Jazz and The Touch of Zen:
A review by Neil Sharpe
Dipping into a moon-lit spring,
covering my face,
handful upon handful
of stars. 1)
Darkness gathers over the valley. My headlights cut a trail through the mid-autumn storm, traffic taillights blurring red on a side mirror streaked with rain and the suspicion of design.
A cloud-soft whisper in my ear, "Ah mercy, mercy me, things aren't what they used to be…" Words of loss and anguish, of a prayer for redemption. Marvin Gaye's masterpiece, "Mercy, Mercy, Me", brilliantly born anew in the soft, sublime passages of Ken Fornetran's alto saxophone, Dave Restivo's intense, haunting piano, and singer Thyron Lee Whyte's undercurrent of wistful longing.
This is but one of the many exceptional and elegant compositions in Ken Forentran's and Dave Restivo's award winning album "Shadows and Short Stories", described as "deeply compelling" in a four star Downbeat review followed with recognition as one of the "Best CD's of 2005".
This album demands nothing, never poises for attention. Nothing is forced, everything flows. In evocative bits and pieces the songs emerge, each like a new day in which one is never quite sure what will happen next.
The genesis for the opening selection "Prelude" begins with a vocal line improvised by Thyron Lee, a beautiful, instinctive way to create melodies, everything left intact including his breathing so that it, too, becomes an integral part of the music. Ken slips in to improvise a harmony part, but the vocal line is left to follow its own path. Thyron, Ken, and Dave, each let the notes ring, hang out there, half hidden strands of melody, until suddenly everything becomes clear, the music and the musicians emerging as one. "You can start with what seems like nothing", explains Ken, "but you sense something is there. You don't know where it is, but you let your faith lead you until suddenly everything becomes clear."
That's his secret. Learning to just let them come- the ideas, the solos. Knowing how to musically find, to tune into, the frequency of the moment. If it isn't there, if it isn't right, then move on.
He thinks that's a mistake too many musicians fall into. That want, that need to make an idea, a solo, just one thing, then spending hours on it only to become frustrated and unhappy when it doesn't come.
"I used to get all worked up" explains Ken. "I felt like I had to come up with the perfect song, the perfect set, and would get upset if there were mistakes. If you get stressed out, it's going to affect the music."
"Worry turns you inward, cuts you off. We begin to have issues about getting up in front of people and playing. We can begin to get nervous about it, to constantly worry. I used to have those kinds of anxiety issues. But, I learned to just let things happen. It's not going to hurt you if you make mistakes. And even if you do fall on your face performing, it's not going to physically hurt. That's how we learn. We need to understand and accept that for some nights and for some sessions something can go wrong and will go wrong. It's the same for every musician, no matter how talented."
"We're a lot better off going in relaxed and letting things happen. When you do this, the music will come to you. People hear what you're playing, not what you want to play. You can try something and it may not work, but that doesn't mean it isn't good music and people won't like it."
"I used to think that if I made a mistake, the entire set was messed up and horrible. But, if you really break it down to the first song, then the second, and so on, some will be good, some less so, and you suddenly realize that out of two hours, maybe only 5% wasn't that good. But that 5% shouldn't be the only part that you remember and therefore make you feel bad about your playing. The memories of that negative emotion can carry over to the next gig, and after a while you're in trouble."
"People are going to listen to what they want to listen to, and even if there was a part that wasn't that good, they will fly past that with their memories and remember more of an overall feeling for performance. The more you focus on yourself and worry that you'll make mistakes, you won't be positive and that's what the audience will leave with; not that you played bad, but you weren't positive and confident about your music."
"You don't have to sound like Coltrane or Brecker to be good. Players like Coltrane and Brecker are at a completely different level than other players, but that doesn't mean that the other players are lesser players. Each of us has our own distinct voice and tone. That's what's important. I got that from my early days playing in Detroit. If you did something that sounded like someone else, you'd get the long looks and they'd say 'What the heck was that?' Sound like yourself! Be yourself! You can learn licks and passages and eventually your own sound will emerge out of that."
"That's the approach we took for this album. I went in with an overall idea and general feeling, talked to the other players about that, and let things go from there. It doesn't work if you just keep trying to work on a particular passage over and over because it's not working, or someone in the band doesn't get it or like it, or they're being forced to do something that's not natural to them. Just know the feel and tone you want, understand the other players' abilities, and let them express themselves in their own way. For this album, I gave them a forum to do that and never told anyone to do this or that in a particular way."
This process, this philosophy of discovery echoes Ken's live appearances. "If I'm the leader, I take the approach that I don't spend too much time thinking about what we're going to do. I come in with a group of songs we know, I'll start in on one, and then let the band come in, each member finding their own way and what they want to say that night. That's the Detroit influence. A player might get uptight knowing the order of songs in the sets if everything was preordained days before. So, when we're driving there, I'll give the other players a list of songs we can do that night, then we do an improv on one number and see where that leads for the next song. This way, every night gives us the opportunity to flow on a real journey".
"Some musicians will have difficulty with this approach, especially those who work days on tempo for particular pieces. But, it's also true that some musicians are like back up quarterbacks in football. When suddenly called into a game, they can perform brilliantly because they haven't had time to think and worry about things before hand. But the next week when they know they're going to start, they have difficulties because they've spent too much time thinking about it."
Some would argue that right now there never have been more technically proficient players but, at the same time, too few with something original to say. Ken isn't prepared to go that far. But he does think that, "the inability to just let things go and see where the music leads is a real problem for some musicians. Too many new sax players just can't hear. It may be due to some schools and teachers where the styles are so dictated that the original voice of the musician eventually is lost."
"Look how our arrangement of Marvin Gaye's great 'Mercy, Mercy, Me' came about. I hadn't thought about this song in years. Over the years, I'd heard the same song so many times that I subconsciously stopped listening to it. Which doesn't mean the song wasn't good. It's just that I no longer was interested in it. For whatever reason, one night, while we were doing this album, I had a dream about the song. I woke up on Saturday morning, called the singer, Thyron Lee, and asked how he would feel about doing it. Part of my inspiration was Joni Mitchell's redoing of her early songs like 'Both Sides Now', bringing out their darker sides."
"The lyrics in 'Mercy, Mercy, Me' are exceptionally strong and poignant, especially given what is happening today. The problem was that they were lost in the wonderful melody. I decided to slow it down, to try and really bring out those powerful, powerful lyrics. I went in with what I was feeling at that moment. We went back to our opening song, 'Prelude' and let that serve as the inspiration. The result: the opening piano solo by Dave Restivo doesn't play the melody, and the sax solo doesn't play the melody. The whole idea was to set the mood. There's no real song until the lyrics come in. This way the listener's attention is drawn to the lyrics. They have a more powerful impact because the melody has never been stated. It's ironic, but over time and countless hearings, that haunting, original melody had become a problem. It was so strong that it distracted from the lyrics that should be the most powerful part of the song. That's why we wanted to change everything and really bring out the force of the lyrics. The reaction to it has been great."
"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:
Opening poem, "Dipping into…", copyright 1997, Neil F. Sharpe
Ken Fornetran review Part 2
"Where did it all begin?"