolnick, John Miller and Bruce Ditmas on drums. In 1972, we recorded a demo in hopes of landing a record deal. That, of course, never happened. But not too long ago, I did have that demo transferred to a digital format, and posted the head for "The Hobgoblin Stomp" which featured a fantastic Michael Brecker tenor sax solo. Within this page, if you are really paying attention, there is a link to the audio of a very rare Michael Brecker solo on soprano sax over an 11/4 ostinato that, decades later, would become "El Faquir" on the "BORROWED TIME"(2007) album.
[AAJ]: You came to New York to pursue a career as a jazz guitarist. Fusion was in bloom about the same time you arrived. Talk about the impact that made on your personal direction.
[SK]: I came here thinking there was going to be a Jimmy Smith style organ trio on every street corner, and that I would get into one and learn how to play. But when I got here nobody wanted to hear that. Everything was fusion. I was disappointed. I didn't know how the hell I was going to learn to play if they are playing this music that, although I felt comfortable playing it, it was not what I came to New York to do. But everything was going in that direction, and I had to go with it. I had to change guitars and do things that I thought I would never have to do. Yet, fusion became comfortable for me, because it had the same weight to it as playing jazz. Going back and forth between R&B, jazz, and rock suited me just fine. It was a very natural blending of everything that we had been listening to since our teenage years. So moving between genres and combining them was not difficult at all. That's how many of us felt, and we just sort of fell into it together.
[AAJ]: Playing with the Brecker Brothers was no doubt very instrumental (no pun intended) on your career.
[SK]: I thought that what we were doing in the Brecker Brothers Band was some of the best music one could possibly be playing at that time. I had never heard writing, which was mostly Randy's, like this. The three-horn sound, with the brothers, and David Sanborn, had this incredible blend. There was nothing like it. We were the only horn band playing fusion in that first wave of progressive fusion bands. The other major fusion bands at the time were Weather Report, the Mahavishnu Orchestra, and Chick Corea's Return to Forever. I believed in what we were doing with all my heart and soul. As time went on, Clive Davis was sniffing money, and it led to the perversion of the original goal of the band, which was to be an instrumental group. There was somewhat of a hit song on the Brecker Brothers' first album. I did not play on that record, Bob Mann did it. The song was called "Sneakin' Up Behind You," and it more or less accidentally became an R&B hit. Clive decided that he wanted to take the band more in that direction. So there was the internal conflict between being a mediocre R&B band with a vocalist, or continuing to be what we were, instrumentalists, in a great fusion band. Many of us were very disappointed, and eventually I decided to leave the band. I didn't see how being a part of that was going to be any good for me. Sanborn left around the same time and recorded his first solo album, Taking Off (Warner Brothers, 1975). We all played on that record as well. Fortunately, we all stayed friends. In fact, at that time I had the opportunity to do my first recordings as a leader for Columbia Records, and between 1977 and 1979, I recorded three albums, Tightrope (1977), The Blue Man (1978) and Arrows (1979). I had decided that I would try to continue what we were doing with the Brecker Brothers, and just make it a little more guitar centric. I wanted to keep the band together. Mike, Randy, David, Grolnick, Will Lee, Steve Gadd and Ralph MacDonald were all involved with those records. I was fighting to hang onto that sound, and that musical style which the Brecker Brothers eventually went back to, at least in part.
[AAJ]: Then there was a major shift in sound and direction. What inspired that change?
[SK]: In 1980, Columbia Records saw that fusion was dying. In January 1980, they dropped just about everyone from the label. They had signed so many of us and now decided to let us all go. They decided to pare down the roster, and they started putting out all these Best Of records for each of us. We used to jokingly call this series the brown paper bag albums, because the covers were all the same and they looked like a brown paper bag with type on it. I thought it was pretty funny. Here I had only made three records in my life. I certainly hadn't earned the right to have a 'best of' record. I was devastated when I was dropped from the label. I really thought that I was going to be with Columbia for the rest of my life. I was very depressed about the whole thing.
[AAJ]: Yeah, that had to be a kick in the teeth. Insulting and now what do I do?
