BGO Records BGOCD1178

Tightrope Steve Khan (acoustic guitar, electric guitar); Don Grolnick (piano, Fender Rhodes, clavinet); Bob James (Fender Rhodes, synthesiser); Jeff Mironov (guitar); David Spinozza (guitar); Randy Brecker (trumpet); Michael Brecker (tenor sax); David Sanborn (alto sax); Will Lee (bass); Steve Gadd (drums); Ralph MacDonald (percussion)

The Blue Man Same line-up as Tightrope except Grolnick also plays synthesiser, add Michael Mainieri (marimba), Rick Marotta (timbales, cowbell) and omit Spinozza.

Arrows: Same line-up as The Blue Man except add Errol “Crusher” Bennett (percussion); Rob Mounsey (synthesiser); Rick Marotta plays drums, omit James and MacDonald

All albums recorded Mediasound, NYC. No recording dates.

The 1970s jazz fusion era introduced a vast swathe of talented guitarists, whose playing straddled the genres of jazz and rock, including Barry Finnerty, Joe Beck, Larry Coryell, John McLaughlin, Larry Carlton, Mike Stern, John Scofield, Allan Holdsworth, Charles Johnson, Ray Gomez, Al Di Meola, Hiram Bullock and Chuck Loeb. Another guitarist who firmly belongs on this list is Steve Khan. Like McLaughlin, Coryell and Di Meola, Khan is a master of both the acoustic and electric guitar. Khan, the son of legendary lyricist Sammy Cahn, has played with everyone from Miles Davis to Steely Dan, and Billy Cobham to Joe Zawinul, but despite this impressive track record, has never had the widespread recognition he richly deserves. As with everything in life, talent is not enough – you also need the breaks.

This fine collection from BGO packages Khan’s first three solo albums with Columbia Records onto two CDs, and like all BGO releases, is superbly packaged with a highly informative 12-page essay by jazz writer Charles Waring that includes a new interview with Khan. The three albums were released between 1977 and 1979, and just prior to signing with Columbia, Khan had toured with Larry Coryell as part of an acoustic guitar duo (they released an album, Two For The Road) and played on The Brecker Brothers’ second album, Back To Back.

It was the Brecker Brothers association that got Khan his record deal, thanks to Blood, Sweat and Tears co-founder and drummer Bobby Colomby, who liked Khan’s playing and recommended him to keyboardist/producer Bob James, who was putting together his own record label, distributed by Columbia Records (Colomby obviously has an eye for talent, because he also got Jaco Pastorius signed to Columbia). Khan had mixed feelings about the Back To Back album and this was down to the direction the band had been forced to take by record executives. On the one hand, Khan was knocked out by The Brecker Brothers’ horn section of Randy Brecker, Michael Brecker and David Sanborn, but there was a tension between what the band played best (instrumental jazz fusion) and what record label wanted – a more commercial, R&B sound. Back To Back included soul/R&B singers like Luther Vandross and Patti Austin, and featured soulful ballads.

When Khan came to record his debut solo album (with James producing), he decided that he wanted to recreate The Brecker Brothers sound with some emphasis on the guitar, and as a result, the core band for most of the material on these three albums uses many players from Back To Back. Khan’s album covers also feature artwork by the Belgian artist Jean-Michel Folon (who died in 2005) and the compilation booklet cover also includes an additional Folon image.

The first thing that strikes you is the sheer depth of musical talent on these three albums – these players were cream of the New York session scene, and sadly several of them – Michael Brecker, Don Grolnick and Ralph MacDonald – are no longer with us. One should also add that Khan does not play all the guitar parts on the albums. On Tightrope, Jeff Mironov and David Spinozza play rhythm guitar, and Mironov reprises this role alone on the two follow-up albums.

The title of Tightrope’s opening track, ‘Some Punk Funk’ is a sign of the Brecker Brothers’ influence, as Khan admits that it was inspired by the name of Randy Brecker’s ‘Some Skunk Funk.’ A mid-tempo funk track with a playful theme, the Lee/Gadd rhythm section is rock solid and Michael Brecker plays a lively solo, his tenor sax sound fed through a harmonizer (pitch shifter) creating a synthesiser sound effect on his horn – Brecker was always looking to expand the saxophone’s sound palette and was one of the pioneers of the EWI or Electronic Wind Instrument. Kahn finishes off the track with some blistering guitar.

