You started playing guitar relatively late. Who were your biggest influences, and how long did it take to find your own voice?|
[SK] Yes, I started to play the guitar at 19 yrs. old, after having been a pretty awful "Rock" drummer. When I began to play, my guitar influences were pretty diverse, on the Jazz side, they included: Wes Montgomery; Kenny Burrell; Grant Green; and Jim Hall. But, I also was crazy about the playing of Albert King; Steve Cropper; Jimmy Nolen; and Curtis Mayfield amongst others.
I think, like most players, I "found my voice" quite by accident. I don't believe that this is something you can aim for. Usually, a young player has his heroes, his influences, and is, at best, hoping to be like them in some sense. Over time, one loses that as a 'goal' and begins to seek a form of individuality, but this can get lost or blurred, because one always hears the presence of their influences in their own playing. That never goes away, because it's internal. It becomes a form of self-torture.
In my case, I believe that I stumbled upon 'my voice' in 1981, when I recorded "EYEWITNESS" with Anthony Jackson; Steve Jordan; and Manolo Badrena. Since then, everything has been a process of refining whatever others might hear as 'my voice.' What is so ironic is that I recall that one reviewer, while speaking of "EYEWITNESS", called me, "a space-age Wes Montgomery." That comment was very meaningful to me, because, without playing an octave, an L-5, or anything Montgomery-esque, someone heard the presence of Wes in my playing. The truth is that it is always there, even if my playing has moved on, beyond that.
 You have a beautiful guitar tone. How much of that comes from the guitar, and how much of it comes from you?
[SK] Firstly, thank you for the compliment! In the end, the truth is that EVERYTHING is born of touch!!! One's "touch" on the instrument is measured by very small, tiny increments, and they are almost unnoticeable. Though it seemed amusing at the time, I recall being at an Eyewitness rehearsal, and Steve Jordan had a copy of a Jaco Pastorius interview in BASS PLAYER Magazine, and in one of the quotes, which was blown-up, Jaco said: "The sound is in my hands!" Well, when you consider that at that point in his life Jaco, when speaking, sounded more like Sammy Davis, Jr. than he could have imagined, what he said was actually profound, and all too true. One's sound is not, in total, in the instrument he might choose to play, the strings, the amp, the speakers, the effects.....it is, in fact, in his hands.....in the way one touches their instrument. It sounds so simple, and yet it can be the quest of a lifetime.
That said, when one is recording, I have a particular sound in mind for the music, as a whole. The guitar is just a part of that. So, along with the engineer, be it a Malcolm Pollack or a James Farber, we try to create a general ambiance which reflects a mood. And my sound becomes a part of that.
 "THE GREEN FIELD" is your first release as a leader in nearly a decade. Were the songs you wrote composed over that long period of time or recently? Were they written specifically for a trio?
[SK] The original songs were only completed recently. For example, the 'germ' of "El Viñón" I had laying around since just after "CASA LOCO" was recorded in '83. The germ of [A] of "The Green Field" has been laying around for about 10 years, and I just couldn't complete it. The other two pieces are very recent. Since Eyewitness and 1981, I have only played in keyboardless contexts, so in that regard, everything is designed for a guitar trio plus percussion.
 The first track, "El Viñón," is dedicated to the memory of the great drummer Elvin Jones. What were you trying to say musically in this song?
[SK] As I just related, the germ of this tune had been around for nearly 20 years, and every time I began to play it, I could hear Elvin and his rivet cymbal clanging away, all with his unmistakable pulse.....those rolling, huge loops of rhythm. The title was actually the last thing to be arrived at. It is derived from the way my dear friend, the late, great "Chino" Pozo used to pronounce Elvin's name. Musically speaking, I was only hoping that between John, Jack, Manolo and myself, we could create a feeling that might remind others of what Elvin might have sounded like....without specifically imitating him. When the piece begins, I want it to reflect mood and attitude! Those two qualities are desired in anything that I write or choose to interpret!
 You also give a nod to two other percussionists, Tito Puente and Willie Bobo on "Cosecha lo que has sembrado." And Manolo Badrena, Ralph Irizarry, and Roberto Quintero add their talents to the recording. What do you see as the relation between percussion/Latin percussion and the way you play or write for jazz guitar?
