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Sierra Madre
as played on the Dave Valentine's recording "Sunshower"
by Steve Khan

Fai click qui per leggere la versione in italiano

Steve Khan's Guitar Solo on: "Sierra Madre"(Bill O'Connell)

The longer one plays in this music, the more difficult it becomes to record as a sideman, and it was always difficult to begin with. If one is lucky enough to record a few times under their own name and has a chance to choose the studio and the engineer, to participate in the mixes, to perhaps even produce the entire recording, then that musician has a great understanding of just how he/she sounds best and functions best in the recording process. When you accept a recording as a sideman, you surrender all those things which you fought so hard to earn. It's my feeling that this is when you must become much more selective about what you do and with whom you choose to work. If you're going to work with players and producers whose primary concern is always doing things "inexpensively," which really means cheap, then it's probably going to be a lousy experience and your chances of actually sounding good at the session, and in the finished product, are very, very small. You must learn to exercise your power to say, "No!" And, to turn down that recording. It isn't worth a few hundred dollars to feel lousy about what you're doing and moreover to sound awful too! How many times have you purchased a recording on which one of your favorite artists appears and then, after listening, have commented to yourself, "Geez, what happened to his sound? He really doesn't sound so good on this CD!" Well, it's highly likely that it is not the player's fault. The artist, the producer, and the engineer probably don't really know how to reproduce his sound and then incorporate it into what they are trying accomplish for that project. So, for me, over the many years, it is a rare, rare thing when I could say that I truly like something I played on someone else's recording. Such was the case though with what I happened to play on pianist Bill O'Connell's tune, "Sierra Madre" which appears on Dave Valentin's CD, "SUNSHOWER"(Concord Vista).

As with all such situations, you hope that you'll be able to see the music beforehand, perhaps at a rehearsal or, at the very least, that the tunes you are going to be asked to play on(and especially to solo) might be sent to your home. Well, on this recording project, for me there was going to be neither! I didn't get to see the music until I walked into the studio that day and even as I arrived, Dave and Bill were discussing on just which tunes they wanted me to play, and on which tunes Dave Samuels would play. On some pieces, we would both play.

As is my way, I got there early so that I could have all my equipment set-up and so that I'd be ready to 'get sounds' quickly and have a reasonable view of everyone. The session was to be at Sound on Sound in New York City, a studio I know very well. I also know that there is going to be little or no isolation for me, because there are only two 'iso' booths and obviously Dave Valentin would have one of them, and, likely as not the drums would occupy the other. This means that in the large room(w/ a wood floor) there would be: acoustic piano; vibes & marimba; congas; bass; and guitar. A logistical nightmare for everyone, but probably most of all for engineer, Josiah Gluck. Luckily, I have known Josiah for years and have faith that he will do a decent job with everything. One also should know, by this time, that the headphone sound just can't be 'perfect' or, what you might prefer, or are used to, because there are just too many players. So, you must be mentally and emotionally prepared to deal with that.

