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On the surface, Reza Khan’s “day job” as program manager for the United Nations sounds exhilarating and highly impactful. Working in supply-chain management, the Bangladesh-born, New York City-based guitarist, leading a team of 71 people worldwide, travels frequently, fulfilling UN mission requests for goods and services that contribute to peace and conflict operations throughout Africa, Asia and the Middle East.
But Khan’s travels can be fraught with danger. In some countries, war can literally break out at any time. Military personnel often escort him to meetings and brief him about extremists he needs to watch out for. He never knows who he can trust. On a 2017 trip to the west African country of Mali, he met a grand imam of a mosque in Timbuktu who was surrounded by armed men who all looked suspicious and dangerous to him.
Tired and exhausted from two flights earlier that day for meetings in other Malian cities, Khan found the perfect way to unwind. Back in his hotel room in the Malian capital city of Bamako, he whipped out his foldable guitar, one-octave keyboard and music-software-loaded laptop, all of which fit conveniently into a small backpack. Tapping into what he calls a “psychedelic way to express the opposite emotions of what I was experiencing that day,” he visualized himself dancing at a club on a small street in a nameless village, embracing freedom with every turn. “I was suddenly in a different era, where people knew how to enjoy life,” he recalls.
The tangible result of that imaginative mind trip is a song called “Club 368,” a spirited, polyrhythmic showcase for Khan’s brisk acoustic-guitar work that laid the foundation for his multi-faceted new album Next Train Home. The luminous track features the dynamic cadre of veteran musical collaborators the artist has worked with since releasing his third album, Dreamwalker, in 2013 — including keyboardist Philippe Saisse, pianist Matt King, bassist Mark Egan and percussionist Gumbi Ortiz.
The album also includes contributions from flutist David Mann, and saxophonists Andy Snitzer and Jeff Kashiwa alternately appear on three of the album’s tunes that Khan distinctly remembers writing while he was sick and holed up at a hotel in Kampala, Uganda, after traveling there from Mali. “Mali is a dry desert country, and on the UN plane it was 52 degrees Celsius with no air conditioner, which means 45 minutes of hell,” he says. “I was severely dehydrated. On my second day at work in Entebbe, I collapsed and went to the UN medical clinic in Kampala. My blood pressure was high, and they put me on an IV. I didn’t want to spend time at a hospital in Kampala, so I agreed to take my fluids and pills and rest at my hotel. Sidelined from work with no distractions, I wrote ‘Beyond the Trees,’ ‘Under the Moon’ and ‘It’s About Time.’ Without any work distractions, that was the most fun and exhilarating part of the whole African trip.”
A few years earlier, when Khan was trying to score airplay at smooth-jazz radio stations with minimal success, Snitzer advised him to avoid lumping himself into that genre just for the sake of commercial success. “Andy came along on Dreamwalker and told me I was a progressive jazz musician with a world flavor,” Khan says. “Realizing he was right freed me up to experiment with some straightahead and Brazilian flavors, which I include on Next Train Home, particularly on the Jobim-influenced ‘Cloud 9.’ I’m really proud of how my composing and playing has evolved since Dreamwalker, and I’m especially encouraged that Mark Egan, who played for years with Pat Metheny, has told me that my writing reminds him of Pat’s style. I always want to be exploring more progressive sounds. If it were up to me, we’d all go back to the kind of jazz and prog rock that was mainstream in the mid-’70s.”
No track better typifies the battle Khan continues to wage with conforming to the smooth format than Next Train Home’s lead single “Drop of Faith,” which begins as a breezy ballad before revving up into a mid-tempo groove featuring the electric guitar of the track’s producer Nils. Nils is a longtime smooth-jazz hitmaker often brought in to work with developing artists on making their songs more palatable to smooth playlists. When a mutual friend introduced the two guitarists, Khan sent Nils 12 tracks, thinking having at least one of them on smooth-jazz radio would help launch the project.
[caption id="attachment_19743" align="alignleft" width="707"] Reza Khan: "If it were up to me, we’d all go back to the kind of jazz and prog rock that was mainstream in the mid-’70s.”[/caption]
“I really think my music is more like Metheny and Fourplay, so it wasn’t surprising that there was only one song he felt his style was close to,” Khan says. “He told me I needed to drop Matt King’s piano solo, and I replied, ‘This is the way I wrote the music, and this is the way it will stay.’ It came out well, and I believe the two of us trade some cool riffs at the end, but it’s hard listening to even great producers like Nils tell me what I need to do to commercialize. All I care about is how to make the music more interesting. I am truly satisfied with my career right now, and at some point if I want to switch and become a full-time musician, I still will not compromise my creative juices for the sake of airplay.”
Khan’s sensibilities are more aligned with those of Saisse, who, despite numerous smooth-jazz hits, has always gravitated as an artist and producer to a heavier fusion and world-music aesthetic. The guitarist recorded every track on Next Train Home live at a studio in Harlem with the small ensemble of King, Egan and alternating drummers Mauricio Zottarelli and Graham Hawthorne. “To be honest, I was quite happy with the sound of the four-piece, which has a definite Metheny flavor,” Khan says. “Yet I know what Philippe can deliver with his multi-dimensional sound design. I was thrilled the way he created a totally different vibe that took these pieces to another level. Putting these tracks together is an intricate process, but he always understands what I want.”
Next Train Home and all of Khan’s previous releases are literally a world away from the grounding he and his brothers received in Indian classical music from their father, an instrumentalist, composer and poet. Khan trained on tabla, sitar and sarod, but shifted to guitar when his older brother brought home a bootleg of the rock album Frampton Comes Alive. “Then,” Khan adds, “it was David Gilmour’s shredding on ‘Wish You Were Here’ that completely changed my perception of what music could be. My interests are always evolving. That’s why, all these years later, I’m moving ahead with a progressive acoustic-guitar-based fusion project called Moon Tree Quartet. It’s Brazilian meets Indian classical jazz in the style of John McLaughlin’s 1976 album with Shakti, and it’s unlike anything I have ever done before. It may sound ‘out there,’ but actually this is like another day at the office for guys like me who live every day as true citizens of the world.” - Jonathan Widran