Three months after his mother died, music began to bubble up inside jazz pianist Steve Koven. He composed some new songs that were born out of grief and his happy memories of his mom.
He recorded the songs on his latest album, The Koven Collective, following up on the 11 albums he’s released since 1997. A powerful collection of songs, The Koven Collective balances between light and dark, glimmers of joy contrasting with moments of devastating sadness. Koven has created a fresh sound for this beautiful album, which he recorded with two of his students from Centennial College and other special guests.
His mother, Florence Koven, was an artist who embraced life to the fullest. She died in 2016 at age 83. She and Koven’s dad, Irving, were married for 62 years and a day when she passed.
“The music was inspired by her life and the gifts that she gave me,” her son said. “Music is a powerful tool to tap into memories and emotions. I was really thinking about her and trying to put it into music and that’s how these songs transpired.”
Koven said the passing of his mom has given him insight into the bigger picture. “It’s great and life’s going on and that’s the way my mom would want it, and want me to continue my journey of being a good human being and to continue my art,” he said.
The morning before his mother passed, she told him to, “Be strong, be a mensch, look after your father and keep everyone together.” He kissed her on her forehead and then she said, “Like a little bird,” he recalled.
Koven was unaware of the meaning of her poetic words until he was clearing out his parents’ condo after his dad moved into a retirement home and discovered a painting of three little birds among her artwork.
His mother’s words, “Like a little bird,” became the title of the saddest song on his new album. Listening to the lyric, “Like a little bird, fly away,” I was on the verge of tears. It’s the most personal song on the album and the closest to his heart, he said. It’s also the first time his vocals and lyrics have been recorded on one of his jazz albums. Joining Koven on vocals for Like a Little Bird is his wife, Lee-Anne Stewart.
“The experience of losing my mom was kind of an awakening, in the sense of, to keep going and to expand, to try new things,” he said. “There’s vocals on (the album) and there’s lots of different musicians on it. It was a change, it was a portal into new territory. It’s helped me grow as a human being and as an artist.”
The other artists on the album include Koven’s students, drummer Sarah Thawer and bassist Peter Eratostene, as well as cellist David Abramsky (Koven’s cousin), saxophonist Kenny Kirkwood, guitarists Tony Springer and Pedro Orrego, percussionist Brian Skol, banjo player Tim Postgate and Sacha Williamson.
Williamson wrote the lyrics for the powerhouse ballad on the album, Thinking of You. Williamson experienced the same type of loss as Koven, with her mother dying around the same time as his. In Thinking of You, Williamson’s soulful voice is electrifying, bringing out the gospel element of this jazz-pop tune.
The sunnier aspect of the album is represented by instrumentals like Funky This, Funky That and Things Are Getting Better. The reflective and otherworldly Purple Inspiration has a story behind it that connects the artist Prince with Koven’s mother. He picked his mother up at the hospital on the day Prince died, April 21, 2016 (about two months before she died).
“I lost such a great musician who inspires me. And at the same time, I had to pick up my mom and that was really hard and intense.… I got home and I sat at the piano and composed this song that day. I remember even picking her up at the hospital and saying ‘Prince just died,’ and she started crying and said, ‘I can’t believe it, he was such a genius,’ ” Koven said.
“So I lost a great connection in the music world and a real innovator and then at the same time my mom was suffering. She was crying for Prince and meanwhile she was suffering, but she was thinking of others always.”