As that day's session began, I was lucky that there was going to be some time before I actually played anything because the fundamental group: Robby Ameen(drums); Rubén Rodríguez(bass); Bill O'Connell(piano); Milton Cardona(congas); and Dave Valentin(flute) still had a tune or two to do. And then, they were going to record something with just Dave Samuels added. In any situation like this, I have learned to take full advantage of this time which I'm being given. I then begin to study the music, especially those tunes where I am going to have melodic responsibilities and/or solos. This is when I took my first look at "Sierra Madre." In truth, I don't now recall just what Bill's lead sheet looked like, but, if you've been reading the pieces I write here, you would know that I like to see things which look clean and organized. Bill's chart was certainly better than most I see. I had been told that I would be playing the melodies with Dave Valentin, and then taking the 2nd solo spot after the flute. We were all to solo over the same form. Where comping was concerned, I knew that the most sensible thing to do, unless I was told otherwise, would be to simply lay-out and let the piano cover everything. Remembering that I am only a guest. When we finally ran down the tune a couple of times, because Samuels and I had never rehearsed or played it before, I discovered that a nice Wes Montgomery-esque device would be effective behind the solos, as well as during the same spot in the melody. I played simple whole note octaves beginning at bar 21 of the solo section only playing the 9th of each of the chords. "A" on the Gm7 chord and "G#" on the F#7(13), this continued with "G" being played on the Fm7 chord. It gives the section a little 'lift' without getting in the way of the piano comping. During the last 8-bars of the solo section where there are alternating bars of Gm7(sus) to Bbm7(sus), I came up with a small 3-note broken chord pattern which also added a little something but stayed out of the way of the piano.
This transcription was originally done by André Avelino, a very fine guitarist/musician, whom I first met at the National Guitar Summer Workshop during one of my three-day seminars some years ago. I recall that André phoned to "ask my permission" to transcribe this particular solo and to then submit it to "DOWN BEAT" magazine for publication. Firstly, one doesn't need anyone's 'permission' to transcribe a solo! Anyway, André also paid me the courtesy of offering to send me the completed transcription so that I could proof read it for small errors. At that moment, as I felt it would never, ever, get published I said, "No! Don't worry about it. I'm certain that it will be fine!" Well, of course, I turned out to be wrong about this. Many months later, a student of mine came by for a lesson and asked me, "have you seen the May issue of "DOWN BEAT"? There's a transcription in it of one of your solos." Well, I couldn't believe it and, at that moment, had NO idea which solo he could be talking about. A few days later, I was able to purchase the magazine from my local Barnes & Noble, but when I first skimmed over the transcription some things looked a bit strange to me, especially the rhythmic phrasing. So, I found the CD in my collection and put on the track, fast forwarding to the solo, and then I began to discover that the transcription interpreted what I had played in a different manner. So, it was at that moment I decided that I would re-do the transcription and share it here at the website in hopes of clarifying things for those who might have been interested.

The primary problem with the original transcription was almost always connected to one very specific rhythmic grouping I play, and that many, many players on all instruments play. It first appears in bar 11 on beat 1 and were that particular phrase not anticipated by an 8th-note into the bar, it would simply be a grouping with one 8th-note and two 16th-notes. You can find this same 'mannerism' in bars: 13; 18; 25; 29; 33-35; and 38. As you can see, it's 'all over the place.' Somehow it was notated always as a triplet grouping. So, it was mainly because of this that I felt I had to clarify this particular phrasing device. With that stated, let's move ahead and look at the solo.
One of the first things I attempted to do while looking over the solo section prior to actually recording it was to analyze the chord changes and determine just what my improvising options might be. People often ask 'jazz' musicians, "What are you 'thinking' about when you're playing over such and such?" Well, the answer should always be the same, when you are actually playing, you shouldn't be 'thinking' about anything! You should just be in the flow of the music. However, IF there's a time for thinking, it is certainly before one is going to play or during one's practice time. This is when you can learn to analyze harmony and how one approaches various movements of changes.
On this particular tune, you really just have two 20-bar sections, the first begins with a Dbm7(sus) sound which, in my way of thinking, would lead us to using the Db-dorian mode. This chord moves back and forth with a C7(9sus) sound which, for me, causes me to use the G-dorian mode. At bar 17, a Bm7 arrives and that would then be B-dorian. The only change from these fundamentally dorian areas are bars 19-20 when we arrive at an Ab7(altered) chord which, in this case, serves as a b5 substitute for D7 because we are about to go to a Gm7 chord. However, if one isolates this chord, this sonority, you would find that it produces an Ab altered dominant scale which, as we've stated many times at KHAN'S KORNER, is often thought of by many players as A melodic minor(the melodic minor 1/2-step above the root). In addition to this option, one can employ several pentatonics as well. One excellent and obvious choice would be to use the minor pentatonic built upon the minor-3rd or the degree of the #9 and this would be B-minor pentatonic. What makes this such a great option is that you have just been playing B-dorian so to make this rather small shift of gears is simple and should give great flow to your improvisation. As you can see when you look at bars 17-20, the flow and drive of the notes does not stop just because of the bar line and the changing chords.