[SK]: Yes, very much so. I was playing several nights with Mike Mainieri, Warren Bernhardt, Marcus Miller, and Omar Hakim over at Seventh Avenue South. We were playing all of Mainieri's music. That was a great band. A very young Marcus and Omar - two supreme talents - their future work bears that out, as they became giants. I wasn't happy with the way I was playing or sounding at the time. Warren and I were next door neighbors in the same apartment building. We would stay up all night talking about that night's gig until the sun came up. Warren had already been around a long time and had experienced many things. Those conversations really helped me to change and give new direction to my life. I put the Telecaster away, took out my steel-string acoustic and started working on some music. Warren used to hear me through the wall and the doorway when he was out in the hall. He would come over and ask me what I was doing, which was that I going back to the music I loved and that inspired me to play in the first place. He once said to me, "Man, I have never heard anyone play Thelonious Monk on the guitar like that. You really should record that stuff." So, I kept working at it, and then an opportunity came along with the encouragement of engineer Doug Epstein and that turned into the album Evidence (Arista/NOVUS, 1980). This is where I recorded a nine-song, eighteen-minute Monk medley, that became all of side B. The other side consisted of ballads from the time period that we have been talking about, the mid-'60s. I did Wayne Shorter's "Infant Eyes," Lee Morgan's "Melancholee," Joe Zawinul's "In A Silent Way," a tune of Randy's called "Threesome," and Horace Silver's "Peace." It was the first record that I paid for out of my own pocket, because I had no record deal. Of all the other records I have paid for since, Evidence is still the only one for which I made my money back. It cost me six thousand dollars. Thankfully, Steve Backer and Arista Records picked it up, and I got my investment back.
[AAJ]: Then you consequently reinvented yourself with the beginning of the Latin sound you have personified for some thirty-five years now. What was the catalyst for that?
[SK]: Well, I was again playing with Mainieri. This time recording on his album Wanderlust (Warner Brothers, 1981). Percussionist Manolo Badrena, of Weather Report fame, was playing on the album as well. As I was playing with him, I realized that I had never been around someone with that kind of magical energy. His spontaneity and crazy way of making music just seemed so right to me. I made a note to myself that I wanted to be around somebody like him more often. After that I got out my Gibson 335. I had brought this guitar with me when I came out from L.A., but I hadn't been using it. I took it out of the closet in order to go back to the basics, do something simpler, and create a clean jazz guitar sound with just a touch of reverb. I don't know what gave me the courage to take the next step, but I called Anthony Jackson, Steve Jordan, and Badrena, to see if they would be interested in pursuing an idea thta I had. I couldn't really explain it to them, but I hoped that we could just sit down and jam and flesh out this concept. They all said yes.
[AAJ]: And Eyewitness was born.
[SK]: Yes, we started out at Steve Jordan's loft. I began making cassettes of what we were playing. I knew right away that I had never been part of something quite like this. The other guys sensed that too. I decided that I wanted to record us before we really knew what we were doing.
[AAJ]: As in the raw spontaneity that would ultimately be altered over time in rehearsing together.
[SK]: Yes, exactly. I didn't want it to be too polished, too slick. I knew a promoter named George Braun and he was able to connect us with a small and new Japanese label that wanted to do a recording with us. In one weekend, we recorded what turned out to be Eyewitness (Antilles, 1981). You notice that none of the songs have endings. We had accomplished, in a sense, what I had hoped. We captured the music before we really knew what we were doing. I didn't suggest the Latin element going into this. It just seemed to be there. Steve Jordan just heard something and went in that direction on several of the tunes. Maybe having Manolo there had something to do with bringing some of that out of all of us?
[AAJ]: Very interesting to know that the conception wasn't Latin themed and instead evolved that way naturally. Fortunately, you had the foresight to record early. That fresh sound may otherwise have been polished away and diminished. We haven't talked about any previous work that was Latin based. What prior experience with it did you have?
[SK]: In about 1974, I was playing with saxophonist Steve Marcus. He had been an pivotal part of Larry Coryell's band, the Eleventh House. Steve Marcus wanted to reform his own Count's Rock Band and so we began by playing my book of not-so-great music, I mentioned this earlier, and that Randy and Mike had salvaged these tunes by making them almost listenable. At that time, Steve Gadd had a cowbell mounted on the bass drum of his drum set. On one song he started jamming on it, and just like that we sounded like we were playing some kind of Latin music. So, when I did the three albums for Columbia, I always made sure that I had at least one song that would feature Gadd's cowbell. In other words, the Latin fusion element always had a presence. It has always been there. I just wasn't aware of what it was going to come to mean to my musical life, and my life over all. I wasn't labeling the music as one thing or another.
[AAJ]: Eyewitness garnered a faithful niche audience and you were able to do a few more records together.