Khan’s version of the O’Jays soul hit ‘Darlin’ Darlin’ Baby’ is close to the smooth jazz sound often associated with James (in fact, it was Khan’s suggestion that he covered the song). It’s a pleasant version featuring Sanborn’s signature alto sax sound and Khan’s inventive use of octave and wah-wah pedals. The tune was a minor hit and helped raise the album’s profile – Tightrope is Khan’s best-selling record. The title track (dedicated to Folon) is a funk number with a dramatic opening. Lee plays a bass line that is as solid as a concrete block (it’s right up in the mix too), the horn section plays blistering staccato lines and Khan’s guitar soars.

Randy Brecker’s ‘The Big Ones’ has James playing a burbling synth line with Khan adding wah-wah drenched guitar. Sanborn solos and the song plays out with another fiery solo by Khan, with Gadd and MacDonald offering strong support on percussion. ‘Star Chamber’ has Khan alternating between electric and steel-string acoustic guitar (his acoustic guitar solo is excellent) and the tune ends with a nice surprise – Sanborn playing a lovely solo on soprano sax. I’ve always enjoyed Sanborn’s soprano playing ever since I heard the track ‘Rush Hour’ on his 1982 album ‘As We Speak,’ but such musical excursions are a rarity, so it’s good to hear this tune.

The 1956 Eddie Heyward hit ‘Soft Summer Breeze’ was suggested by James and could easily have fitted on one of his albums. The song has a similar tempo and feel to James’ cover ‘Feel Like Making Love’ on his album One, although Khan adds some rock-like guitar chords to the mix. This, and the closing track, ‘Where Shadows Meet,’ are the only numbers to omit the horn section. The punchy ‘Where Shadows Meet’ is a Latin-infused number that has Gadd laying down a solid groove as the track moves through various time signatures (including a jazz-swing section). Khan’s plays some white-hot guitar with Grolnick’s organ lines simmering beneath. The track finishes with Khan’s blazing guitar coming to an abrupt stop.

When Khan came to record his follow-up album, The Blue Man, he faced a dilemma. Bob James was leaving Columbia Records to focus on his Tappan Zee label, and Khan was given the option of either going with him or staying at Columbia and producing his second album. He chose the latter option, which is why James only appears on the title track on this album. As a result, Grolnick adds the synthesiser to his keyboard arsenal. The album features five compositions by Khan plus an original by Randy Brecker.

The oddly titled ‘Daily Bulls’ (the name was inspired by a Folon artwork) is an uptempo number with a Latin feel that gets the album off to a lively and exciting start. Over a driving rhythm (with Gadd giving his cowbell a good thumping), Khan’s guitar howls, screams and sings. Grolnick plays a funky organ solo and MacDonald lays downs a tasty conga solo. The title track is an atmospheric piece, with a slow, dreamy introduction played by James on an Oberheim synthesiser and Grolnick on Fender Rhodes and Arp synthesiser. The music has clearly been influenced by Weather Report and the motif played around the one-minute mark has strong Joe Zawinul-esque feel to it. It’s a lovely piece with Khan playing with much feeling.

‘Some Down Time’ is another funky cut, with Lee’s slap bass intro setting up the groove. The horn section is as sharp as a pin and Khan tears it up on guitar. Randy Brecker’s ‘The Little Ones’ features more terrific playing by the horn section, including a stirring solo by Sanborn, while ‘Daily Valley’ includes the gentle sound of Mike Maineri’s marimba, with Khan again playing both acoustic and electric guitar (playing a solo on the former).

The final track, the near-nine-minute ‘An Eye Over Autumn – For Folon’ (this track was also inspired by one of Folon’s works) is a cracking number. Almost suite-like in construction, with a Latin-tinged mid-tempo feel, the song’s opening section starts with piercing notes from Khan’s guitar which are answered by Brecker’s tenor. At the three-minute point, Kahn and Brecker start trading eights, which build up to a frenzy. As the two soloists trade licks, Gadd, Lee and Rick Marotta on percussion lay down a hard chugging groove, with Gadd throwing in the occasional explosive fill, cymbal crash and burst of open high-hat.

