Wednesday 9 March 2016

“The Radical”: Sean Khan [Interview]

Interview with Imran Mirza

Far Out Recordings, which acts as the label home for Azymuth, Sabrina Malheiros, Marcos Valle and Nicola Conte's 'Viagem' series, can also now proudly boast two album releases from the brilliance of saxophonist Sean Khan.  Although ‘Muriel’ saw its release late last year, Khan is still riding the wave of the album's plaudits and seemingly never-ending praise well into 2016, discovering new fans and listeners in the process.

Khan’s credentials extend as far back as the 1990s having headed up the soul/jazz band, SK Radicals, whose work made significant leaps within the broken beat genre.  Khan's solo work however - as spearheaded by 'Slow Burner' in 2012 and now with 'Muriel' - is very much an homage to his indelible passion for jazz.  Far Out have afforded Sean the platform to pay tribute to a classic jazz aesthetic and its pioneers, while still presenting a contemporary and innovative product incorporating strong Latin jazz influences throughout.

An exciting guest list of vocalists are enlisted to help realize that vision: Diana Martinez, sets the album off to a perfect start with ‘Things to Say’, Heidi Vogel puts down excellent work on 'Samba Para Florence', Far Out Recordings label mate, the always brilliant Sabrina Malheiros features on ‘Sister Soul’, and Omar guests on the album’s highlight, ‘Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me’.

Above all though, ‘Muriel’ benefits from the wealth of knowledge and experience Sean Khan brings to the table: his time with Clifford (famed for his work with John Coltrane and Sun Ra) and multi-instrumentalist Bheki Mseleku, his years performing in salsa bands in the early-00s, having graced stages at Ronnie Scott’s, Jazz Café, Cargo and all over Europe… all of it culminates into what you hear in his recordings and when you see him perform live.

It’s our great pleasure to have secured time with Sean to discuss the making of ‘Muriel’, SK Radicals, his thoughts on contemporary jazz and so much more...

IMRAN MIRZA: Who were some of your musical inspirations growing up?
SEAN KHAN: I liked a lot of different things: Smiths (Morrisey is a great lyricist), Stevie Wonder, D'Angelo, Erykah Badu, Omar, the voice of Ian Curtis (Joy Division) is touching, Donnie Hathaway (incredible male soul voice), Herbie Hancock, Miles Davis (the greatest), Gil Evans.
I think it comes down to if it's got a beautiful melody then it doesn't matter where it comes from, it can just reach you.  And of course a huge influence is John Coltrane, and latterly his wife Alice Coltrane, who made some really beautiful music on Impulse.  I also find some of the French composers particularly moving - Debussy and Ravel to name just two.

How did you come to the attention of Far Out Recordings?
I have known the Far Out record label for years.  It was in the same building as Goya Records (the first and only record label specializing in broken beat).  When Goya closed, Mike Slocomb (ex Goya owner) arranged for me to meet Joe Davis and Joe agreed to put out 'Slow Burner', so this was my first jazz record and the first record I put out with Far Out.

You must be thrilled with the response to 'Muriel': can you talk a little about what went into the making of the album?

Yes, I am very happy it has done so well and been so well received.  A lot of blood, sweat and tears went into making the 'Muriel' record.  It's dedicated to my mum, Muriel Florence McGinley, and she passed whilst I was making the record so it had a deep impact on me.  I can get very intense when I make a record but my mum passing made me take stock - life is short and I really know now.
Also, not really being part of the British jazz scene, I lack the prejudices that can spring up around scenes.  I love vocals and no instrumentalist can deliver a melody like a good vocalist.  Only great instrumentalists can play great melodies that match a good vocalist: Miles Davis being one great example but generally I need an emotional involvement when I listen to music.
I write all the music and words for my records myself and tend to have a tight control on what goes on.  This probably has more to do with my character flaws than any artistic inclination - I am probably a little too emotional.  I also demo the vocal lines myself and then hand them to the singer so they have a clear idea - this is what happened with Omar, Heidi and Sabrina.

