Jeff Kashua: sax and flute
Matt King: Piano
Leo Traversa: bass
Maurizio Zottarelli: Drums
Olivia Foschi: Vocals
Over the course of his six previous albums, starting with his debut Painted Diaries
in 2009, Reza Khan has worked with some of the biggest names in contemporary jazz while developing a fascinating trademark fusion of pop, jazz, soul and world influences. His music is steeped in his international roots and status as a socially conscious musical citizen of the world. Along the way, the Bangladesh-born, NYC-based composer and guitarist has enjoyed several breakthrough hits on the Billboard Smooth Jazz chart, including his first Top Ten single “Drop of Faith” (featuring Nils) from his critically acclaimed fifth album Next Train Home
and “Waiting for the Sky” from the 2021 collection Imaginary Road
. Despite this airplay success, he’s always been told that the music he writes and produces is designed more for musicians to play than for the average smooth jazz listener to simply enjoy.
With Khan’s latest album, the intriguingly titled Mystical
, he aims to change all that and create songs as infectious and radio friendly as they are brilliantly performed. Rather than have an overriding narrative concept, his goal was to collaborate with some familiar cohorts (Philippe Saisse, Mark Egan, David Mann, Nils) and others who could bring a fresh, magical, and yes, mystical quality to his songs. His first call was to David Mann, the veteran saxophonist who had brought great horn textures and arrangements to previous albums. He sought his production expertise, but just as importantly, felt that straight on compositional collaboration would be the ticket to unlocking this magic. Mann became an important co-writer, composer, arranger and producer for the album.
While some of the original Khan/Mann tunes like “The Falcon” and “Whispering Trees” indeed tell fascinating, poetic stories of their own, the guitarist began with a different overall vision. He co-wrote every one of the new tracks with a specific well-known genre musician in mind as a featured artist, hoping their positive replies would lead to incredible individual tracks with hit potential that could take the song in a magical/mystical direction Khan couldn’t have imagined upon writing the song.
Building off a foundation of Khan on lead guitar, Bern Schoenhardt on rhythm guitar, Mann on keys and sax, Khan’s guest list – all of whom immediately agreed to participate – includes Saisse, Nils, Jeff Lorber, Bob James, Keiko Matsui, a unique array of bassists (Egan, Jimmy Haslip, Brendan Rothwell, Mel Browne) and drummers (Gary Novak, Brian Dunne and Lionel Cordew. Because the project was recorded during the pandemic, the basic tracks were recorded at Khan’s home studio in Long Island, with Mann putting together remotely created tracks in his NYC studio.
Another unique aspect of the collection that contributes to Mystical
living up to its title is the opportunity to experience new versions of three classic tracks from Reza’s early projects via Mann’s contemporary 2022 productions with new lineups of musicians – “Bahia Mama” (featuring the original vocal by Jennifer Grimm) and “Catalina’s Dream” from Painted Diaries
and “Language of Love” from A Simple Plan (2011). The fact that “Language of Love” and “Catalina’s Dream” are in the cue for future single releases show that Khan’s composing style was always in the pocket, with great hit potential. He just needed Mann’s expertise behind the boards to take it to the next level.
“My goal with Mystical
was to imagine a very magical album where David and I write songs together for certain individual musicians we wanted to bring to the recording,” says Khan. “Every track evolved organically until it became a very different type of conceptual album, with each tune having magical, mysterious elements. I had always composed every song by myself and I enjoyed the exciting learning curve of collaborating differently on each tune. My idea was to focus on how they could appeal broadly to fans of smooth jazz without limiting the inspiration and motivation that has driven me in the past.”
Over the past five years, Reza Khan has built a loyal East Coast fan base and performed (and sold-out!) NYC hotspots like BB Kings, Iridium, Drom, Zinc Bar and City Winery. As noted above, he has also expanded his international presence via gigs with his band in Spain and Europe. While releasing his steady stream of ensemble albums, he has attracted the attention of numerous contemporary jazz heavy hitters eager to help him craft his live performances as well as develop his studio recordings.
