For pianist Dave Restivo, home is almost anywhere

Dave Restivo is one of Canada’s great pianists.

The award-winning musician is a former member of both Rob McConnell’s Boss Brass and the Rob McConnell Tentet. He’s also worked with the likes of Mike Murley, Marc Jordan, Dave Holland, Kenny Wheeler and Howard Johnson, to name a few.

Restivo has just released Arancinahis third record as a leader. It’s an album about travelling and absorbing different cultures, and the effect those experiences have on shaping people.

Restivo joined us on the phone from the Yukon, where he’s currently living and teaching, to talk about the new album.

It was in 2019 that you left Toronto to go out to Nelson, B.C., to do some teaching, and now you’re doing that teaching remotely in the Yukon. What have the last couple of years been like for you, aside from COVID-19?

It’s been a definite change, for sure, leaving big-city life and the musical community that I’ve been a part of for so long. Of course I miss that, but there’s also a great little community that’s growing in the Nelson area. Slowly but surely there’s a scene building out there. I actually haven’t been there in several months now because of the whole pandemic situation. My partner Fawn Fritzen is up here in Whitehorse, so I’ve been shacking up with her and doing my teaching via Zoom.

Let’s talk about this album, which you recorded back in Toronto in 2019. It must seem like a distant memory, but tell us about what went into it.

I had done some travelling that summer, and after I was in Europe — a lot of the inspiration for the Sicilian Suite on that record came from that trip — I spent a bunch of time in Toronto, did some gigs and connected with some old friends before I headed back to Nelson to start teaching again. The planets just aligned. I had really wanted to record this particular trio for a very long time. Jim Vivian and I have a very long history, playing with the Boss Brass and with Mike Murley’s group. There’s a really wonderful trust and chemistry between us. We speak the same musical language. I first connected with Alyssa Falk on a gig in Prince Edward Island back in the early 2000s, and again, she’s somebody that I had this instant connection with. We really felt music and time and everything in the same way. Most people that know me well know that I play some drums myself, and that relationship between the piano and the drums is a really crucial one for me. I can’t play them both at the same time, so playing with Alyssa is the closest thing. We have that much of a psychic connection when we play together. It just worked out that she had a little time and Jim was around, and I managed to get them both in the studio, and Fawn was able to sing on a couple of tracks — which also appear on her album. We managed to record it all in one day, one big, long session at Canterbury with Jeremy Darby. And there you go.

Do you currently have a drum set that you can play?

It’s set up in my office in Nelson, actually. I haven’t had access to it in a while, sadly. I’m always practising drums in my head, though.

The material was inspired by Europe. Was it written there as well? Did you have it ready to go when you hit the studio?

None of it was actually written while I was in Europe, but I guess the ideas were percolating. Most of the compositions on the record are from that period. There are a couple of older ones, like Raven’s Wing. The arrangement of It’s You or No One is an arrangement that I’ve been playing for years. There are a couple things on there that are older and hadn’t been documented, but most of it is brand new.

When you’re composing, is it an easy process? Is it laborious? Do you wait for inspiration or do you work at it like a craftsperson?

I’m not what you’d call a disciplined composer. There are people who take the art of composition really seriously, in the sense that every day they sit down and write something, even if it’s bad. I tend to be one of those people who waits for inspiration. I’ll go for months or even years without really writing much. But then I’ll have these little snippets; I used to scribble them down somewhere, and I’ll still do that sometimes, but other times I’ll just pick up my phone and record a voice memo. Then at a certain point I’ll go back and see if I have anything there. I’ll go through my voice memos, sketches and notes that I’ve made, and I’ll figure out what can turn into something — then it’s just the process of fleshing it out. Usually if the timing is right and I’m in the right headspace, that process comes pretty quickly. But it really varies, you know. It can be laborious, but the best stuff is the stuff that doesn’t take that long to put together. It’s more organic.

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What has travel meant to you as a person and as an artist? What are you gathering out there consciously or subconsciously?

One of the things I touched on in the liner notes of the recording is that I moved around a lot as a kid and I’ve continued to move around a lot as an adult. I rarely stayed in one place for long. I mean, I was obviously in Toronto for a big, long stretch, but even there, I was changing abodes and heading out to Nova Scotia for a year, Winnipeg for another, and New York at some point. What I started to realize is that I really like travelling. I love experiencing other cultures, environments, food, music. That’s a very enriching experience for me. It makes the world feel smaller. The other thing that I started to realize is that home for me is not an external place — it’s really an internal place. If I can be in a place and connect with the food and the music, then I feel like I can make my home almost anywhere. There are going to be people with whom you can find some commonality in any situation.

This last European trip was really about going to visit Fawn’s family in Germany, but we were also seeing a friend of mine in Switzerland, and we were close to Italy so we decided to spend some time there. I have cultural roots there but I hadn’t been there before. We managed to spend a brief period of time in Sicily, but it had a big impact on me in terms of feeling connected to some family roots that I hadn’t really directly connected with before. In a way, Polermo felt like home to me. I couldn’t speak the language, but the energy of the place felt very familiar somehow.

You’ve done an album about travel at a time when we can’t travel. Maybe the music provides a virtual escape. Have you thought much about the contrast between the inspiration for the record and the fact that we can’t do that now?

I think we’re finding different ways to connect. We’re doing it virtually now, and there’s good and bad to that. Obviously it’s frustrating to not be able to go anywhere, but at the same time… my brother’s in Ireland and for a while, we were doing weekly Zoom hangs — and we weren’t doing that before. It’s given us the impetus to open up our world in a different way. We’re travelling in this virtual environment. It’s not going to be a replacement for real travel and real connection, but we’re tuning into these other options. The same goes for teaching. I think all of us were not excited about the prospect of doing all of our teaching online, but we’ve made it work. The students have risen to the occasion. Some of them have struggled but some of them have thrived in the environment. We’ve gotten comfortable with technology that we hadn’t really totally acclimatized too before. So there is a positive side to it.

This interview has been edited and condensed.