Growing up, Steve Khan couldn’t quite get the hang of drumming. At 19, he tried the guitar with much greater success. His musical career is filled with successful collaborations, most notably with the Brecker Bros. Band, Donald Fagen — doing a Thelonious Monk tribute, and Eyewitness, his own band started in 1981 with Anthony Jackson, Steve Jordan, and Manolo Badrena.
Khan’s appeal is his ability to forge the Latin rhythms of the percussion with a broader scale of jazz in all its appealing forms, including a kind of world smooth jazz. His most recent album, Subtext, is driven by this sensibility in hearty, well-realized transitions from covers to some originals.
The covers he does is of his favorites: Ornette Coleman’s “Bird Food,” Wayne Shorter’s “Infant Eyes,” Monk’s “Hackensack,” and Freddie Hubbard’s “Baraka Sasa.” He arranged these covers and contributed three original tracks, including “Cada Gota De Mar” with vocalist Mariana Ingold, in cumbia/Vallenato style.
For such Subtext, Khan enlists a ferocious Latin percussion section: Rubén Rodríguez (electric bass, baby bass), Bobby Allende (conga), Marc Quiñones (timbal), and Dennis Chambers (drums). Guest artists help shape the album further: Randy Brecker (flugelhorn), Rob Mounsey (keys, orchestrations), Gil Goldstein (accordion).
Not only are the nine songs on Khan’s new album pretty as a picture, but they move well, dancing through significant chord changes and floating on a melodic breeze. At times, they sound effortlessly pleasant (“Bird Food,” “Blue Subtext”), with a whole lot of percussive intricacy at play driving the pleasant melody around.
If “Bird Food” is a percussive dream, flecked with Brecker’s flugelhorn magic, then “Blue Subtext” is further enhanced by the warm tones and textures of Khan on guitar and Mounsey on keys, replicating a follow-through similar to a 1980s Steely Dan run, ever lighter.
Khan earlier recorded Wayne Shorter’s “Infant Eyes” in 1980 on Evidence. Here, he reimagines the cover in an Afro-Cuban 6/8. The groove “started to appear in my imagination,” Khan said, “and I realized that this song could be played that way and still retain its wonderful sense of romance and beauty, and yet be transported to a very different place because of these fantastic rhythms.” This song really does take Shorter’s original to an expansive place, where the musicians really swirl around in a rolling eddy.
“Heard” stands out, because of what’s going on with Mounsey’s keyboard. He punches in a battalion of wicked keys meant to dazzle and distract, giving the Latin jazz a revolver from outer space, where computers and robots run the establishment. Another slight nod to the mechanics of a 1980s Steely Dan set, Khan riffs with the keyboard junkets in sophisticated, slow-burning caucuses, amused but never thrown off the course. Mounsey and Khan worked together to shift Greg Osby’s song into the Latin zone, give or take a few rock opera moments on the keyboard.
Another swoon-worthy number falls in the sixth song on every sixth note of “Never Let Me Go (Nunca me dejes ir),” one of the best translations of a Spanish romance in lyrical and musical terms. It shows Khan doesn’t even need a percussive lineup to get his music straight. He can turn up all on his own, able to extend exquisite touch on a ballad that might otherwise have been forgotten. Khan pores through the vastness on his strings taking all the time in the world, like a lover, stopping at various points to pluck out a few urgent, intense revelations.
On Subtext, Steve Khan exercises his endless curiosity and staying power as a guitarist, arranger, and lover of Latin, percussively driven music. He does so incrementally as the mood hits him, translating his own inspired fancies, track after track.