[SK] That particular piece was created specifically to feature Ralph, Roberto and Jack DeJohnette. It was modeled after the tune "Tito on Timbales" which appeared on Tito Puente's landmark LP, "PUENTE IN PERCUSSION" which dates back to 1957. On that recording, Tito performs with Willie Bobo, Mongo Santamaria, "Patato" Valdés, and bassist, Bobby Rodríquez. But, Willie Bobo has been a huge influence on me, especially because of what he brought to Herbie Hancock's great recording, "INVENTIONS AND DIMENSIONS." That recording really changed my life and opened-up new zones of the possible to me.
Percussion, in the hands and imagination of Manolo Badrena, or Airto Moreira, or Nana Vasconcelos, is a most magical and spontaneous thing. But, with artists such as this, the most important thing is that one must create the context which will enable them to feel free enough to express themselves in a particular way. Without the 'context' there would be nothing. To blend in true Latin percussion with the Jazz sensibilities of a Jack DeJohnette is a much more difficult task, but it can be done. It does require a bit more care and thought, because there are rhythmical rules, the clave, which must be adhered to. I am especially fond of the juxtapositioning of, in this case, Jack's swing pulse against Ralph Irizarry's cascara as exemplified on a tune like Herbie Hancock's "Riot." I did this same device when we recorded Wayne Shorter's "Paraphernalia" on "GOT MY MENTAL" with Marc Quiñones playing timbales on that track.
 How would you describe the interaction between you, Jack and John? Can each of you anticipate what the other two in the trio will play? Is the arrangement process collaborative?
[SK] For me, I adore making music with John and Jack. They are brilliant players, and, more than anything else, they come to play, and to play hard. These are two people that you will never see skating through a performance, never!!! But, with great drummers, one always has to be mindful that you should never push them beyond one take, two at the most. It is, after all, the most physically demanding of all the instruments. To me, if one just approaches music as if it is a conversation, and then, just listens to what is going on around them, it makes everything considerably easier. Again, to me, it is about creating a context in which the other players feel comfortable being themselves. There are no constraints on the creativity, and no one watches the clock! Part of the beauty of music like this is that you can't truly 'anticipate' what anyone is going to do. Yes, all players have a certain vocabulary which they might call upon, and the other players become familiar with that form of musical speech, but that same familiarity can become the enemy if overused.
As a matter of respect, I try to write out as much as is necessary, knowing that John and Jack are only going to make it better. At times, they are both free to ignore what I've written. At the rehearsal, after a run-through or two, there are always discussions, and the 'arrangement' can mutate. So, one must always have a flexible vision, and be prepared to adjust or change.
 Five of the nine songs here are covers. Do you approach an Ornette Coleman tune differently than a Wayne Shorter, or Thelonious Monk piece?
[SK] I recall that a wise musician once said: "If you can take a standard and make it sound like a free piece, and, if you can take a free piece of music and make it sound as if it were something completely familiar......then, you've got something!!!" I absolutely believe in this, but I don't sit around and consciously try to force that to happen. It is more in the manner in which one approaches making music that brings this aesthetic into the realm of the possible. More than anything, as a matter of respect, I try to bring something very personal to any piece that I choose to interpret. The Ornette tune was given a different harmonic treatment for some of the melodic material. Wayne Shorter's "Nefertiti" was played as a cha-cha-cha. And I hear something very romantic in many of Monk's tunes. "Eronel" has a lot of romance to it, and that's what I tried to capture and bring out.
 You've recorded with Miles Davis. A famous story is about him telling John McLaughlin to play guitar like he doesn't know how. Would a suggestion like that help you when improvising or trying to write something new?
[SK] Well, Donald Fagen once said to me, "Try to play as if you were Howlin' Wolf's guitarist, but as if he knew how to play changes!" This, of course, washes down to: "Play with a bluesy feeling!" And, I think Miles was saying the same thing to John!!! I think when 'the guitar' began to filter into Miles' music.....perhaps with George Benson's appearance on "Paraphernalia" on "MILES IN THE SKY", I believe Miles was looking for two things: (a) lines with a bluesy character, and/or (b) sonic effects, colors. That's my sense of it all when one looks back over the chronology.
However, when you are in the presence of someone who has been one of your most exalted heroes, one probably can't interpret such instructions in the best way, because they are cryptic at best, and you're just too damn nervous. Not so cryptic is just getting fired!!! But, if you listen to the interviews given in the film "A DIFFERENT KIND OF BLUE" by players like: Herbie Hancock; Dave Holland; Chick Corea; Airto; Gary Bartz; Dave Liebman; and Keith Jarrett recounting their experiences with Miles during the post-"BITCHES BREW" era. All of their stories have a common thread, in terms of directions they were given by Miles. But, the most powerful direction to each of them was always: "Listen, then play!" It's worth seeing the film alone to hear to what each of these brilliant and visionary players had to say. And, look at the depth of the music most of them have gone on to play! How about that for taking something positive away from a musical experience?