If you were to do a similar analysis of bars 21-40, you would find that the same ideas hold true only that they have to be transposed up or down a b5 or #4 depending upon how you choose to look at things. The little 8-bar [TAG] to the solo offers a slightly different challenge because you must quickly alternate between Gm7(sus) and Bbm7(sus), using the relative dorian modes for each. If one looks at these two modes: G dorian(G, A, Bb, C, D, E, F) and Bb dorian(Bb, C, D, Eb, F, G, Ab) you would want to see how many, if any, common tones exist between them to smooth out the course of improvising. Here you can see that each mode contains G, Bb, C, and F). Not bad considering there are only 7 tones to begin with. This at least gives you a place in which to begin, something to grab onto. As you can see, in bars 41-42, I played an idea which centers around C and Bb but also utilizes a D-natural which shouldn't sound too good against Bb dorian, but because it passes by so quickly, it works. Otherwise, I addressed each mode individually using the common tones to transit between them. Almost always you'll find that the first or second note of each chord is one of those common tones.
As I normally do, when playing a solo which follows on the heels of another, I would listen to how the previous soloist ends his improvisation and then try to utilize some part of his last phrase, giving me a place to begin and adding continuity to the whole. As things turned out, I didn't hear something I felt I wanted to use so I just chose to create something rhythmically simple and hopefully melodic. This idea develops across the changes from bars 1 through 10. The melodic idea uses fifths and sixths. From that point forward, it would seem that I just went with the rhythmic components of the tune, tried to dig into the time, the drive and intensity of Latin rhythms and focus on those elements. There is one characteristic phrase of mine which appears three times during this solo, but each time it is utilized differently. You can see it in bars: 15-16; 22-24; and 37-38. It is derived from the minor pentatonic which can be applied to chords in various ways, not just in relation to the root. An example of this would be in bars 22-24 where the chord is Gm7 and I was employing a D-minor pentatonic(D, F, G, A, C).

One device one should always consider in their solos is to anticipate the next chord change by beginning your line, in that tonality, BEFORE it actually arrives. Examples of this appear in bars: 8-9: 12-13; 28-29; 43-44; and 46-48. Were I to criticize myself, I would probably say that this device could've been used more and to greater benefit! But, as with most recorded solos, you pretty much get one shot at it, and what goes to tape is what you must learn to live with. That's where you were at that moment in time and it's not worth beating the crap out of yourself over. At least not for too long!
Another small point of interest is the usage of D#, the major 3rd, against a Bm7 chord. Normally, I too would see this as a 'wrong,' or at the very least a 'strange' note. But, after playing with Randy Brecker for so many years, hearing the major 3rd on a minor chord doesn't sound so strange to me anymore. Especially when it's employed as an upper neighbor to the minor 3rd and, as you can see, that's what happens during this solo at bar 17.

It is my hope that having this transcription posted here at the website, with the soundclip, has cleared-up any problems and questions for those of you who have written me. As always, thanks so much for continuing to visit the site and for all your wonderful e-mails of support.

Audio File (MP3)

Le altre lezioni:

LESSONS (guitar): El Tacaño from the album Paraíso by Caribbean Jazz Project (Steve Khan)


LESSONS (guitar): From the last excellent album, "The Green Field", the analisys of "El Viñón", dedicated to the great Elvin Jones (Steve Khan) (Steve Khan)


LESSONS (guitar): Daily Bulls from the album "The Blue Man" (Steve Khan)


LESSONS (guitar): Blue Zone 41 as played on the album "Public Access" (Steve Khan)


LESSONS (guitar): A George Harrison tribute with the medley "Within You Without You/Blue Jay Way" (Steve Khan)


What I'm Said, a "twist on a blues" from the album Crossings. (Steve Khan)

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Publishing Date: 17/03/2006

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