Jazz and The Touch of Zen:
An interview by Neil Sharpe
Where did it all begin? For Ken, his career as a musician began with a mistake and a chance conversation. He joined "Band" in high school and didn't even know what a sax was. He was going to pick a trumpet as his instrument of choice. But while waiting for the teacher to call out the students' names, a friend told Ken that he was crazy to pick a trumpet, the sax was "way cooler". When the names were called out, Ken's last name began with "F" so he picked the sax. His friend's began with "W" and he ended up with the trumpet!
Ken chose the alto. He didn't know too much about it, but liked the way it sounded and after a while, decided that he wanted one all his own. His parents bought him a late 1920's King alto that served him well, until he eventually found a '64 Selmer Mark V1. That became his voice for the next twenty years until the last few months when he's added a Yamaha 62. Ken primarily uses a Meyer Bros. New York mouthpiece with an old Selmer ligature.
In Ken's high school music program, if you wanted inspiration and understanding you had to supply it. Aside from having to play the same arrangements of the same songs, like "Chariots of Fire", each and every year, musical theory was non-existent- "Theory Day" was used a punishment, the same lesson taught again and again.
College was a watershed transition, providing critically important lessons for Ken's approach to music. "I saw some really great sax players who seemed to sit in classrooms practicing twenty hours a day, but you always knew exactly what they were playing because they never played anything different. They never played live, never tried to step outside their own small worlds. They had no interest in other styles of music, knew nothing about art or philosophy. That type of closed mind really affected the way they played."
"That was the problem with college and jazz itself. Everything was closed in, just jazz, jazz, jazz. And in those days, I was a part of it. Friends thought that I was a snob because I didn't listen to anything but jazz. I never listened to brilliant innovators like The Beatles but now they are some of my most favorite musicians."
"Looking back, the turning point for me was Charles McPherson from Detroit. He had played with all the greats. I was really young and was supposed to be taking lessons from him, but often we just sat around, listened to his records, would go out to clubs and hear other musicians, check out saxes, mouthpieces etc. But Charles taught me how to use the full range of the sax, to improvise, and to follow my own instincts, my own voice."
"After college, I wasn't sure where I fit in as a player. Plus, in the area I was living, it seemed that politics was dictating the type of music that could be played and who got the gigs. Club owners only wanted to hear what they had already heard, and if you didn't play their favorite songs done in the same way as their favorite players, you wouldn't get hired. No one wanted to hear anything original or different. They only wanted to hear what they'd heard on a record."
"So, I took odd jobs and a couple of years off while I thought about where I wanted to go with my playing. An important break was linking up with Curtis Fuller (CF- bio, CF- teaching). A guy booking gigs wanted to bring in someone to do Art Blakely material and mostly from the time period that Curtis had played with him. So, Curtis came in from Detroit. I was very young at the time but was able to sit in for a full week with him. A very nice guy who I learned a lot from. Guys from Detroit always were changing things up. They'd play bop one week, funk the next, and so on. With those guys, you had to be original or you didn't work."
"I also became interested in the design and workings of the sax itself and started to hang out with a technician who kindly showed me a few things. At first, it seemed like there was no way of getting an apprenticeship because the techs always were so busy and couldn't afford the extra costs. But, I eventually found a government support program that paid my basic wage for a year and a half. I started fixing beginner horns, and I became really interested in the skill, care, and empathy that goes into finding and bringing out the true, full sound of a sax. It's my musical background and experiences as a player that probably has made me a much better professional and more than just a good repair man. I can take a sax further because I understand what it really should do. I've been fortunate and honored to work on the horns of many pros including Michael Brecker's."
That's where the interview suddenly came to an end. Responsibilities had come a calling. Sirens in the street and telephones ringing in the shop had let us know it was time to say goodbye.
Storm-borne leaves sweep across the highway, my headlights a luminescent glow weaving through wisps of fog and rain. Ken's music has been my companion on the long drive home, his solos coasting effortlessly in and out, the songs an almost magical, free flowing style of hushed melodies, sliding rhythms, and soft, haunting dynamics. My thoughts and worries have long since been carried on the music's evocative beauty and singing silences. Ahead the sky has cleared, grasses of shadow and dream fan a harvest moon.
"Emotionally open and given to sudden turns of lush romanticism, the Toronto based duo of Ken Fornetran and Dave Restivo find numerous ways to combine their voices on this deeply compelling recording…" Downbeat, July 2005 (****)
The CD Shadows and Short Stories is available at:
Ken Fornetran Part 1
The CD review