Steve Koven recorded his latest CD on a piano that’s been played by some of the legendary entertainers who performed at the Imperial Room of Toronto’s Royal York Hotel (now the Fairmont Royal York).
During the heyday of the Imperial Room, from the 1940s to the ’80s, people watched pianists Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Little Richard, Doug Riley and Don Thompson, among others, play the Imperial Room’s 1929 New York Steinway D model.
The piano with so much music history is now located at Inception Sound Studios in Toronto, where jazz pianist Koven recorded six albums with his trio and where he recorded his new one, Solo Retrospective.
The 12 songs on Koven’s latest recording were composed for solo piano, and all but three were previously released on one of the nine CDs he made with his trio (which includes bassist Rob Clutton on bass and drummer Anthony Michelli).
Since “all the songs were originally composed for solo piano, it felt natural for me to release something in original format,” he said during an interview at a coffee shop in uptown Toronto. But he added that as he had grown accustomed to playing the majority of songs with the trio, he had to “rethink” them for Solo Retrospective.
Koven’s musical influences range from the classical composers Bach, Debussy and Satie to jazz pianists Oscar Peterson and Keith Jarrett. Jarrett “does the same thing as I do. He borrows from many idioms,” Koven said.
All of Koven’s influences come through on his new CD. However, you don’t need to be a jazz aficionado to appreciate this beautiful, accessible album. The CD opens with Mist-ic, a new composition he wrote after visiting New Brunswick’s Grand Manan Island. The moody, ocean-side pictures Koven’s wife, Lee-Anne Stewart, took there adorn the CD cover.
Resurgence Revisited is a dreamy composition, an homage to Chinese culture that Koven created on a day he visited the Great Wall during a tour of China. Koven was inspired to write The Artist in homage to the many young artists he was surrounded with when he was doing his master’s degree in composition at York University. This almost reverential song was one of the compositions he created for his thesis, Music Inspired by Visual Art.
Cerventino is an animated, Latin-flavoured song Koven wrote in response to his experiences in Mexico, where he performed at Festival Cervantino in Guanajuato, one of the country’s premier arts festivals.
Lily is an exquisite tribute to his wife. The final track, Lifetime, is a wistful tune based on first love that Koven wrote when he was 18.
Koven was raised in Toronto and comes from a musical family. “Everybody played an instrument or sang in my home. But I’m the only professional,” he said, adding that he had the advantage of being the youngest of four and so his older siblings passed their musical knowledge on to him.
Koven took classical piano lessons from ages seven to 15, but he got his formative jazz exposure at home, from his father, Irv, whom he called his greatest musical influence.
“I grew up listening to my dad play boogie-woogie, stride piano, all the standards,” he recalled, adding that on the weekends, the whole family would listen to classical music and opera on CBC Radio.
Koven, 50, said he feels blessed to be able to make music his life, whether he’s performing or teaching contemporary improvisation and jazz piano at York. Since 1997, his trio has played on five continents, including at gigs they got through Canadian embassies and High Commissions.
He said he especially enjoys South America, which has had a huge influence on his music. “People don’t have a lot, but they have smiles on their faces. They believe in ‘festa,’ celebrating.”
Most of his music is sold in Japan, he added. “The Japanese really embrace jazz.”
Koven, however, worries about the lack of local performance opportunities, especially for musicians just coming up. “I think it has something to do with the Internet,” he said, nodding toward his laptop, adding that people don’t want to go out because entertainment, mostly free, is available online.
But “you can never experience the true feeling of music watching it on computer,” he said, pointing out that there’s a different energy in a live-performance situation where musicians and the audience connects.
Koven lamented the loss, over the years, of the city’s great jazz venues, among them the Colonial Tavern, George’s Spaghetti House, the Senator, Bourbon Street and the Montreal Bistro. Currently, other than the Jazz Bistro, the Rex, the Lula Lounge and Blakbird on Bloor Street West, the clubs have been replaced by a few smaller venues, where club owners sometimes expect musicians to “pass the hat,” instead of paying them.
“Because clubs are no longer available, artists are forced to become producers,” Koven said. Wearing his producer’s hat, Koven, along with his wife, are presenting their annual evening of music and comedy on Jan. 10 at Todmorden Mills, 67 Pottery Rd., Toronto.
For tickets and to order Koven’s new album, visit www.stevekoven.com