Steve Khan on producing Biréli Lagrène’s Inferno and Foreign Affairs

Blue Note’s mid-’80s resurgence was driven by shrewd management of its established stars and also a willingness to expand into various fusions. Some projects of the era have dated well, others not so well, but Biréli Lagrène’s debut Inferno (1987) and follow-up Foreign Affairs (1988) were successes.

It’s fair to say that many excellent jazz and fusion guitar players emerged during the 1980s. But, arguably, none – with the possible exception of Stanley Jordan – made as much of an impact as Lagrène.

The French guitarist was seen in many circles as the natural heir to Django Reinhardt. He had a fearless, exciting approach, initially in the acoustic manouche style. Later migrating to the electric axe, he wowed audiences on a few European tours alongside Jaco Pastorius.

For his first few Blue Note albums, Biréli found a great foil in producer and fellow guitarist Steve Khan. To celebrate both Inferno and Foreign Affairs‘ recent addition to streaming platforms after being unavailable for decades (the latter featuring some extra tracks not on the original album), it seemed a good time to catch up with Steve to talk about these underrated records that feature superb guitar playing and terrific performances from Dennis Chambers, Dave Weckl, Victor Bailey, Bill Evans, Bernard Purdie and Jeff Andrews.

MP: How did you come to be involved with Biréli?

SK: The first part of the story is that Inferno was to have been produced by Tony Williams, but – at the last minute, he backed out! (Blue Note president) Bruce Lundvall was in a state of complete and total panic. On the advice of (associate producer) Christine Martin, Bruce decided that I would be a great person to work with Biréli. And this is where being a producer really begins. That title can mean that you’re really nothing more than a ‘host’ or a maître’d’! But sometimes, you have to take a project from the ground up and construct something musical for the artist.

How did Inferno come to feature four different drummers?

Biréli arrived with his own drummer and good friend Pierre Moerlen, who, by the way, appears on perhaps the album’s most interesting tune, the title track. But as I heard the tunes that Biréli had brought with him, it became apparent that I was going to have to choose different drummers for some of the tunes. If he had been available, I probably could have done the whole album with Dave Weckl, but he had scheduling problems. So, this is why you hear drummers from Danny Gottlieb to Bernard Purdie, in addition to Dave and Pierre. In each case, I simply felt that the particular drummer chosen was the right musical choice for that tune.

How did you and Biréli work together in terms of guitar sounds and concepts?

In truth, Biréli was really new to the electric guitar – he had no concept about what makes a ‘good’ or ‘great’ sound, beyond simply picking up the guitar and playing it, because he was a virtuoso! In the end, I just did the best that I could with what I had to work with. It was extremely difficult. Maybe these very things constituted the reason that Tony backed out of the project.

Album number two, Foreign Affairs, is a big improvement – would you agree?

When Biréli arrived for Foreign Affairs, he was much better prepared to be a recording artist, and he had (keyboardist) Koono by his side, who had arranged everything. Koono was a real Joe Zawinul devotee, as you can hear, and he was ready for everything. Biréli had learned some valuable lessons while recording Inferno and, in most ways, was the better for it. The second album is not so all over the place.

Were the cover tunes on Foreign Affairs your suggestions? Seems like it to me.

‘Jack Rabbit’ from Herbie Hancock’s brilliant 1964 album Inventions And Dimensions was my only suggestion. I felt that having at least one other tune that was composed by a renowned American jazz artist would be good for Biréli and for Blue Note, in terms of trying to promote the album on jazz radio in the USA.

And it sounds like Biréli is using your effects pedals on Foreign Affairs – especially on the ballads. Is that correct?

Biréli is really like a guitar sponge. Although I haven’t listened to that album in decades, I recall that he might have been caught somewhere between an admiration for Allan Holdsworth or Mike Stern. That said, I would never intrude on someone else’s choice of sound, and certainly not with a suggestion about using my own pedals or sounds. It’s possible that the great engineer, Malcolm Pollack, who went on to record another album or two with Biréli, might have suggested various things regarding tone – trying to make it warmer and fuller – especially on the ballads. But, other than something like that, my philosophy would be to just allow him to find his way, unless something was so awful sounding that I felt that he was hurting himself.

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