Reza Khan made the fascinating decision on Mystical to co-write songs (for the first time in his career) with longtime associate and veteran saxophonist David Mann and target each composition towards an intended guest artist. It’s the perfect approach to tell his fascinating musical story, starting with “Falcon” and including the five tracks targeted as potential singles. Two of them, “Language of Love” (the first lead single) and “Catalina’s Dream” are re-imagined versions of older Khan tracks, produced by Mann and featuring all new musicians.
Building off the initial eight bars Mann composed, Khan turns “The Falcon” – which sets the scene and tone for the entire collection - into one of the album’s great conceptual pieces, a lilting and atmospheric, then sly, sensual and lightly funky soundtrack to a majestic vision of a large bird with the power to see the whole universe with eyes that zoom in on different places and elements of the natural world. While Khan lays the thematic foundation with an easy grooving strum and creates a dreamy duality with Mann’s sax, the real star of the piece is Jeff Lorber, who brings his trademark lively old school Fender Rhodes and mini Moog dazzle to the mix via a wild solo spot. In this case, when Mann reached out to Lorber, Lorber was willing to give Khan a song to record; Khan’s response was that he already had the perfect tune for Lorber to play on. While another reworked older song, “Catalina’s Dream” includes a whimsical Philippe Saisse piano solo, the focus of this tropically tinged exotic pop-jazz track is the fanciful dance between Khan and Mann, those extra horn textures and the bustling groove created by bassist Mel Browne and drummer Brian Dunne.
Originally appearing on A Simple Plan, “Language of Love” is a high-spirited mid-tempo funk gem with a snappy lead guitar melody and some playful interaction between Khan and Mann, then Khan with guest star Bob James’ high energy piano. The “magic” Khan believes happened on every track especially manifests here on James’ whimsical, jazzy improvisation. Towards the end, it becomes a playful jam featuring Khan, Mann and James freewheeling off of each other’s energies. When Khan contacted hit-making guitarist Nils to work on his previous hit “Drop of Faith,” he asked Nils to add his unique guitar sound to a previously written tune. For the lighthearted, seductive, snappy and infectiously funky new track “Look at the Bright Side” (a title which perfectly captures the Earth, Wind & Fire flavored tune’s sunny vibe), he took the opposite approach – he asked Nils if he had a song he (Nils) could give him (Khan). Khan enjoyed shifting out of his usual comfort zone and imprinting his own cracking guitar magic onto what seems to be a sure-fire future radio hit.
Reza Khan compares the haunting and trippy atmospheric intro to the title track “Mystical” something of a Coldplay sounding moment – an indicator that this track, like most others on the album, is very different from most earlier tunes in Khan’s catalog. With the breezy acoustic melody, Khan and Mann create a chill vibe with a touch of Eastern influence, then adding a hypnotic outro guitar riff reminiscent of the popular “Hotel California”. The track is full of unique soundscape and exotic percussion touches over the tight rhythm section pocket of the legendary Jimmy Haslip and Gary Novak. The tune also features a whimsical soprano sax solo by Mann.
Two other tracks are worth a closer look. Getting Keiko Matsui to bring her mystical, ethereal, and deeply jazzy keyboard magic to the breezy, atmospheric and easy rolling charmer “Strum” was a special coup for Khan. A huge fan of Matsui’s for 25 years, the guitarist has fond memories of listening to her while on the road with his day job as program manager for the UN. In particular, he recalls driving once from Kuwait City to the Iraqi border in a scary sandstorm. The keyboardist’s music offered a sense of solace and calm. The hypnotic, gently reflective closing ballad “Whispering Trees,” the album’s only song not featuring drums, includes a gorgeous string arrangement as part of an atmosphere that, like “The Falcon,” is designed to provoke images of nature.