 The 18-plus minute title track is a standout. Did you have a working title when it was written? Do you describe the feeling of a limitless "green field" to the others, and ask them to get in that frame of mind before playing? How much of it was charted out, and how much was improvised? It's a rather unusual ending - fading out with about two-minutes of lone percussion.
[SK] Again, thank you for taking the time to listen to that track!!! The title became attached to the tune just as it neared completion. Again, letter [A] had been laying around on a piece of music paper for years. Letter [B] was composed as a separate fragment, and only as the recording was approaching. But, after some reflection, I came to realize that they were actually part of the same piece. That was a great moment for me. Once the two fragments were put together, the overall layout became much more clear.
In truth, at least at our one rehearsal, I really didn't have to say very much to John, Jack or Manolo about what I was hoping that we could create together. But, I never really said much about the spiritual or philosophical content to them as a group, because it relates to my own perspectives. I do believe that I had private conversations with both John and Manolo about it. In the end, it's a highly personal thing. The written lead sheet only spans 3 pages. At times, between some of the phrases, I use squiggly lines to indicate that there is 'space to be filled'.......how we fill it is totally in the moment and up to each individual. How long those spaces will be are determined spontaneously. We only did one take, and I have no idea what might happen were we to perform it again.
In truth, I had no idea what would actually happen once we began to play the piece. My sense was that it would probably end-up being in the 10-12 minute area. And, if you look at your CD counter, by the time we've completed the last statement of [A], I believe you'll see that we are around 11-minutes. What happened after that was totally spontaneous, and was driven by Jack's unrelenting energy and creativity. The rest of us just went with it. I had no idea where we were headed, I just surrendered to what was happening, and used melodic fragments to glue it all together. I also had no idea how the piece would 'end' or even IF it was actually going to end. There is no 'fade' per se, Jack brings the tune to its proper conclusion by somehow ending while thrashing at his hi-hats. He brings the volume down himself. Once he stopped played, I knew, in that very moment, that there was NO WAY I was going to edit the piece, nor fade it. Though few may actually listen to the whole thing, there is a reward for those who commit the time, and sit through the journey with us. I can't explain just how proud I am that this was captured and resides on a CD of mine.
By the way, it's fascinating to note that Jack ends the Miles Davis "Isle of Wight" performance in the same manner!!! Oh, and by the way, if anyone wants to view the actual lead sheets for the original tunes from "THE GREEN FIELD", they only have to go to my website, www.stevekhan.com and look for KHAN'S KORNER 2. It's all free!
 What is the next frontier for jazz guitar?
[SK] Wow, I wish I knew! But, I do know this, where our instrument is concerned, it is in excellent hands!!! If I am just to look at players considerably younger than me, they are all playing the instrument better than I could have ever envisioned for myself. They are all, each in his own way, great virtuosos. I am not such a player. I am speaking of players like: Peter Bernstein; Ben Monder; Adam Rogers; Jonathan Kreisberg; and several others. And these great players are all over the country, not to mention Europe, and not just in New York.
The bigger question is not with the instrument, nor the capacity to play it, but it is with the character of the music that will be played. To be a technical virtuoso is a gift in most cases, a gift nurtured by hard work, but, when one knows that they have this gift, virtuosity, in and of itself, becomes meaningless, it just is!!! What will remain is how one went about making music with their fellow musicians. That, to me, is everything. Being a "music-maker" is everything!!!
The guitar, in Jazz, began as a 2nd class citizen, the last instrument to solo. By the time it was allowed 'in the club,' a language had already been created. But, if you view the history of the music, perhaps beginning somewhere in the '70s, some of the best music, the most enduring music was made by groups led by GUITARISTS. Who could have ever envisioned that? Few might admit it, but I am speaking about music-making. It matters not if one is the greatest saxophonist, pianist, trumpeter, etc., if the music you are making is nothing, then what difference does it make?
I think that there are guitarists who are looking beyond the instrument. And even if, right now, they're not making their best music, the potential is there for great things, truly great things!!!
[Photos: Steve w/ John Patitucci, and Jack DeJohnette
@ Avatar Studio 'A', May 23rd, 2005
Photo by: Richard Laird]