The highlight though, is the final two minute section. Khan plays an anthemic melodic hook (it reminds me of the chant on Bill Conti’s stirring song ‘Gonna Fly Now,’ the theme from Rocky). As Khan repeatedly plays the hook, the horn section interjects with short, sharp blasts (at 7.06 someone lets out a long “ooh” suggesting they are really feeling the music too), and Marotta bashes away on his cowbell. But the star of the show is Steve Gadd, who plays a superb solo full of jaw-dropping fills and super-fast kick-drumming. I’d recommended listening to this track with headphones to hear the full effect. The two Steve Gadd performances that have always stirred me the most are at the codas of Steely Dan’s ‘Aja’ and Ben Sidran’s ‘Seven Steps To Heaven.’ This track is now added to that list. On Khan’s excellent website (www.stevekhan.com) he recalls Marotta (who is a fine drummer himself) and Gadd listening to the playback, and the former turning to Gadd and saying, “With great love of course, I hate you!” Khan considers ‘An Eye Over Autumn’ to be one of his best compositions from this era and it’s easy to see why.

When it came to recording Khan’s third album, Arrows, once again, music industry politics intervened. The Blue Man hadn’t sold as well as Tightrope, and so Khan was told that he needed to use a co-producer. The person he chose was his friend, engineer/producer Elliot Scheiner, whose credits included Fleetwood Mac, The Eagles, Steely Dan, Billy Joel and Van Morrison. Although Khan used the same core team of musicians, there were several changes: by now, Ralph MacDonald was a super-busy session musician/producer/composer and so he was replaced by Errol “Crusher” Bennett on percussion. Rob Mounsey played synthesiser on several tracks, and Rick Marotta drummed on a couple of tunes.

Before considering the music, a quick mention of the hilarious, off-the-wall liner notes provided by Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen (Khan played on two of the band’s albums, Aja and Goucho), which include a completely made-up story about Khan building a stone shrine in the middle of the studio!

Arrows opens the 12-minute long City Suite, which is divided into two parts. Part One – ‘City Monsters’ – is a fast, funky number, with Mironov playing some excellent rhythm guitar and Lee laying down a strong groove with lots of slap bass. Michael Brecker delivers a powerful tenor solo, Khan adds searing guitar and the horn section plays some acrobatic lines. The second part of the suite – Dream City – has a percussion-driven Latin groove with Gadd and Bennett playing over a keyboard vamp and Khan letting rip on guitar.

The ballad ‘Candles’ has a dream-like, ethereal opening, as Khan’s guitar, laced with reverb, dances delicately on top of dreamy synth lines. Brecker’s plays some exquisite soprano sax, and the intensity of the music briefly increases before Khan enters with a powerful solo. ‘Daily Village’ is lovely, relaxing piece, with Khan playing both steel-string acoustic and electric guitar. On the rocking ‘Some Arrows,’ Marotta lays down a powerful shuffle while Khan turns his guitar amp up to eleven and gets shredding like a rock guitarist. Half way through the track, the energy level drops a little, as Grolnick plays a lovely, long bluesy organ solo, with Lee and Marotta providing solid support. Khan picks up the theme again, before ending the track with a cascade of notes.

The final track, ‘Calling’ reminds me of Jeff Beck’s jazz-fusion excursions. Its intro has Khan playing the delicate theme, using reverb and vibrato to create an atmospheric opening. Sanborn plays the theme on alto sax, before the music moves up a gear in terms of tempo. The track alternates between these two states, with both Sanborn and Khan soloing.

Khan says that many people seem to regard The Blue Man as the strongest album of the trio and I would agree. Although Khan thinks that his production skills at the time were not that great, I disagree. That said, tere’s much to like about all three albums and at £10, you can’t go wrong with this purchase. Sadly, Khan would be dropped from Columbia after releasing these three albums, a casualty of the giant jazz artist cull that the record label indulged in at the time. The good news is that he bounced back, and BGO has released two more Steve Khan packages. If you’re a fan of jazz fusion and have not heard Steve Khan before, or you simply want to replace your old vinyl copies of these albums with these remastered discs, you won’t be disappointed by this package.