[SK]: Yes, Modern Times (Passport Jazz, 1982) and Casa Loco (Antilles, 1984) were the follow-ups. Down the road, I put together a couple of more in this particular group music concept. In 1988, we got back together, Anthony, Manolo and me, this time with Dave Weckl on drums to record Public Access (GRP, 1989). Not too long after that, we were fortunate enough to have Dennis Chambers join us for both Headline (Bluemoon, 1992) and not long after that, Crossings (Verve, 1994). It's interesting how much the Eyewitness records resonated with drummers and bassists. They continue to do so to this day. It's not unusual to hear comments about those records all these years later. For each of us, it is very, very gratifying.
[AAJ]: What precipitated the change to Weckl and Chambers in place of Jordan?
[SK]: That was simply a case of Steve Jordan just being too busy with other projects. His musical and production interests had expanded greatly. I was very fortunate to be able to make those records with Dave and Dennis.
[AAJ]: You did some other fine trio work with Ron Carter and Al Foster, as well as with John Patitucci and Jack DeJohnette.
[SK]: After Public Access I decided to do what I came here to do. I pared down to a trio with acoustic bass and drums. My goal was to have five different drummers and five different bass players and mix and match as their availability dictated. I toured with a lot of different combinations. My favorites were Jay Anderson on bass and either Ben Perowsky or Joel Rosenblatt on drums. I was hoping to make a record with either one of those trios, or both of them. I recorded a very fast demo with Jay and Joel and sent it to my A&R guy, Hiroshi Itsuno in Japan. He said that he loved it. He thought it was great and wanted to do it, an acoustic trio project with me. But he told me that I had to play with bigger name players, or we could not do it. I tried to think of a combination that my guitar peers hadn't already used for a recording. So, I reached out to Ron and Al, both of whom I knew, and they did the record. That was Let's Call This (Mesa/Bluemoon, 1991). The ironic thing is that after we did that record, they wanted to do another one with Ron and Al, but they wanted me to mix it up by having Anthony, Dennis and Manolo back in the fold as well. That was easy enough to do, and we found our chemistry again very quickly. That album became Headline (Mesa/Bluemoon, 1992). Then, it was suggested that I record again, with Anthony, Dennis and Manolo but with the addition of a guest artist. That became Michael Brecker for Crossings (Verve Forecast, 1994). That was essentially an Eyewitness record with Michael on three tunes. All of that, and all that we have talked about up to and including Patchwork are a collection, or perhaps a catalog of songs that I have loved all of my life. It's the music that I grew up with, from that same period of time - the late '50s through the mid-'60s
[AAJ]: All beautifully reimagined with Latin harmonics and rhythms. You mentioned being told that you had to have bigger names in order to record an album.
[SK]: Yes, this happens all the time where business meets the more pure aesthetics of music. You can hear an artist that you really like, and maybe the band he has does three of four records - and you really like the direction they are going in. Then, they do a record that has some sort of theme to it, and you wonder what the hell is this? Well, you can always smell a rat. Someone on the business end has said, "Let's do something different this time." You would have to be an incredibly powerful artist to say, "Go screw yourself, I'm going to record what I want to record and with the players I like." Ninety-nine percent of us can't do that. You just have to accommodate the suggested changes. You have no choice, other than walking away from your agreement with that label. This kind of situation happens all the time, much more than fans realize.
[AAJ]: Well, it seems to me that it is most unfortunate for guys like Joel Rosenblatt, Ben Perowsky and Jay Anderson. That they don't get to do a recording that they were rightfully part of.
[SK]: Yes, Jim. That hits the nail on the head. That was a horrible moment for me.
[AAJ]: To have to tell them that.
[SK]: Yes. It doesn't matter if you tell them that you know what it feels like. That it has happened to me about ten or fifteen times. My experiences have nothing to do with what they are feeling. Here you have guys who spent all of this time doing the heavy lifting of rehearsing, and grueling travel on the road, and somebody tells me that I have to use brand names like Coke or Pepsi instead of Shasta. It just hurts, that's the only way to put it! Let me make this very clear, I loved playing trio with Jay Anderson and either Joel Rosenblatt or Ben Perowsky!
[AAJ]: Guys have to wonder just how they are ever going to get the name recognition if they can't get on the album. It would seem like a vicious circle.
[SK]: It's a terrible and very harsh reality that everyone eventually experiences. Again, it hurts. No doubt about it, it's painful.
[AAJ]: I would think, too, that in most cases that the record doesn't turn out better because of the change.
