[3 May 2006]
Steve Khan is a stone-great jazz guitarist. But perhaps because he is equally well-known as a studio player and axe-for-hire, his reputation in jazz circles has always lagged behind his actual playing.
The Green Field should put Mr. Khan on the lips of jazz critics and fans again. It helps that the disc features a heavyweight rhythm section of John Patitucci on bass, Jack DeJohnette on drums, and Manolo Badrena on percussion. But, of course, Mr. Khan has always kept serious company. It helps even more that this collection is defined with great assurance of vision. It’s not a gimmick jazz record, but it is dominated by several supremely polyrhythmic performances of both original music and insistent interpretations of jazz classics. All the music on The Green Field exists in a thickly interactive band context, with hand percussion, drumming, rhythmic guitar work, and bass-line all weaving in and out like perfectly choreographed dancers.
It is the ultimate tribute to Mr. Khan’s leadership on this session that his melodic and appealing guitar never dominates the proceedings. Rather, this music feels like an integrated whole all the time. For example, when Mr. Patitucci is soloing on Herbie Hancock’s “Riot”, the accompaniment (guitar and percussion, in supportive dialogue) is as interesting as the superb solo. In the arrangement, Mr. Khan has woven quiet riffs and rhythmic hits that are related to the melody. It’s a strong cut from start to finish.
Just as good, though, are Mr. Khan’s originals. “Fist in Glove” is a piquant melody that jabs and punches like a Jon Scofield tune over an altered blues structure, but at the same time it has its own character. Mr. Khan’s conception is more swinging and open-ended than Mr. Scofield’s, and his improvised lines have a different kind of long, extended arc. The comparison is probably inevitable given the guitar sound Mr. Khan uses on this disc, but most of The Green Field is something Mr. Scofield would never have dreamed up.
The most unique element of the disc is its Latin flavor—featuring percussion work that uses but never abuses jazz’s intimate Afro-Cuban connection. Four songs feature not only Mr. Badrena, but also Ralph Irazarry on timbales and Roberto Quintero on congas and percussion. This take on “You Stepped Out of a Dream” is the freshest version I’ve heard in forever, with melody stated obliquely but flowingly and leading into a guitar solo that alternates between impressionism and spiky melody. The medley of “Sanctuary/Nefertiti” (both Wayne Shorter tunes associated with his residency with Miles Davis, but not usually performed together) is brilliant. The first portion is colored warmly by Manolo Badrena’s wordless vocal, after which the percussion kicks in for a salsa-fied “Nefertiti” that feels effortless and fragrant. The percussionists are let loose to jam on “Cosecha lo Que Has Sembrado”, and it’s easy and raucous at once.
As ever, Mr. Khan plays Monk well (“Eronel”) and applies the same melodic smile to his take on Ornette Coleman (“Congeniality”). But jazz purist listeners still harboring some suspicion of Mr. Khan for his career-long skills on Billy Joel and Steely Dan albums really must hear the 18-minute title track. “The Green Field” is a significant tour de force. Beginning as a rhythm workout for Jack and Manolo, the theme emerges as a hopping bit of clever repetition. No “jazz solo” comes on as you might expect thereafter. Rather, Mr. Khan lets the track breathe, playing a series of chordal statements around Mr. Patitucci’s active acoustic bass. Mr. DeJohnette keeps the waters boiling all along so that the track is truly a collective improvisation. With patience and architectural logic, Mr. Khan slowly builds a series of statements over what appears to be an entirely free (if still tonal) harmonic structure. I would compare it to Miles Davis’s long-form experiments of the 1970s, but the rhythmic feeling is eighth note swing rather than funk, and the instrumentation is traditional. But the way the track evokes open spaces and possibility still smack of Mr. Davis.
This gambit is a risky way to end a brilliant album. But listening to The Green Field, you do not get the sense that Steve Khan is trying to win a popularity contest or to blow anyone away with his chops. It is the kind mature effort that a great musician finds himself making out of artistic commitment. And that’s just another reason it knocks me out.