…And All That Jazz

East York resident Steve Koven’s musical career has taken him to far-flung locales such as Colombia, Japan and the Caribbean. Photo by Omar Mosleh.

He’s performed in three continents in one year, visiting countries such as Japan, Colombia and the Bahamas.

But for jazz musician Steve Koven, there’s nowhere quite like home sweet home.

The pianist and composer has proudly lived in East Toronto most of his life, formerly in Leaside and now residing in East York near Donlands Avenue and O’Connor Drive.

His reasoning?

“It’s all about location, location, location,” he said. “I can drive downtown, I can drive uptown, and I’ve got Chinatown and Gerrard East and Little India.”

“And the people … It’s a vibrant, friendly area,” he added.

Koven and his band Steve Koven Trio have released eight studio albums and will celebrate their 20th anniversary next year.

Despite his extensive travels, Koven is happy to call East York home, which he believes is in a state of flux.

“I think East York has become more funky,” he said. “There’s a few places opening up on the Danforth trying new things, there’s a dim sum place coming there, it’s changing.”

Koven recently returned to the former borough from a nine-city Mexico tour with his band mates Anthony Michelli on drums and Rob Clutton on bass.

While listing off early influences, such as bands Yes, Gentle Giant and Genesis, Koven partly attributes his trio’s longevity to the nature of jazz music.

“What it is about jazz is the spontaneity, and never doing the same thing twice,” he said. “I think jazz really lends itself to self-expression … It’s like a canvas that you paint using musical sounds instead of visual arts.”

Improvising certain elements of familiar songs helps keep his band on their toes, Koven says.

“We’ve been playing some of these songs to the public for a long time,” he said. “But if we were to play it the same way every time, it would get stale.”

Koven started playing piano at a very young age and studied music at York University. He’s proof that many things come full circle — he now teaches many of the same courses he studied at York, such as jazz piano and contemporary improvisation.

He said while teaching has become a large part of his identity, he is still passionate about composing and performing.

“There’s nothing like playing in front of an audience,” he said. “Because that audience performer relationship is part of the magic; you work off each other.”

Koven loves making music, but said the fact everything is being recorded and analyzed brings out his self-conscious side.

“I find the recording process extremely rewarding but extremely challenging,” he said. “I always have.”

So what makes it all worthwhile? At least part of it is the travelling he enjoys when his band is on tour.

One of his most memorable experiences is from when he performed in Bogotá, Colombia.

“We put on a concert for about 4,000 people, and we were late because of the traffic in Bogotá,” he recalled. “So the curtains open up, and boom, there’s just this wall of energy … it felt like they were expecting the Rolling Stones or something, not the Steve Koven Trio from Toronto, Canada.”

He’s also a big fan of Japan.

“Most of our music is sold in Japan too,” he said. “Our last CD was actually commissioned by a Japanese company.”

According to Koven, there’s a strong jazz following in Tokyo.

“Toronto has maybe two authentic jazz bars,” he said. “Tokyo has around 320.”

Returning from other countries and seeing the thirst for jazz music in foreign cultures helps inspire Koven musically.

He frequently composes based on his experiences in other countries.

“ ‘Bogotá’ for example, it’s a full-of-life song but it also has a sorrow to it too,” he said. “Because many people there are extremely poor, but they’re also smiling and embracing life, so there’s this kind of oxymoron.”

Those varied experiences abroad instill in him a heightened gratitude for his own circumstances.

“You go to a place like (Bogotá), and you come back here and we’re complaining about the weather,” he quips with a smirk.

“When you come back from touring, it makes everything different … It just furthers your appreciation for your own country.”

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