[SK]: People who have heard the original James Farber engineered demo were just saying, "Oh my God, this is amazing." You end-up sacrificing the familiarity, the group chemistry for big names. You can't put a price on that group feeling when you have been spending months playing this music together. You have learned to breath and move together as one. Then suddenly, you have new guys. They can be fantastic players, who are used to adapting quickly, but it's not the same chemistry. That familiarity and trust has been completely sacrificed.
[AAJ]: Going in a different direction, one thing I have learned from talking with other musicians is the importance of knowing the lyrics in order to truly develop a proper ballad of a given song. Did growing up surrounded by so many of your dad's lyrics prove beneficial to you instrumentally?
[SK]: Oh, I would say that is one of the most beneficial things of all. It's great that you have had other musicians talk about this, because most of the younger players don't know the lyrics to any of these old songs - even though they know the melodies and chord changes inside out.
[AAJ]: Well, I should qualify that it is older guys, like Peter Erskine and Mike Stern, that have made that reference.
[SK]: Yes, now that I would believe, because the older guys, the ones who came well before me, the reason that they all started to play these standards was that they adored Nat "King" Cole. They learned the lyrics from listening to Nat Cole singing all these great songs. It's the same with Sinatra and the other great singers. The funny thing for me is that as I was trying to divorce myself from my father's music and lyrics. The American Songbook, as they now call it, is all the great standards with the lyrics. Later in life, I started to realize, perhaps by osmosis, that I actually knew all of these songs. I know where they begin, I know how they end, and everything in between. It's the greatest thing. I'll do my poor Miles Davis impression now, as I remember Miles always saying, "If you're gonna play a ballad, you got to know the lyrics." The great players from that era knew the lyrics. You can tell just by listening to their interpretations. Whereas the younger generation may love the standards, but the first time they heard it was perhaps hearing Bill Evans playing it. They are hearing all these wonderful interpretations that Bill did, but they don't know the original vocal versions with the words.
[AAJ]: They don't know what Bill was interpreting in the first place. That's a big difference.
[SK]: Yes, it really is. And yes, in the long run, it has been very beneficial to have been surrounded by my father's music in my youth.
[AAJ]: One last question, just for fun, what can you tell us about Willie Jenkins?
[SK]: (laughing out loud) Wow! The story goes back to when I was in college. Earlier I referenced Phil Moore Jr., the keyboard player that I did the record with a couple of the Jazz Crusaders present. He had a gig in L.A. at an all-black country club. I was the only white guy in the whole place. We did the gig, and people seemed to be enjoying what we were playing. I don't think anyone was paying much attention to me, but I stuck out like a sore thumb as a long-haired hippie at that time. A DJ was the host of the evening, and he comes on stage to thank all the people for coming, and to thank the band. And then it was time to introduce the band. As he starts to introduce the band, I could see the panic in his eyes when he first looked at me. I knew that he didn't know my name. He introduced everybody else first, and finally he turned to me. He looked at me, and then he looked at the audience and said, "and on guitar, Willie Jenkins."
[AAJ]: (laughing) That's hysterical. I didn't know that whole story.
[SK]: I almost fell over dying from laughter.
[AAJ]: I'm guessing for the rest of the night you were Willie. Hey Willie, don't forget your gear. (laughing)
[SK]: (laughing) For a couple of weeks afterwards, everyone was calling me Willie.
[AAJ]: On that humorous note, Steve, I should probably let you go. It has been a real pleasure talking with you.
[SK]: Yes sir, it was a lot of fun, Jim.
[AAJ]: Thank you for taking the time to talk today. Hopefully, we can talk and have a few more laughs again.
[SK]: Anytime. Thank you for your interest in my recordings. Take care Jim.
[Photos: Steve Khan @ Sear Sound Studios 2019 by Richard Laird
Sammy and Steve in June, 1988 @ his 75th birthday fête
The Chantays ca. 1964-65
Steve w/ Gibson ES-175 in his college apartment (furnished) ca. 1967
Steve w/ Gibson Super 400 ca. 1971 by Kim Weiskopf
David Sanborn-Michael & Randy Brecker-Steve @ Village Gate ca. 1975 by Erika Price
Eyewitness outside the Pit Inn ca. 1983 by Tatsuhiko Tanaka
Steve-Al Foster-Ron Carter @ Skyline Studios 1991 by David Tan
Steve @ Sear Sound 2019 by Richard Laird]