There are some really inspired collaborations on the album: how did they come about?
Well, Omar was my first choice and I wrote 'Don't Let the Sun Go Down' with him in mind.  I asked Joe, could he get hold of Omar and he phoned Bluey (Incognito) who is a close friend of both Joe and Omar and he put Joe in touch with Omar's manager, Lucia.  She then asked for a track and I sent it over and he really liked it and said he would sing on it, and it turned out really great.
I have been a fan of Sabrina Malheiros for years - I had bought two of her albums before I was on Far Out and I asked Joe could he get her to sing one of my songs.  I sent her 'Sister Soul' - a track again I had written with her in mind, and luckily for me she agreed to sing it.  It was strange because it is in an odd time signature and her father, the legendary Alex Malheiros (Azymuth founder), was teaching her the time feel as we were about to go into the studio via some app on her phone - a little surreal.  But then as soon as she sang it was incredible.  The lead vocals are all one take, pitch perfect with impeccable time feel.
Heidi Vogel is an immense talent - the lead singer with Cinematic Orchestra, she should really be a star in her own right.  She did a brilliant job on 'Samba Para Florence'.  So I really had the crème de la crème of the soul/jazz scene on 'Muriel', which was very lucky for me.

How does 'Muriel' compare to the music on your debut solo album, 'Slow Burner'?
'Slow Burner' is a more traditional jazz-style record - jazz quartet, extended solos, etc.  I didn't really put my producer's hat on - I wanted to see what it would be like to make a jazz record.  However, not being constrained by proper jazz sensibilities, I put a spoken word monologue, from my book 'Steve the Seed', and used a really talented singer and friend, Susan Allotey, on vocals.  I really liked the way the record turned out, it was quite stripped back but had some really beautiful moments – having beautiful moments is my aim.  I felt 'Muriel' was the logical extension to that record.  [I] used more production techniques, [went] back to writing more refined songs and see how I could merge a live feel vibe with a more produced atmosphere.

In both albums, you appear to make statements about the state of jazz music: what are your thoughts on the contemporary jazz scene?
This is where we can get political, ha!!  My feeling is that the jazz language has now become codified.  Once you codify something, it has the potential to become a commodity.  You can teach anyone this language if they have enough money ... Hey, I wanted to go to Berkley but when I found out it cost $40,000, I had to forget about it.
However, to counter my own thoughts, it is quite obvious the language is evolving with a more European and/or institutional slant.  I think this is good and bad.  Good in that at least the music is not staying still - where it goes will always be interesting, it will always move further away from its roots.  On the down side, it's the college system which tries to control the aesthetic and direction of the music, because now the vast majority of jazz players are college graduates who, dare I say, have a similar life experience as well as musical experience, share a common world view and it can be very difficult to differentiate one band from the next.
I really do not want to sound too negative but these are just my observations as a fan of instrumental jazz music.

You seem to have a strong chemistry and friendship with Omar: are there any immediate plans to work together again?
Yes, Omar is a very humble and immensely gifted person.  You don't become a legend and work with people like Stevie Wonder and Erykah Badu for nothing.  I am at this present moment trying to come up with something for my next record and it would be a great honor for me to work with him again.

The SK Radicals had such a strong following: you must be proud of the band's success?
The broken beat scene, which the SK Radicals sprang from, was a surprise to me at the time.  It just seemed to happen so organically with such little hype: suddenly your music is being played on Radio One, you are playing festivals in Europe, headlining the Jazz Cafe, and only a few years before I had decided to go to university and do a BSc and get away from music.  Out of the blue, Goya music gave me an advance to make a single and then an album which blew up for a few years.  I should have really enjoyed it more at the time but I do look back fondly because that really was the beginning of me becoming a professional musician after years of struggle.

Who would be a dream artist for you to collaborate with? 
So many!!!! I was supposed to work with Ed Motta on 'Muriel'.  He agreed to sing on 'Things to Say' but it didn't happen for some reason.  But I would love to get a couple of the older American jazz guys to record with me at some point.  We shall see.

What can fans expect from you next?
I just had a meeting with Joe Davis and we have penciled in some dates for me to go back and start to record a new record.  I have written new material so I really want to focus and work hard towards making another heartfelt record.

'Muriel' is available to purchase now from Far Out Recordings.

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