Summer Suitcase: Steve Koven Trio tours China

This is the first in a series of weekly “summer suitcase” stories, showcasing the international breadth of York’s Faculty of Fine Arts.

The Steve Koven Trio represented both Canada and York University during its recent 10-day visit to China, which was organized at the invitation of the Canadian Embassy in Beijing and the Canadian Consulate General in Shanghai, in partnership with YGTwo productions.

The Steve Koven Trio is led by pianist Steve Koven (BFA ’87) with Anthony Michelli on drums and Rob Clutton on bass. Bass player Drew Birston stood in for Clutton during the trip. Both Koven and Michelli teach in the jazz stream of the music program at York University.

Right: Steve Koven Trio performing at Peking University

Veterans of the Canadian and international jazz circuit, the trio presented their hard-swinging jazz through public, private and educational venues in Shanghai and Beijing from June 21 to 30. An important part of the group’s first trip to China was interacting with students, audiences and musicians.

The tour began in Shanghai where the band conducted masterclasses for Chinese music students at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music and The Lab, a music laboratory committed to intercultural music performance and networking for musicians. The ensemble also performed at the Shanghai Concert Hall for the 3D Professional Coach Awards Ceremony, and at Number 5, a leading jazz club, where the trio showcased music from their latest recording, Resurgence. Click here to hear the Steve Koven Trio perform “Hole Town” from their 2004 CD All the Time in the World.

Left: Members of the Steve Koven Trio conduct a masterclass with Chinese students

In Beijing, the trio shared their love of jazz with students at the Contemporary Music Institute during a masterclass, and entertained audiences at Peking University and the Canadian Embassy to celebrate Canada Day.

Enthusiasm ran both ways during the tour. “The trip was amazing,” exclaimed Koven. “Each day in China was packed with fantastic sights and fresh wonders. We were thrilled to have had this opportunity to strengthen Canada’s and York’s ties with this fascinating country. As music educators, we thoroughly enjoyed sharing our love of jazz with the Chinese students.”

One of the more memorable music experiences for Koven during the tour was the performance at Peking University for an audience of 1,200. Koven set up a call-and-response pattern with the crowd, asking them to clap their hands or snap their fingers in response to a musical cue.

Right: The masterclass featured students sharing their music with the trio

“The call-and-response really jazzed them,” said Koven. “They played along –all of them — with explosive enthusiasm. Improvisation, creativity and expressiveness are foreign ideas in China’s rigid classical music education.”

Koven’s comment was echoed by Zhao Ming, assistant director of Peking University’s jazz department. “Our students undergo extensive rudimentary training, and they tend to think it’s monotonous and boring. Bringing in foreign musicians with new ideas is much more important than attending class.”

During the concert at Peking University, Koven dedicated the title track from Resurgence to Beijing. Based on the pentatonic scale, the tune has an Asian flair to it. The Chinese music students, who were thrilled at the foreign trio’s onstage exuberance and experimentation, “went wild, cheering in unison,” said Koven.

Lauded by critics for their “chemistry” and “genius”, the Steve Koven Trio was described by the China Daily newspaper as “the healthy future of jazz.”

Canadian Ambassador to China Robert G. Wright commented, “Many people in China are curious about jazz music and this tour by the Steve Koven Trio provides a wonderful opportunity for more cultural interaction and educational exchanges between our musicians and Chinese jazz aficionados. The performances represent a unique opportunity to inspire new and eager audiences for jazz, while introducing them to some of Canada’s hottest musicians.”

To keep their memories about China fresh, the trio is planning a concert and photo exhibition in the near future.

Based in Toronto, the Steve Koven Trio is no stranger to international engagements. Since forming in 1993, the group has performed across North and South America, the Caribbean, UK and Japan. Well-known on the Caribbean festival circuit, the Steve Koven Trio previously appeared at the jazz festivals of Barbados, Jamaica, Nassau and the Bahamas, sharing the stage with such artists as Nancy Wilson, John Pizzarelli, T.S. Monk and John Williams to critical acclaim. (For the full story see the Nov. 10, 2005 issue of YFile.)

Visit the Steve Koven Trio Web site for more information about the group.

This article was submitted to YFile by Mary-Lou Schagena in the Faculty of Fine Arts. Photography by Henry Campbell.